Bears general manager Phil Emery didn't mince words in his end-of-the-season, state-of-the-team address.
"Our goal as an organization is to win championships, be in the hunt on a consistent basis and to win championships," he said. "We have not reached that level."
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Actually, that's not entirely correct. The Bears' offense is championship caliber. But there is room for improvement on special teams. And the defense was nothing short of a disaster in 2013. That unit will require more than tinkering or tweaking. It's a major rebuilding project from the ground up, and both Emery and coach Marc Trestman know it.
"The bottom line is we didn't get it done," Trestman said.
The coach didn't single out the defense and, in fact, suggested improvement was needed in all aspects and at every level of the football operation. It will be an aggressive off-season according to Trestman.
"There's going to be a sense of urgency here," he said. "We're going to relentlessly attack this off-season in every phase, but it's going to be a thorough process. It's going to be a thoughtful process. It's going to be objective and it's going to be done mindfully in the best interest of the team because it's not about the defense or the offense or the special teams.
"It's truly about how we can put this whole thing together and do it the right way."
Disruptive D wanted
That being said, anyone who watched the 2013 Bears for any length of time, knows it was the defense that kept them from qualifying for the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
Emery knows what he wants; now he just has to decide which players fit the mold and for what price.
"We want a physical, fast, play-making defense -- a defense that causes disruption," Emery said. "When I look at this season, I saw that in the first three games."
But it was rarely in the final 13.
It was the same with defensive takeaways. The Bears got 14 in the first four games but just 14 more in the final 12. Taking the ball away and making something happen after that remains Job 1.
"There is no single more important part of defense than scoring," Emery said. "When the Chicago Bears have scored on defense from 2004 through the 2013 season, we have won over 85 percent of our games. To score on defense, you have to have playmakers and weapons."
Since defensive end Julius Peppers entered the league in 2002, he has forced 37 fumbles, the fourth most in the NFL during that time. Since 2003, free-agent-to-be cornerback Charles Tillman has forced 42 fumbles (2nd). Of his 36 interceptions, 8 have been returned for touchdowns (2nd).
Cornerback Tim Jennings, who signed a four-year extension for $22.4 million last week, led the NFL with 9 interceptions in 2012 and had 3 in 2013. Three of those 12 were returned for touchdowns.
"Defensively, it's about finding the best playmakers," Emery said. "The guys that can make a dynamic difference to our defense. The No. 1 thing is score. The No. 2 thing is to create turnovers. No. 3 is to cause disruption to the opposing quarterback."
Blending young and old
So how does the Bears' brain trust rebuild on the fly and construct a playoff-caliber defense before age and the salary cap take its toll on the offense?
This much we know: The Bears will focus their draft and free-agency acquisitions on defensive players. And they will get younger; Emery was adamant about that.
But the GM isn't dismissing players like 33-year-old Lance Briggs or Tillman (33 next month) or Julius Peppers (34 next week) or Jeremiah Ratliff, 32. But it's unlikely that all will be back, considering Tillman and Ratliff can become free agents on March 11, and both still have value on the open market.
Peppers, whose cap number next season would be $18.2 million, will have to restructure his contract and take a drastic pay reduction to remain. He led the Bears with 7½ sacks, but his 2013 season was a huge disappointment by his standards and his paycheck.
"I'm not going to get into contracts," Emery said when asked about the problematic nature of squeezing Peppers' gargantuan salary under the cap. "He's under contract. Julius had an 8-8 year, like all of us, like I did, and that's where he's at."
Starts up front
There are other concerns on the D-line as well.
Tackle Henry Melton was paid $8.45 million last season as the Bears' franchise player after being voted to the 2012 Pro Bowl. But he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 3 and was arrested on alcohol-related charges late in the season.
That combination of unfortunate incidents decreases Melton's appeal on the open market, which should make him easier for the Bears to re-sign. But it also might make the Bears question if he's worth any kind of long-range commitment at all.
Emery seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude on Melton's recovery, while also doling out some free advice to the 27-year old.
"Henry, in particular, he has got to fully dedicate himself to (physical) rehab," Emery said. "There was a reason we franchise-tagged him. There was a reason for that investment.
"The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. ... Obviously he has some off-the-field issues. He needs to make sure that he's focused in on football and (has) a passion for football."
The D-line was a sore spot all year for the Bears, and it started in training camp when free-agent tackle Sedrick Ellis decided to retire rather than report to Bourbonnais. That left the Bears short-handed up front from the get-go.
"The fact that we couldn't replace Sedrick, that's on me," Emery said. We didn't have enough pass rush from the outside or the inside. We needed one more."
The problem now is that four of the top five tackles (Melton, Nate Collins, Ratliff and Corey Wootton) are all free agents.
The back seven
At linebacker, the Bears have already gotten younger after drafting Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene last year. Injuries forced both into the starting lineup as rookies, Bostic for 10 games and Greene for four. Results were mixed.
"I saw Khaseem do it right and Jon do it right, and I saw them both do it wrong," Trestman said. "I did not see a consistency in their play."
That should improve with experience, especially with Briggs around as mentor. The other two veteran starters, D.J. Williams and James Anderson, both signed one-year, free-agent deals. If the Bears decide the two youngsters are ready to become full-time starters, there probably isn't room for the vets.
Much has been written and said about the play of young safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright, hardly any of it positive. Wright can test free agency, while Conte is under contract for another year.
"I'm sure that Major and Chris would agree that they did not play at the ability and capability level throughout the season that we would have expected," Trestman said. "Early on in the season I saw some long balls completed. I think we could have done a better job at that."
That's about as nicely as it could be stated. Both players also missed a boatload of tackles, but that was endemic throughout the defense.
"We're going to examine all aspects, but it starts with me," Emery said. "We had injuries. They are not an excuse. I have to look at: Did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no."
No one would argue with that.
Now it's time to rebuild.