Offseason changes leave Bears with more questions than answers

By Rob Yarborough

His former teammate Brian Urlacher provided a nice distraction during the offseason. But now the heat is back on Jay Cutler.

As Urlacher put a period at the end of a probable Hall of Fame career, Cutler enjoyed some wedded bliss as he married reality sweetheart Kristen Cavallari in June. It was just one of many changes the embattled Chicago quarterback will face this season.

When he looks around Soldier Field in September, there will be no Lovie (Smith) either. In essence, he is officially the face of the franchise for the first time since he came to Chicago. Insert a new coach in Marc Trestman and a new offense — and Cutler is understandably more concerned with adapting to Trestman’s system than impressing Bears fans, for the time being.

Still, Cutler has high hopes for himself and the team after barely eclipsing 3,000 yards passing last season (3,033) and throwing 14 interceptions against 19 touchdowns.

“You still have to have high expectations,” Cutler told ESPN in July. “Just because we don’t know completely 100 percent of (the offense), there’s no reason we can’t go out there and be successful.”

Under Trestman’s system, the veteran QB will get his shots. With an offensive-minded head coach, Cutler returns to the West Coast offense that made him such a talent during his years in Denver. But while his arm strength has always been considered elite, the question remains: Is Cutler an elite quarterback?

The odds are stacked in his favor, for once. This is the final year of his four-year deal with the Bears, and Trestman’s system will give him the opportunity to audible a bit. Who knows, maybe fans will even see Cutler run, too. On both sides of him are talented wide receivers: Brandon Marshall and the quickly emerging Alshon Jeffery. In short, general manager Phil Emery has given Cutler an offense he can play with and some playmakers who can do the dirty work.

In short — no excuses for poor offense this season. The GM has backed him (despite the absence of a long-term deal). In fact, he had so much confidence in Cutler that Smith is no longer head coach (despite Cutler’s shaky performance).

In an interview with Peter King of Sports Illustrated, Emery stated, “I think Jay Cutler is very talented. I know he needed to improve for us to be a championship team.”

He added, “When we were looking to make a change, we knew that if we were going to do it, we were going to make that the focus point.”

While Cutler’s passing yards should increase, running back Matt Forte — with his rushing and catching talents — will be a big plus to an offense that has made stars out of versatile backs. Proof of that is Charlie Garner, who collected 91 passes for 941 yards with the Oakland Raiders in 2002 (Trestman was offensive coordinator). Both of those stats still stand among the best in NFL history for a running back.

While the offense has good potential, the Bears will have some challenges on defense — and that goes beyond the loss of Urlacher. Losing the team’s leader will hurt, but more obvious is that the Bears’ defensive line depth is thinner than Kate Moss.

Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Stephen Paea are sure bets, but with the retirement of Sedrick Ellis (and the season-ending injury to end Turk McBride during training camp), who plays behind them will be anyone’s guess. Lance Briggs is now the defensive leader of the team, but nagging training camp injuries to former Denver Bronco D.J. Williams could determine the success of this group. Williams impressed in limited snaps last season and is expected to be Urlacher’s replacement — so his health is a concern.

Despite the defensive question marks, the success of the Bears will likely live or die with Cutler, truth be told. He is still learning some of the verbiage of Trestman’s offense and the Chicago Bears hope he will be up to speed by the start of the season. He better be — there seems to be no other option for thirsty Bears fans.