On paper, head coach Marc Trestman’s first Bears team is better than Lovie Smith’s last team, which went 10-6 but just missed the playoffs.
But being better on paper means nothing.
Starting with the first training-camp practice Friday morning, Trestman’s squad will begin the more meaningful mission of proving that it can do what last year’s team couldn’t: make it to the postseason.
Traditionally, new NFL coaches have a certain grace period, since they’re usually taking over underperforming teams. Trestman doesn’t have that luxury. If he goes 9-7, the Bears will have taken a step back, especially with what is considered an improved product.
After firing Smith and most of Smith’s staff, Bears general manager Phil Emery added a much-needed Pro Bowl offensive left tackle in Jermon Bushrod and a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Martellus Bennett.
The Bears also signed an established starter in Matt Slauson, hoping to solidify the left guard position, which was an ever-changing area of mediocrity in 2012.
To replace Lance Louis, who departed via free agency, Emery used his first-round pick on Kyle Long, who is expected to start despite starting just five games at the BCS level in college.
On defense, Emery decided that future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had outlived his usefulness after 13 years and eight Pro Bowls and allowed unrestricted free-agent, strongside linebacker Nick Roach to sign with the Oakland Raiders.
They will, hopefully, be replaced by solid veterans D.J. Williams, in the middle, and James Anderson. The LB crew also got an overdue infusion of youth with second-rounder Jon Bostic and fourth-rounder Khaseem Greene.
There is concern that defensive standouts Julius Peppers (33), Lance Briggs (33 in November) and Charles Tillman (32) will begin to show their age. But there was no sign of that last season.
Peppers and Tillman made the Pro Bowl, and Briggs led the team in tackles.
Tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings also made the Pro Bowl, as the defense finished No. 3 in points and No. 5 in total yards allowed and No. 2 in interception percentage.
But the Bears still will be hard-pressed to equal last year’s win total. Before last season the Bears managed double-digit wins just once in five years.
Only 12 of 32 NFL teams won 10 games or more last season. The Bears were the only one that didn’t make the postseason.
To make it back, the Bears need to maintain their stout defense and be better on offense, where there is much room for improvement after finishing 28th in total yards and 29th in passing yards in 2012.
Not coincidentally, offense is Trestman’s area of expertise, with a subspecialty in quarterback mentoring.
The difference in the offense should be apparent even in training-camp practices. There will be a greater focus on oft-sacked quarterback Jay Cutler and backups Josh McCown and Matt Blanchard getting rid of the ball before the pass rush has a chance to get rid of them.
With Bushrod, Slauson and Long, the protection has to be better, right?
How can it be worse than it has been the previous three years, when the Bears allowed 149 sacks, more than anyone in the NFL except the Kansas City Chiefs?
Cutler has been dropped 148 times in 56 games over four years as a Bear, and only the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (168) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (152) have been sacked more in the same period.
Similar to the previous 11 training camps in Bourbonnais, Bears quarterbacks will throw to the tight ends in practice. But, unlike in the previous two years, they’ll continue to do so in the regular-season starts.
And Bennett is expected to catch a higher percentage of the balls thrown to him than predecessor Kellen Davis, who was among the leaders last season in percentage of dropped passes.
Running back Matt Forte will be a more vital part of the passing game than he was last season, when he caught a career-low 44 passes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Forte challenge the personal-best 63 receptions he had as a rookie in 2008.
With Bennett upgrading the tight end production and Forte more involved, it will be a disappointment if Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall has to catch 118 passes this season.
But to keep teams from overloading on Marshall, either veteran Earl Bennett or 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery must step up.
Injuries have prevented both from becoming more productive.
Bennett’s receiving yardage has dropped in each of the past three years, from 717 in 2009, to 561 in ’10, to 381 in ’11 and 375 last season. If healthy, he could recapture his earlier form.
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