I've seen a lot of people picking the Chicago Bears to upend the Green Bay Packers as the best team in the NFC North this season. I dare say that they have become one of those offseason darlings seized on by pundits in an attempt to prove how smart they are. After all, we all know SOME teams that didn't make the playoffs last year will jump up and the Bears showed a brilliant offense, which is really half the battle. The Bears' big problem was on defense and they at least partially addressed this by adding Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen to the mix. With some additional luck in the health department, I can understand how many people are seeing a decent defense there if they squint really hard.
The thing is, they failed to address their single biggest defensive flaw: Safety.*
*And the back half of the defense in general. The Bears did draft Kyle Fuller to play corner, but they're still relying heavily on the Tillman-Briggs combo in addition to the also aged and injury-prone DJ Williams, and newly acquired Adrian Wilson, who we will get to in just a second.
Safety has become more and more important to a team's defense in recent years for a few reasons. As defenses have adjusted to pass-heavy offenses many teams have started focusing more on power running. The Patriots are basically a power running team at this point. The Seahawks behind Marshawn Lynch are more or less pioneers in this area. Even the Packers are well-equipped to get tough yards inside. It's very important to have talented safeties because on many occasions they will have to serve as linebackers while still being effective in coverage. I'm sure I don't have to tell it to Packer fans as the only team that might have been worse at the position was the Chicago Bears. The Packers are addressing this problem with highly regarded first round pick Haha Clinton-Dix and by converting the surprisingly athletic Micah Hyde (who ranks 7th on Football Outsiders 2014 "breakout prospects" list").
The Bears addressed this with former Packer M.D. Jennings, some journeymen, lower draft picks, and the aged Adrian Wilson, fresh off missing an entire season due to Haglund's Deformity.*
*Rotoworld says "Haglund's deformity is most common in women. It's a bony enlargement on the back of the heel near the Achilles' tendon that often leads to bursitis, a painful inflammation of the bursa sac. It becomes irritated when rubbing against shoes. Wilson is competing for a roster spot in a wide-open Bears safety group." And that's all I have to say about that.
Wilson is the big name, but he wasn't even good for the Cardinals two years ago, ranking 57th at the position per Pro Football Focus. I'm not arguing that the Bears didn't get better on defense, as they most certainly did. Pro Football Focus had the Bears as by far the worst defensive team in all of football last season and they did acquire better talent in the front four and should see a bounce just based on luck. However, the fact is that the linebackers are either ancient or lack talent and this problem only increases as you get into the secondary. They improved, but not enough.
Marc Trestman has a reputation as a great developer of quarterbacks and his work with Josh McCown last year speaks to just how good he can be. Evan Silva of Rotoworld (and a bunch of other people, but I saw it there first) refer to him as "the Quarterback Whisperer." Where the Packers struggled mightily without their MVP, the Bears actually improved greatly under Josh McCown, and that's going to be a problem in 2014 because McCown is gone.
Before I get into this I want to state upfront that I think Jay Cutler is a better quarterback than Josh McCown and that I would project Cutler to outperform McCown this year even if both still played for the Bears, but the fact is that Josh McCown was much better than Cutler last season.
The Bear QBs combined to have 579 passing attempts last year. If you prorate out both Cutler and McCown's raw numbers so that each has 579 attempts they look like this:
Cutler - 365 completions, 4,275 yards, 31 TDs 20 picks.
McCown - 385 completions, 4,728 yards, 34 TDs, 3 picks.
This is a bit simplistic, as it doesn't account for things like the defenses they faced or their efficiency, but it helps put on display just how much better McCown was. And hey, if you like adjusting for strength of schedule and efficiency:
Football Outsiders DVOA
Cutler - 5.5% (13th overall)
McCown - 32.1% (4th overall)
Pro Football Focus also rated McCown higher (17.9 to 15.2) even though McCown had 144 fewer dropbacks. (Pro Football Focus scores are counting stats to a large extent.)
The fact is that because of Josh McCown, the Bears got exceptional quarterback play last season. Jay Cutler wasn't bad, but he was more in line with what we expect from Jay Cutler, quarterback whispering be damned.*
*While I have no statistics to back up what I am about to say, it is my professional opinion that Jay Cutler is basically an uncoachable dumbass, and will continue to be exactly what he is for the rest of his career.
The position is likely to take a step back as Cutler is likely to be Cutler, and the backups in camp are Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen. If Jay Cutler misses time (and in the last four seasons Jay Cutler has missed at least some time) there will almost certainly be a huge dropoff.
A lot of people are predicting the Bears to take a step forward on offense with Cutler having had another year under Trestman to learn the system. On the other hand, I think it's much more likely that the Cutler/McCown duo collectively overachieved last year, that regression to the mean will bring the offense down to earth a bit, and if Cutler misses time he misses more than just a bit. Cutler is 31 years old. How many 31-year-olds have you seen take a big leap at the quarterback position?
Quarterback is one of the most important positions in any sport, and the marginal gains that the Bears make on defense are likely to be offset by a decline in quarterback play simply because quarterback play is so valuable. I like them as the second best team in the division, but it's going to take a bigger defensive overhaul before they are ready to unseat the Packers.