Improving offense earns Bears newfound respect

Standing next to Mike Martz in the end zone of Soldier Field on Sunday morning, nearly four hours before kickoff, with the wind beginning to swirl and the lake-effect snow coasting in, and the turf still submerged beneath a blue tarp, I had but one thought: "Great day to sling the ball around, today, coach," I said, half in jest.

"Yes it is," he replied with a knowing smile. "Yes it is."

For all the criticism Martz absorbed early in the season -- too many seven-step drops, poor protection schemes, too pass-happy -- the Bears' offensive coordinator should be lauded for his midseason adjustments, helping Chicago secure an NFC North title and prompting me to issue this mea culpa for believing the Bears would be no better than a .500 outfit. Clearly, Sunday's playing conditions were nothing like the climate-controlled environs that Martz's Greatest Show on Turf enjoyed in domed St. Louis, but it did indeed turn out to be a perfect day for the passing game.

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The 38-34 victory over the Jets featured Martz's offense at its very best, loaded with explosive plays, jumping into the end zone repeatedly from outside the red zone. It showed why the Bears must be respected in the NFC playoffs -- the game also featured plenty of warts as well (more on that later) -- with Matt Forte shining in what has been an erratic run game, and Martz able to shift game plans and launch into attack mode once three quick New York scores put Chicago down 21-10 in the first half.

Before the game, Martz lauded the work done by Chicago's esteemed special teams coach Dave Toub -- superb special teams and the return game have keyed the team's rise -- as well as the tenacity of the defense. "That's why we're where we are," Martz said of those two elements. If Martz can continue to cull the kind of resilient performances that leveled the Jets on Sunday, then the Bears could be primed for a long January.

Sunday's game turned with a quintessential Martz decision. Trailing 24-17 early in the second half, with the Bears having just stopped New York around midfield on fourth down, Martz went all out on first down. Johnny Knox streaked 40 yards downfield and Jay Cutler connected in stride for a touchdown, and the Bears never trailed again.

"With the way their safeties were playing in the middle of the field," Knox told me, "we knew we could make some big plays over the top on the outside."

The Bears' next drive culminated with Devin Hester spinning around a defensive back and hauling in a 25-yard touchdown lob, and a few minutes later Knox exploited the secondary again for a 26-yard scoring reception. In all, the Bears produced a whopping four touchdowns from outside the red zone (three alone within in a seven-minute span of the third quarter) -- Forte had a 22-yard scoring run early in the game -- with all of the big plays offsetting the fact that Chicago converted just three third downs the entire game and Cutler completed just 13 attempts.

"That's Mike Martz's offense," Forte said of the long scoring plays. "We have some great plays that work out there and a different scheme for inside the red zone."

Forte himself was a bull in the run game, grinding out 113 yards on 19 carries, and Chicago was very balanced offensively (27 rushes to 25 passes), a formula that has helped reverse its season after looking like a team in crisis sitting at 4-3 at the bye following a 3-0 start. The offensive line was in disarray, Cutler was getting pummeled and making poor decisions, and I admit I never foresaw the Bears eventually sitting at 11-4 entering Week 17.

Several sources pointed to the influence of offensive line coach Mike Tice -- like Martz, a former head coach himself -- on the offense, stabilizing things in the run game, helping Martz involve more balance between run and pass, and putting in more rollouts (which Cutler loves) and fewer deep drops to help a sometimes-overmatched group of linemen. Martz also managed to cultivate a relationship with Cutler, who can be moody and mercurial, despite the rocky beginnings.

There remains room for improvement. Cutler threw a sloppy sideline pass Sunday that was easily converted into a pick six -- something he's become all too infamous for doing -- and pass protection lagged at some critical junctures when backed up in their own territory. For all of the big plays Sunday, Chicago ranks in the middle of the pack in 20-plus yard plays and 20-plus yard scoring plays (they have 10 on the season, four of which came within three quarters of the Jets game). The Bearsrank just 18th in scoring and 30th in offensive yardage. They rank 26th in first downs (only Cleveland, Seattle, San Francisco, Tennessee, Arizona and Carolina have fewer, and none of those teams merit remote comparisons to the elite this season).

Defensively, the Bears were subpar Sunday. They allowed a vulnerable Mark Sanchez too much time to operate and were manhandled in the pass rush for much of the game. The Jets repeatedly found gaping holes in the middle of the field against the Cover-2 scheme. A few weeks after getting dismantled by New England at home, another AFC East contender came into Soldier Field and posted 225 yards of offense in the first half alone, and this time it was a unit that had struggled to move the ball at all recently.

So while I'm not willing to go ahead and crown the Bears, the way Dennis Green once dared America to do, I am certainly willing to admit my mistake. They're every bit deserving of being in the postseason, and with a first-round bye at that. It's going to take more of what we saw from Martz's bunch on Sunday to keep it going -- whether through wind, snow or sleet -- while the defense and special teams must maintain the top-five levels that have propelled Chicago here in the first place (quick aside, for all the household names on that defense safety Chris Harris deserves All-Pro recognition as much as anyone).

Regardless, a season that began with a cloud hanging over the coaching staff and front office, is going to have a sunnier disposition at its end than many would have anticipated. Especially me.

