By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The Bears have correctly identified and understand the way the modern game of football is played. As we prepare for the 2012 season, all vestiges of the Bears being a conservative, run-the-ball kind of team are in the past.
Lovie Smith understands that the Bears are going to have to throw the football and so does new offensive coordinator Mike Tice. No longer will the Bears have to put up with Mike Martz and his intractable ways along with his syrupy manner. The Bears can just go out and play football.
Quarterback Jay Cutler has a new/old receiver in Brandon Marshall. The two worked together in Denver and now they are both seemingly more mature and ready for the best seasons of their careers. They have the tools to join the best quarterback/receiver combinations in football.
Here’s a look at the best combinations in the league heading into the 2012 season:
1. QB Tom Brady/TE Rob Gronkowski, New England – Nobody wants to hear excuses about what happened in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots didn’t make any. That reflects well on them. However, Gronkowski was the most dangerous and productive receiver in football throughout the majority of the season, but when he severely sprained his ankle in the postseason, he was not even 20 percent of his normal self in the Super Bowl. Do you think that had something to do with the Giants beating the Patriots? Of course. When Gronkowski is healthy, he is a monster who can go downfield and make the big catch or take the short one and run a long distance. He may turn out to be the most productive tight end in league history. He caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns this season and should be able to approach that figure.
2. QB Drew Brees/TE Jimmy Graham, New Orleans — Sense a pattern here? Two QB-receiver combinations and the top two include tight ends. Brees is a gunslinger from the word go and he excels at finding the open receiver. Like Grokokowski, Graham can beat deep coverage. He caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards last year and 11 touchdowns. There were few answers for this duo last year and there won’t be this year either.
3. QB Matt Stafford/WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit — The only thing that keeps this from being the No. 1 combination going into the season is Stafford’s previous injury history. He stayed healthy last year and the Lions were explosive. Johnson is bigger and stronger than every defensive back he will see. There are few who can run with him and he also has incredible hands and reach. After catching 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns, the gauntlet has been thrown down and it’s up to opposing defenses to figure out an answer.
4. QB Aaron Rodgers/Greg Jennings, Green Bay – When a quarterback has Rodgers’ accuracy and timing, you could probably go with any of his receivers and call them one of the best QB-receiver combinations in the league. However, the rapport between Rodgers and Jennings is special. Jennings twisted his knee late in the season and wasn’t the same player after Week 14. But when he is healthy, the Rodgers-Jennings partnership is brilliant. Look for them to exceed the 67-949-9 mark that Jennings put on the board last year.
5. Brady/Wes Welker, New England – If you thought Welker was a monster before, wait till you see him this year as he plays with a burning desire after dropping Brady’s pass in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Few point out what a difficult catch it was because Welker normally makes the reception. He’s still seething about it. Welker caught 122-1,569-9 last year and while he probably won’t catch more passes, he could increase his touchdowns and perhaps even his yards per catch. He’s a master on third downs.
6. Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall, Chicago – The Bears have the weapons to go along with the philosophy that they have been trying to employ for years. Cutler must stay healthy and Marshall needs to stay focused on the task at hand. If they can avoid injuries and distractions, the Cutler-Marshall combination will rival the Stafford-Johnson pairing.
7. Matt Ryan/Roddy White, Atlanta – One of Ryan’s top characteristics is his ability to buy time and throw at the last possible instant. That dovetails with White’s ability to run precise patterns and eventually get away from the coverage. White’s consistency should allow him to catch 100 or more passes again this year.
8. Matt Schaub/Andre Johnson, Houston – This combination would be right at or near the top if it weren’t for injuries that limited both of them last year. Schaub is a solid quarterback, but his physical attributes take a backseat to his intelligence, timing and ability to read the defense. Johnson is a physical marvel when healthy, but he has a history of nagging injuries.
9. Eli Manning/Victor Cruz, N.Y. Giants – Cruz burst on the scene last year as a dominant wide receiver. What separates Cruz from the competition is his overpowering lower-body strength that allows him to burst explosively into the open. The Giants believe Cruz is good enough to do it again in 2012.
10. Ryan Fitzpatrick/Stevie Johnson, Buffalo – This pair has the chemistry that you want, but Johnson is probably one of the biggest divas in the league. That’s not the ideal situation for a team that has a lot of ups and downs. After a great start, there was some trouble here but Johnson caught 76-1,004-7 and he is a force to be reckoned with. Fitzpatrick has a plus arm and is hungry to make big plays.