Sure, football is the ultimate team game, but there are five individuals whose performances this season will go a long way toward determining the success or failure of the Bears and their rookie NFL head coach Marc Trestman.
Surprisingly, none of them play offensive line. The Bears, however, went 10-6 last season with a bad O-line, and even in their last playoff season (2010), the offensive line was mediocre at best.
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Good protection or not, the Bears need quarterback Jay Cutler to play as they expected when they gave up a pair of first-round picks, a third rounder and quarterback Kyle Orton to get him from the Broncos in 2009.
Cutler hasn't done that consistently yet, but this year his supporting cast is the best it has ever been, so there's no excuse for him not to elevate his game. He needs to do better than his 82-63 TD-interception ratio for the Bears and his 81.9 passer rating.
"My expectation level for Jay hasn't changed," said general manager Phil Emery, who inherited Cutler when he replaced Jerry Angelo in 2012. "It's always been to be a quarterback that leads us to a championship. So what we've been trying to do is put more weapons around him and protect him better so that he has a better opportunity to do that."
His best opportunities will be provided by Brandon Marshall, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound go-to guy that Emery presented Cutler with shortly after taking over as general manager. Last year it seemed Marshall was Cutler's only reliable option for much of the season. The offense needs to become less predictable and cannot improve if Marshall matches last season's franchise records with 118 catches and 1,508 yards. But he has to be someone Cutler can connect with when the Bears have to pass and the protection is breaking down.
Marshall's recent dissatisfaction with his recovery from his third hip procedure gave Bears fans pause, but even if he isn't quite at 100 percent, he's still a major force.
"His goal is to be the best wide receiver in the NFL on the best team," Emery said. "I've got no problems with those goals."
While there are great expectations for the long-awaited improvement on offense, the Bears' top-tier defense cannot afford to backslide if the end result is to improve.
That means that three Pro Bowl defenders in their 30s, with a combined 31 years of NFL experience, must continue to play at an elite level.
Julius Peppersis entering his 12th year in the league and has been voted to eight Pro Bowls, including each of his three seasons in Chicago. When Emery was director of college scouting with the Atlanta Falcons from 2004-08, Peppers had double-digit sacks for their NFC South rival Carolina Panthers in four seasons.
"He terrorized us," Emery said. "He was the (Michael) Vick equalizer. The man has (111.5) sacks in his career. He's one of the tops in the league. He speaks of leadership and production. He's a very quiet leader, unassuming, but he does great things.
"He leads by example. I don't know how many times I saw in OTAs and during camp, him chase Matt Forte or a receiver or a back downfield. Anybody at his stature who's willing to put in what he does each and every day to give his all deserves our respect."
"I was very fortunate to be in the draft room to hear the exchange that went on between (former Bears) coach (Dick) Jauron and his coaches and our (scouting) staff on whether we were drafting a safety or a corner," said Emery, who was a Bears area scout at the time. "It was Dick who said, 'Hey, he's absolutely a corner. That's how we're going to coach him. He's going to be a corner in this league.' I would say Dick was very correct."
In the last eight seasons, Tillman has started 122 of 128 games. He is third in franchise history with 33 interceptions, and his 39 forced fumbles since 2003 are the most in the NFL.
"He's a forced-fumble machine," Emery said.
Briggs is a tackling machine. For nine straight seasons, according to Bears statistics, he has had more than 120 tackles, while missing just four games out of 144 and going to seven Pro Bowls.
When Brian Urlacher was asked what it meant to him to become the leading tackler in franchise history, he said, "It means Lance will be breaking my record in a couple years."
This year Briggs has taken on the signal-calling duties that Urlacher had handled since 2000.
"What a move as a leader to step up and say, 'Hey, I'll take it over,'" Emery said. "He's still a sudden and dynamic athlete. He is the prototype of what we want for our defense. I'm watching the Oakland preseason game live. and then later on tape, and I can't believe I'm looking at an 11th-year player in terms of his suddenness and his dynamic ability to get to the ball and his want-to to get to the ball."
The Bears and Trestman need that desire for at least one more year from all three of their 30-something defenders. And they need Cutler and Marshall to make the entire offense as productive as their collaboration was last season.
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