August 22, 2012

Bears start season strong despite offseason blunders

Nearly every NFL preview predicted a so-so year from the Chicago Bears this season.
And why not?
The team seems to have made few strides since their bumbling exit from last year’s playoffs, a 21-14 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship, and Bears general manager Jerry Angelo hasn’t done much to help his reputation for making questionable personnel decisions.
It started on draft day, when the Bears backed out of a verbal agreement to swap picks with the Baltimore Ravens at the last minute. Both teams were still able to select their desired players — the Bears drafted Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi—but the failed deal caused a clamor among several league executives, who said the arguably unethical move by Chicago likely jeopardized similar time-sensitive draft day trades in the future.
But the front office blunders didn’t stop there.
This summer, the Bears traded veteran tight end and former first-round pick Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers for practically nothing. Then just days later, they cut ties with 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl Center Olin Kreutz, who anchored a notoriously unstable offensive line. The team also released backup running back Chester Taylor, who signed a four-year, $12.5 million contract with Chicago before last season.
The Bears, however, left contract disputes to linger with running back Matt Forte and All-Pro outside linebacker Lance Briggs.
But the lowest point of the off-season likely came on Aug. 5 during the Family Fest intra-squad scrimmage at Soldier Field. Nearly 10,000 fans were turned away at the door because of unplayable field conditions reportedly caused by inadequate watering during an extended heat wave. The setback caused a number of players, such as All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher, to call for the implementation of a turf playing-surface. The request was denied by Bears ownership, which cited studies regarding the safety of turf and its partnership with the Chicago Park District as reasons to keep the grass surface.
Bears fans have tried their hardest to believe in this team, but they’ve been given every reason not to. That is, until this past Sunday.
Chicago hardly had the look of underdogs in their 30-12 week one victory over the Atlanta Falcons, a team many analysts have pegged to win the NFC. The Bears played staunch defense, forcing five sacks holding fourth-year quarterback Matt Ryan (28 TD’s and 3,705 passing yards in 2010) to zero touchdowns. The 33-year-old Urlacher once again transcended age, intercepting a pass and recovering a fumble for a 12-yard touchdown (the fourth of his career) to put Chicago up 30-6 with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Three-time Pro Bowl selection Devin Hester returned to the kick-return team after what was essentially a two-year hiatus, where he highlighted solid play by the Bears special teams.
And despite a few holding penalties and missed blocks by second-year left tackle J’Marcus Webb, the Bears offense played dynamic football, a far cry from the squad that allowed an NFL-high 52 sacks last season.
The knock on last year’s Bears team, which finished as 11-5 NFC North division champions, was that they hardly ever seemed to play well. They caught breaks when they needed them — for example, facing six backup quarterbacks, one of whom was a third stringer — and were rarely hurt by the frequency of their mistakes.
“Luck,” their critics called it.
But maybe this year they won’t need it.

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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