By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — The mood at Halas Hall on Monday was not as gloomy as one might think.
Less than 24 hours after a heartbreaking 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers that ended their season, many Bears players — including some who might not be here next year — talked about the bright future for the organization.
“We felt at times we played really well and just didn’t get the job done. It’s the start of something really special here. And hopefully I continue to be a part of it,” center Roberto Garza said.
Garza is one of 27 pending free agents on the roster, almost all of whom would like to return to the Bears.
That’s saying something for a team that underwent a dramatic change in philosophy after Lovie Smith was fired on New Year’s Eve a year ago.
With the 2013 season in the books, here are my thoughts on the 8-8 campaign and where the Bears go from here:
Trestman’s First Year A Success
It would be easy to point to the Bears’ record and say 2013 was a step back because they won two fewer games than a year ago.
That view is lazy and, quite frankly, wrong.
The question that needs to be asked is: Did the Bears get closer to their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl?
In just one year, Trestman transformed the Bears’ offense from 28th in the league to 8th. Under his watch, quarterback Jay Cutler posted a career-high passer rating of 89.2 and undoubtedly improved his mechanics. Running back Matt Forte had arguably his best season as a pro and former second-round pick Alshon Jeffery ascended into one of the top 10 wide receivers in the league.
This is an offensive driven league and in just 12 months, Marc Trestman took an offensive-plagued franchise and gave it a unit that has the potential to improve into a Super Bowl contender. They’re not there yet, but if they bring Jay Cutler back, they’re on their way (more on Cutler in a minute).
Trestman also deserves credit for bringing the locker room together. Some defensive players were admittedly still skeptical when they arrived at Olivet Nazarene University in July, but throughout the season, there were zero whispers about a divide between the head coach and his defense.
“He did a great job bringing this team together,” Garza said. “There were a lot of changes and bringing the locker room together, believing in each other and playing for each other, I think it was a great message and a great way to build this team.”
The inability to win the NFC North despite two chances to clinch in the last two weeks will go on Trestman’s record, but the team easily could have given up after a crushing loss in Minnesota on Dec. 1. Instead, they won two straight games and climbed back into first place (with some obvious help from the Lions) before ultimately falling short.
Support For Tucker
Some will argue that the Bears are further away from winning the Super Bowl because the defense regressed so much in 2013.
Sure, the defense is an obvious concern, but this is now a team built to win on offense and that’s why I contend the franchise is closer to the ultimate goal now than it was a year ago.
General manager Phil Emery’s primary concern in the offseason will be the defense, but he doesn’t need as great of a transformation on that side of the ball as he needed on offense this year. The Bears merely need an average defense to become a playoff contender by next season. Anything more than that will just be an added bonus.
The question is: Will Mel Tucker be leading that defense in 2014?
I’d still be surprised to see him fired this week, but it’s interesting that Emery and Trestman chose to wait until Thursday to hold press conferences. If those press conferences occurred Monday, both of them would have had to address Tucker’s future and anything other than an announcement of the defensive coordinator’s return would have been met with great speculation about him getting fired.
Now, there are plenty of other good reasons for delaying the press conferences including: working on extensions for pending free agents (including Cutler), waiting to see who is available across the league if they are considering a coordinator change, and finalizing evaluations of their players from this season.
The more answers they can come up with in the next few days, the fewer questions they have to answer Thursday.
As for Tucker, the support from players was overwhelming at Halas Hall Monday.
“I don’t think it is (fair to point the finger at Tucker) because at the end of the day, people have to do their jobs and fess up to being the player that they’re supposed to be,” safety Major Wright said. “I think he’s going to take the majority of the criticism, but I think it’s within the defense. It’s all of us. If one goes down, we all go down.”
Cornerback Charles Tillman said: “I thought Mel did an exceptional job. We had a lot of injuries on defense. I don’t think anyone got hurt on offense. I think he did a really good job despite all the injuries we had.”
(Let’s give Tillman a pass for forgetting Cutler got hurt. His point is valid.)
And Shea McClellin: “I think he’s a great coach. I think he did an excellent job. You know, just a few things fell out of place. It was unfortunate. But overall, I think he’s a great coach. I learned a lot from him.”
Tucker landed in a tougher situation than he probably thought when he took the job. At the start of training camp, there was maybe just one player on his former defense in Jacksonville that could start for the Bears, but things went downhill quickly once the injuries hit.
