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updated: 7/21/2012 7:22 PM

Big expectations for this Bears team

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  • Lovie Smith kicks off his ninth training camp as head coach Thursday at Olivet Nazarene University.

      Lovie Smith kicks off his ninth training camp as head coach Thursday at Olivet Nazarene University.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
 

There's no ignoring the buzz surrounding the Bears as they prepare to embark upon their ninth training camp under coach Lovie Smith beginning with Thursday's opening practice at Olivet Nazarene University.

But there are issues that must be addressed before Super Bowl reservations are made.

Brandon Marshall (three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver), running back Michael Bush (977-yard rusher last season) and backup quarterback Jason Campbell (a starter in each of his six seasons in the league) have been added to an offense that averaged 28.6 points per game and went 7-3 with Jay Cutler at quarterback.

But big-play receiver Johnny Knox is not expected to be back this season after last year's devastating back injury in Game 14. The team's top wide receiver the past two seasons, Knox averaged 19.1 yards on 88 catches.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall should more than make up for the loss of Knox. But he won't be much help protecting Cutler.

That should be the biggest concern for Smith, who may not be around to fulfill the final year of his contract if the Bears miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

New general manager Phil Emery has fortified the offense at the skill positions, but the Bears still must decide on their best five offensive linemen, or at least the five who work most cohesively.

Offensive line is clearly the biggest concern for a team that believes it was playoff caliber last season before Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury, and believes it is better now.

But not if the offensive line cannot provide better protection than it has the past two years, when it allowed 105 sacks, more than any other team in the league.

How bad has the Bears' protection been the past two years? Only one other team, the Arizona Cardinals, has allowed more than 90 sacks the past two seasons.

The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to make the line better at right tackle, where the former Wisconsin Badger showed great promised before a knee injury ended his rookie season after two games.

But, aside from center Roberto Garza, nothing is set in stone.

Veteran guard Chilo Rachal has been added to the mix, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice will not leave his linemen out to dry with no help in difficult pass-protection situations, as his predecessor Mike Martz did.

The sooner the starting five is identified, the more time the group will have to jell as a unit by the Sept. 9 season opener vs. the Indianapolis Colts.

If the O-line improves, and with Bush complementing the multitalented and now financially satisfied Matt Forte at running back, it will be up to Cutler to put up the elite numbers the organization and its fan base expected when he was acquired three years ago.

The Bears traded away a good chunk of their future for Cutler before the 2009 season (two first-round picks, a third-rounder and QB Kyle Orton), and they are paying him as a franchise quarterback. But Cutler has yet to approach the elite level of play the Bears envisioned.

His cumulative TD-interception ratio of 63-49 and yearly passer ratings of 76.8, 86.3 and 85.7 are good but far from great.

Now Cutler has an impressive array of weapons to work with, and much more will be expected from the leader.

There also are great expectations for Marshall. He is the big, dominant wide receiver that the Bears have never had.

Because of Marshall's many off-the-field episodes, the Bears had to spend just a pair of third-round picks to acquire a difference-maker who is still in his prime.

He should be the key to transforming a mundane offense into a state-of-the-art attack, given the success of his past relationships with Cutler on and off the field.

Still, it's assumed that Marshall's next transgression will result in a league suspension, which would disrupt an offense that figures to depend on him to do most of the heavy lifting in the passing game.

He's also dealing with a diagnosed case of borderline personality disorder, and it remains to be seen how he will continue to handle that situation.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

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