With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Thumbs down. If there was one team that looked poised to take out the Packers at the midway point of the 2011 season, it was the Chicago Bears. Then came Jay Cutler's broken thumb. Game, set, match. Even with Matt Forte (who eventually was hurt, too), the defensive-minded Bears still could go nowhere without Cutler. Unless 8-8 and out of the playoffs is somewhere.
What Went Right: The 2011 season served notice that Cutler is a franchise quarterback, mainly because this franchise went down the tubes after he got hurt. The numbers weren't spectacular (85.7 passer rating), but Cutler made plays when he had to behind a shaky offensive line -- a unit playing without top pick Gabe Carimi. Chicago was 7-3 with Cutler, 1-5 without him. Enough said. Like Cutler, Forte was invaluable before hurting his knee. Despite playing in just 11 complete games, Forte amassed nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage, finishing third in scrimmage yards per game.
Defensively, the Bears were better than the numbers read. Chicago allowed 21.3 points per game, 14th in the NFL. The Bears gave up more than 24 points per game until benching their starting safeties for youngsters Major Wright and Chris Conte. Over the next five games, Chicago gave up just 15 points per game -- then Cutler went down. The defense, led by a good front four with Julius Peppers (11 sacks) and the surprising Henry Melton (seven sacks), kept the team in some games, but was continually put on the spot by a Caleb Hanie-led offense that had trouble moving the ball.
What Went Not So Right: Hanie might have surprised people in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, but impressed few as a replacement for Cutler in 2011. Nine picks and a 41.8 passer rating not only lost games, but didn't engender much confidence going forward, either. The wideouts continue to give this ballclub very little, and Johnny Knox's status is in doubt after sustaining a bad late-season injury. The offensive line struggled to protect in former coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, especially after Carimi went down. They allowed 49 sacks as a group.
The defense tried to get pressure, but Peppers continues to be the only true pass-rushing threat. When the front four didn't hurry the passer early in the year, the secondary had some trouble. The two former starters at safety -- Brandon Meriweather and Chris Harris -- gave a clinic on bad angles against Detroit. The defensive backs dropped many picks, too.
Thankfully, Cutler didn't throw too many picks in 2011, but as valuable as he was, his numbers could have been better. He'll get help from the hiring of his former quarterback coach in Denver, Jeremy Bates, a move Cutler was pretty pleased about.
Offseason Crystal Ball: New general manager Phil Emery comes with a personnel background from the Chiefs. He'll have plenty of such issues to address with a subpar receiving corps and an offensive line that still doesn't have all the tools it needs. Immediately on the horizon, however, is the status of Forte, due to be a free agent. I spoke with Forte during Super Bowl week, and it's clear he wants to stay with the Bears. Expect Emery to pull out ye ole franchise tag. Then it's up to new offensive coordinator Mike Tice to use Forte like the queen on the chessboard.
Free-agent concerns on the defense include Israel Idonije, Tim Jennings and Corey Graham. Idonije is a solid contributor, Jennings has been steady, and Graham is a disruptive special teams player who wants to do more. Other free agents of note include cornerback Zach Bowman, who isn't necessarily the best fit and will probably end up elsewhere. Something tells me Bears fans are OK with losing receiver Roy Williams. Tight end Kellen Davis is on the market, but could return to the Bears for a low rate. And what about Craig Steltz, the safety who looks like Kevin Greene? He played well in spot duty last year.
Team Needs and Draft:Bears fans reading this on their laptop, in their dorm room or in line at the DMV must be silently (or not so silently) screaming, "Offensive line!" Beyond that, help at corner would be nice for a back four that is serviceable, but not championship-level. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs aren't getting any younger, and at some point in the draft this position group will need to be fortified. If Emery doesn't sign a free-agent receiver, then wideout becomes a prime draft concern. (In my initial mock draft, I had Chicago doing just that.)