STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
None of the experts expected to “crown” the Bears NFC champions in 2006.
Most felt Chicago’s 11-5 record and NFC North title in ’05 was fluky and
that their offense had too many question marks to make them Super Bowl
contenders. How could they win with an inexperienced, fragile quarterback?
How could they keep two ball-demanding running backs happy? How could they have an
effective passing attack without a true No. 1 receiver? Legitimate questions these were, but
luckily for the Bears, they had all the answers.
Chicago won its first seven games, including a miracle Monday night comeback at Arizona
that prompted the now-infamous Dennis Green tirade, behind its top-notch defense and the
improved play of a finally healthy QB Rex
Grossman. And while Grossman and the D
somewhat limped down the stretch, the Bears
still finished a conference-best 13-3 and won
their second consecutive division title.
The Blue and Orange continued to prove
the pundits wrong in the playoffs, dismantling
the Saints in the NFC Championship
and earning a trip to Super Bowl XLI.
Running into the buzz saw known as
Peyton Manning and the Colts in Miami,
Chicago fell short of its ultimate goal but
still had a George Halas Trophy to commemorate
an outstanding 2006 campaign.
While championship appearances usually
are followed by calm offseasons, the Bears’
spring was anything but tranquil. The team
dismissed defensive coordinator Ron Rivera,
naming linebackers coach Bob Babich as his
replacement. Though this came as a shock to
many Bears fans, those in the know were aware that head coach Lovie Smith was more responsible
for Chicago’s defensive success than was Rivera.
The Bears then proceeded to trade top rusher Thomas Jones to the Jets for a secondround
draft pick and let Ian Scott, Alfonso Boone and Todd Johnson leave through free
agency. The team also designated Lance Briggs as its franchise player, causing the Pro
Bowler to threaten sitting out the ’07 season if he is not given a long-term contract. To top
things off, Tank Johnson was sentenced to four months in prison for violating probation in
a gun case, an action that surely will result in a severe league suspension.
The offseason wasn’t all bad, though. Chicago acquired safety Adam Archuleta to
bolster its secondary and signed free agent DT Anthony Adams to shore up its defensive
line. The team also added some important pieces in the draft and, most importantly, signed
Lovie Smith to a four-year contract extension.
Though their roster will look a bit different in 2007, the defending NFC champs should be
poised to capture a third straight NFC North crown. And while another Super Bowl run would
be unlikely, that’s what everyone said last year -- and we all know how that turned out.
Round, Overall, Player
2. (62) Dan Bazuin, DE, Central Michigan
Edge pass rusher with good burst off the line.
3. (93) Garrett Wolfe, RB, Northern Illinois
Nation’s leading rusher in ’06 is undersized
but could be an effective change-of-pace back.
3. (94) Michael Okwo, LB, Stanford
A future starter who will contribute
immediately to special teams.
4. (130) Josh Beekman, G, Boston College
Reserve lineman is explosive with great power base.
5. (167) Kevin Payne, S, Louisiana-Monroe
Big hitter who’s aggressive stopping the run.
5. (168) Corey Graham, CB, New Hampshire
Physical corner who can also be special
7. (221) Trumaine McBride, CB, Mississippi
Possesses good strength and instincts but
lacks size and quickness.
7. (241) Aaron Brant, OT, Iowa State
Provides offensive line depth.
1. Adam Archuleta, S (Redskins)
Former standout safety didn’t fi t in
Washington but could return to form as a
run-stopper in the Bears’ Cover-2 defense.
2. Anthony Adams, DT (49ers)
Instantly will see time as part of defensive
2. Todd Johnson, S (Rams)
Solid backup who was stuck in a crowded
1. CAN Cedric Benson SHOULDER THE LOAD?
When the Bears drafted Benson fourth overall in 2005, Thomas Jones recognized he was
no longer the team’s future at running back. After losing a large portion of carries to the
younger back in ’06, Jones asked for a trade and subsequently was dealt to the Jets. This
clears the way for Benson to be a feature back and suddenly gives him fantasy-stud potential.
The 220-pound rusher will see the bulk of the carries this season and, unlike many
starting RBs, will not be removed at the goal line. The big question with Benson is not
his ability but his health. In just two seasons he has suffered injuries to both knees and his
shoulder. Having these ailments on his resume obviously makes Benson a risky early-round
fantasy choice, but if he can escape injury, the third-year back’s ceiling is sky high.
2. PASS THE CONSISTENCY
After various injuries allowed him to play in just eight games in his first three seasons,
Rex Grossman was finally able to remain unscathed in 2006, starting all 16 contests. And
while he often performed well enough for the Bears to triumph, he lacked any semblance
of consistency. Grossman, who finished with 3,193 yards, 23 TDs and 20 INTs, was all
over the map last season, attaining QB ratings above 98 in eight games but also chalking up
ratings below 37 five times. For Chicago to remain an elite team, Grossman needs to limit
his turnovers and develop a better rapport with starting wideouts Muhsin Muhammad and
Bernard Berrian, who themselves were inconsistent. The addition of TE Greg Olsen and a
healthy Mark Bradley should help the aerial assault, but it will be up to Grossman to target
passes properly and realize he doesn’t need to be a hero for the Bears to succeed.
3. FRANCHISING BRIGGS
Desperate to keep the core of their ferocious defense together, the Bears slapped the
franchise tag on Lance Briggs, though the linebacker and agent Drew Rosenhaus weren’t
too fond of this decision. Briggs, who wanted a long-term deal, felt Chicago’s contract offer
was too low and demanded out, threatening to sit out in 2007 if he isn’t traded. Whether
or not he plays for anyone this year remains a mystery, but it’s certain that Briggs’ absence
would leave a huge hole in the Bears’ D.
4. A BROWN-OUT IN ’07?
Chicago’s run defense clearly suffered last season when strong safety Mike Brown was
sidelined. The former Cornhusker, who has missed 28 games in the last three years due to
injury, underwent foot surgery last October and could miss time in ’07. The Bears brought
in Adam Archuleta to help control the rush, but it’s no guarantee that he’ll be the answer.
And when Brown does return this season, he and Archuleta will be vying for playing time,
leaving one of them out in the cold.
Sleeper: Given Benson’s durability issues,
Adrian Peterson could receive a plethora of
carries if the starter goes down.
Supersleeper: Mark Bradley’s first two
pro seasons have been marred by injury,
but the WR enters this year healthy and
ready to fight for a starting role.
Brian Urlacher, LB
141 tackles and three INTs in ’06 for one
of the league’s finest defenders.
Charles Tillman, CB
Continued his solid production last year
with 80 tackles and five picks.
Lance Briggs, LB
An absolute tackles machine, but will
he hold out
Article first appeared 6/18/07