By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Optimism has never been higher around the Chicago Bears in the Lovie Smith era.
It’s still more than a month from the start of training camp, but this is the year that the Bears believe they can fight the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title and then make a run in the postseason.
For the first time in the modern era of pro football, the Bears have a state-of-the-art passing game. Jay Cutler is an under-appreciated signal caller and Brandon Marshall is a world class receiver. The memory of laughable Roy Williams masquerading as a football player is over and as the years go by, Williams will cement his position near the top of the all-time pro football phonies list that he has been destined to occupy since he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2004 out of the country club known as the University of Texas.
But we are not here to celebrate Williams’ departure; we are here to question the foundation of this house. The offensive line is a big issue for this team no matter what Smith, Mike Tice and Phil Emery say for the public to consume.
The offensive line is only as good as its weakest member and J’Marcus Webb is not an NFL caliber starter. The Bears know this in their heart of hearts and that’s why they had Chris Williams working out with the first team at left tackle. Williams was drafted in 2008 to become the Bears left tackle and it did not work out the way former general manager Jerry Angelo thought it would. Williams had serious back problems and could not stand up to the competition. While the Bears would move Williams inside, drafting him in the first round was a mistake.
Last year, the Bears used Webb at the position. It was not a good thing for a team that wanted to win football games. Webb is a big body (335 pounds) but he could not win the battle in the 16 starts he made a year ago. Despite the preachings and teachings of Tice, he could not turn Webb into anything more than a body who filled a position.
He was not the player the Bears needed to anchor the most important position on the offensive line. Jay Cutler is not shy about speaking the truth. He is not going to come out and say that Webb is a bad football player, but he has said that he has concerns about the offensive line. He has identified Gabe Carimi, Webb and Williams as question marks. That’s a huge problem for this offense. Cutler is quite athletic in the pocket and he can run away from pressure. However, he is not Michael Vick. Eventually, he is going to get caught and slammed to the turf. It has happened many times and it seems certain to happen again this season.
You might be able to hide one soft spot on the offensive line, but when you have one consistently under-performing player in Webb, and there are serious questions about former first-round picks like Williams and Carimi, a season of great promise could be one of great frustration.
Cutler’s honesty earlier in the offseason was refreshing. He knows the Bears’ offensive line still has a long way to go before it proves itself.
He sees that the Bears have made major moves to upgrade the receiving crew by bringing in Marshall and drafting Alshon Jeffrey –great size and hands – but it won’t matter a bit if Cutler is constantly running for his life.
That was the case last year and while the Bears had a 7-3 record when he injured his thumb. While he was injured chasing down an interception when he got blocked, a quarterback who is constantly under siege is quite likely to suffer an injury that could derail the season.
Tice will do what he can to get the most out of this offense. Assuming that Matt Forte is back in the fold before the start of the season, the Bears are well-rounded and talented at the skill positions. Tice will put together logical gameplans that Mike Martz was never capable of doing.
But Tice is not a miracle worker. Webb has not shown he can play. Williams has not shown he can play left tackle. Carimi has not shown he can stay healthy. If this trio does not pan out, a season of great hope will slip into desperation.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.