49ers face crucial offseason

By the time you read this, the 49ers will have already begun the process of flying in and interviewing general manager candidates. There is a strong sense among many of the executives I have spoken to around the league that this process will result in something close to the status quo when all is said and done, with current VP of personnel Trent Baalke maintaining a prominent role in the front office, and longtime executive vice president Paraag Marathe remaining the primary confidant for ownership.

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If that's the case, I suspect it will inhibit the ability to secure a top coaching candidate like Jon Gruden or Jim Harbaugh, as both would want to see more sweeping changes made to the front office. In the past, outgoing coaches have questioned whether the football side and business side have overlapped too much in San Francisco, and I have been in contact with several players there who said they already have the sense from the current coaches and front office that a blueprint is already in place for 2011, aside from the next head coach, of course.

Owner Jed York has said repeatedly he wants to hire a proven GM, and that Baalke is among the candidates. Ted Sundquist, Charley Casserly, Randy Mueller and Floyd Reese are all former GMs under consideration. If the 49ers add one new football man to the operation, but don't make bolder moves, rival executives are skeptical of them truly getting the franchise turned around. And without bigger moves, the next head coach may not be as big-time as many fans would like.

It would be great for the NFL to see one of its signature franchises shining again, and for all of their problems this season in the NFC West, the 49ers are certainly on the cusp. This offseason will be paramount -- not just in terms of a new coach and quarterback -- but in regard to the structure of the front office as well.

York is an engaging young owner who has a full plate, with a stadium project on top of all the football work to be done. York is also trying to build a bridge back to the past there and engage former 49ers greats, and reach out to them to get back into the 49ers family through alumni and team events. It's a noble pursuit and something York is taking very seriously.

Elway could have big role with Broncos

Everything I hear in regard to the Broncos' GM search leads me to believe that John Elway's role there will be much more than merely cosmetic. Several league sources have indicated that Elway is in line for a top position with the club, one in which he could hold the power to settle ties between the next coach and the personnel department and be near the top of the decision-making process.

If so, history would indicate putting a star player with no former personnel training into such a role would be a guarantee for disaster. The Broncos could still bring in someone else with more front-office experience to join the mix, but Elway obviously is a huge name and a massive presence in Denver, and given his tight relationship with ownership, that could create some complicated dynamics to say the least.

I also continue to hear that Brian Xanders, Denver's current general manager, is well positioned to remain in a prominent role and that his meetings with Elway have been very positive. Xanders is well versed in the CBA, contracts and dealing with agents -- some of the many things with which Elway has zero experience. Elway's role would also likely make Gary Kubiak even more of a favorite to resurface there, as it seems a near certainty he will not be back with the Texans.

Kubiak and Elway both joined the Broncos as players in 1983, spending their careers together. The glowing endorsements Kubiak has given recently to Elway in the media, and his effusive praise of Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow following a loss to Denver on Sunday, did not go unnoticed in league circles, either.

"I thought for a minute there the postgame news conference was his first interview for the Broncos job," one NFL general manager quipped.

Quick hits

» If you're making me guess on the other coaching carousel moves right now, I'd put my best odds on John Fox to the Browns, Bill Cowher to the Texans (or possibly the Dolphins, if they make a move), Jeff Fisher to the Cowboys, Russ Grimm to the Panthers, Mike Zimmer or Hue Jackson to the Bengals, maybe Marty Mornhinweg to the 49ers, and Jim Harbaugh to the University of Michigan (GMs I talk to, including some in the market for a head coach, believe Michigan will make an offer to the former Wolverines QB that he can't refuse). And, like the Chargers with Norv Turner, I don't envision the Giants doing anything with Tom Coughlin. ...

» Among the few assistant coaches to keep an eye on this offseason is Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler. He pulled out of the running to be defensive coordinator in Miami a year ago, but with former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt possibly mulling changes, Butler would be one of the first names to come to mind as defensive coordinator there. Butler is also seen as a coach-in-waiting by the Steelers to eventually replace  coordinator Dick LeBeau whenever he retires, which is on a year-to-year basis. That's a strong allure to keep Butler around, but teams will likely come a calling again this offseason. ...

» I also would not be surprised to see the Browns take a run at Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. McCoy's role in Denver could change given the uncertainty at head coach, and if the Browns go with a defensive coach like Fox (or Leslie Frazier), as many expect, then Mike Holmgren could prefer a younger offensive mind like McCoy, to work with him on the offensive side. McCoy also has strong ties to the Panthers, and I could see him getting serious consideration there for the head coaching job. ...

» If Fisher indeed leaves the Titans, you'd have to think owner Bud Adams would place a call to Gregg Williams, Fisher's long-time former defensive coordinator who continues to do excellent work with the Saints. Williams will be a head coach in this league again, I believe (his brief tenure in Buffalo was doomed by salary-cap and front-office issues), and if Fisher departed he would love to reunite with Williams, but I cannot fathom the Saints letting him go for a lateral move.

The picks are in

Went a brutal 7-9 on the picks last week, which puts me at 149-91 for the season. This week, give me the Dolphins, Lions, Chiefs, Falcons, Jets, Saints, 49ers, Giants, Jags, Eagles, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Packers, Broncos, and, the Rams to win the NFC West. Happy New Year. Wish you guys the best in 2011.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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