The idea that Tucker wasn’t able to run his defense is a little overblown, but still a factor. The truth is, it was Tucker’s decision to learn the terminology of Lovie Smith’s defense instead of making all the players learn new calls and checks, and otherwise, he wasn’t running a defense all that different from the 4-3s he has run in the past. He still had the ability to add in his own wrinkles, including creative stunts and blitzes — which he did. Unfortunately, a lot of it was ineffective, mainly because of the talent on the field.
That said, a change at defensive coordinator can’t be ruled out, especially given how the season ended Sunday. The fumble in the first half that no one picked up falls on the players, but sometimes coaches take the fall for things like that. Tucker spent every day in training camp preaching turnovers and picking up every loose ball. The fact that 11 of his players left the ball on the ground is mind-boggling and inexcusable. It wasn’t Tucker’s fault, but it also doesn’t necessarily reflect well on him.
Meanwhile, the game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb has to be explained in greater detail at some point. Publicly, no one wants to blame safety Chris Conte, but privately, players made it clear that Conte didn’t get the right call and was playing zone when he was supposed to be playing man. Still, there was confusion elsewhere on the field. Linebacker James Anderson and safety Major Wright were both yelling out some kind of check right before the snap. Isaiah Frey moved into a blitz as a result of Anderson’s call, while cornerback Tim Jennings put his hands in the air like he didn’t know what Wright was saying to him. After the game, Jennings said they were in zone, indicating that Conte wasn’t the only player confused.
Ultimately, some of that has to fall on the defensive coordinator.
What About The Special Teams?
The defensive struggles masked what was also a tough year for special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. His unit also has the excuse of injuries, as every time a player was lost on defense, he lost a special teamer.
Still, penalties were an issue all season long and the unit gave up some big returns, especially early in the year.
Tucker might not be the only coordinator being evaluated closely this week.
The first day of the offseason also meant Day 1 of the Jay Cutler Watch.
I personally don’t think the watch is going to last very long and don’t expect the quarterback to hit the open market, but Emery has refused to comment on the situation since the summer.
This much is clear though: Every offensive player in that locker room wants Cutler back and all signs point to the organization feeling the same way.
“Phil is smart. He’ll get it done,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said Monday. “He’ll do what’s best for the team and I think Jay is what’s best for the team. I don’t think he’ll listen to me or any of the other guys, that’s just the way this business works. When was the last time you had a Jay Cutler? When was the last time you had Jay Cutler with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, (Matt) Slauson, (Jermon) Bushrod, (Kyle) Long, (Jordan) Mills, (Roberto) Garza, (Marc) Trestman, (Aaron) Kromer, Mike Groh, Phil Emery? The pieces are there.”
And Cutler knows the pieces are there. A dollar figure will have to be agreed on, but Cutler knows what’s going on in Chicago right now and there’s much more incentive for him to want to stay with the Bears than start over with another new coordinator elsewhere.
Other Free Agents
Here’s a summary of what some of the pending free agents said Monday:
DT Henry Melton, who was arrested just over a week ago in Texas: “I’m not talking.”
So there’s that.
CB Charles Tillman: He’s not planning on retiring and said, “I’ve got some decisions that I have to make here in the next couple of weeks, couple of months.”
What those decisions are is unclear, but could it involve the Bears wanting him to move to safety? That would make negotiations interesting because Tillman has made it clear he wants to remain a cornerback.
Tillman also said he wants to remain a Bear, but said there have been no contract discussions between he and the Bears yet.
C Roberto Garza: The center has no desire to retire and badly wants to be back with the Bears. At 34, though, that might not happen. The Bears might want to look for a younger option to develop at the position.
S Major Wright: Asked about his future, Wright said: “I have no clue. I’m blind to the fact. This year I came and just tried to play my hardest, do everything that I could do. I just hope that something happens. I’m just waiting to hear back from my people, and we’ll see what happens.”
Wright just finished the final year of his rookie contract and might not be in the Bears’ future plans.
LB D.J. Williams: He made it pretty clear he wants to come back to the Bears. “I’m ready to talk, now,” the linebacker said.
LG Matt Slauson: Slauson is already in talks with the Bears and an extension could come quickly.
DT Nate Collins: After tearing his ACL this season, Collins wants to come back and said he’ll be ready for OTAs in the spring.
The Bears already got started reloading their offseason roster Monday. Eleven players were signed to reserve/futures contracts, including: QB Jerrod Johnson, LB Lawrence Wilson, OT Rogers Gaines, S Sean Cattouse, WR Terrence Toliver, DT Tracy Robertson, TE Zach Miller, CB C.J. Wilson, CB Demontre Hurst, TE Fendi Onobun and LS Brandon Hartson.
In the NFL, the season never really ends. Monday just marked the start of the 2014 season. Stay tuned.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.