Most people are aware that Chicago is the birthplace of The Second City, the improvisational theatre troupe that spawned the careers of Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, and (for us old-schoolers) John Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and countless others.
(After writing that, I realized that four of the seven people I mentioned are dead. Creepy.)
Anyway, fewer people realize that the name “The Second City” grew out of an article written in The New Yorker in 1952, in which journalist A.J. Liebling commented that, try as it might, Chicago would always be second-best in everything to New York City.
These days the Chicago Bears would probably be flattered to be considered second-best in anything, including the NFC North, where they are widely seen as the third-best team behind the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
In fact, given the Bears’ supposedly clear inferiority to those two division rivals, most people would say the Bears should be flattered to be considered as anything other than irrelevant.
But hold on a minute.
The Vikings are battling upheaval at one of their most important positions as well as their usual internal soap operas (apparently Brett Favre and Brad Childress get along about as well as Bob Barker and Drew Carey). The Packers are battling injury concerns and doubts about their defense. The Lions are battling being the Lions.
But things seem relatively calm around the Chicago Bears.
Could the Bears jump over either the Packers or Vikings (or both?) and return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season?
Here’s five reasons why they could:
New offensive coordinator Mike Martz. To borrow a phrase from the great Ron Popeil, I hear the skeptics out there. “Mike Martz? He hasn’t been relevant since Britney Spears wrapped a snake around her neck at the VMAs.” But a closer look reveals that Martz has nearly always been effective with offenses, especially considering the lousy teams he’s worked for most recently: In 2006, his first year with the Lions, the NFC North doormats ended up ranking seventh in passing offense. (And that was with bonehead Jon Kitna.) When Martz went west to San Francisco in 2008, he took what had been the league’s overall worst passing attack and made it the league’s 13th best passing attack.
In his first year as the Bears’ OC, Martz is taking over a team that has great potential in the passing game, which leads us to:
Jay Cutler. Look, in many ways Jay Cutler’s debut season with the Bears was as big a disaster as the new Jennifer Aniston movie. (Hey, perk up, Ms. Aniston. You’re still a bigger movie star than Matt LaBlanc.) Cutler had his worst career season in pass completion percentage, his body language and attitude were atrocious, and – worst of all – he led the league in interceptions with 27. But if you’re a Bears fan, there is reason for hope. One, Cutler had only nine interceptions over the last seven games – yeah, not great, but an improvement. Second, Cutler is saying all the right things about Mike Martz’s system, which suggests that he’s buying into it and he’s buying into it because he feels it gives him a better chance for success. A big part of that success will come from being more familiar and trusting of the guys he’s throwing the ball to, which leads us to:
The Bears’ receivers. 2010 is finally the year when people will stop saying, “Well, if Devin Hester can develop . . .” Not that Hester hasn’t made the transition from return man to solid (if unspectacular) receiver (he did lead the team last year with 757 receiving yards), but Chicago’s passing game no longer completely relies on him. In fact, the Bears suddenly seem to have an embarrassment of riches here. Both Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu emerged later in the season as trusted targets for Cutler, and tight end Greg Olsen led the team for the year with 60 receptions. Not only have all four receivers developed a rapport with Cutler, but they’ve all earned the respect of Martz. “I love our receivers,” the OC said this off-season. “I think that our receiver corps will be the strength of this team. You can put that in granite. There’s not very many things I would say are unretractable, but that one is pretty strong.” While the Bears’ receivers aren’t likely to make anyone forget about the Packers’ superior wideouts, thanks to Sidney Rice being out for at least half the season and the lingering doubts about Percy Harvin’s health, the Bears suddenly have the second-best receivers corps in the division.
Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Few players disappointed fantasy owners in 2009 more than Bears running back Matt Forte. Instead of improving on his 2008 rookie season in which he rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns, last season he rushed for just 929 yards and only four touchdowns. But, sorry Matthew Berry, we’re talking “real” football, not fantasy football, and there is no doubt that despite the signing of Cutler and the emergence of the Bears’ passing attack, Forte remains an impressive runner and an important part of the Bears offense – witness the 89-yard touchdown run he tore off in the Bears’ second preseason game. And this season the Bears have added former Vikings back Chester Taylor to give them what should be – unless Lions rookie Jahvid Best surpasses expectations – the best running back tandem in the division.
Defense. Despite popular perception that the Bears defense has sunk farther than ticket sales for Lilith Fair, than, the team’s unit has actually improved. OK, being ranked 17th in total defense isn’t going to wow anyone, but at least their 2009 showing was better than their 2008 season (ranked 21st) and 2007 (ranked 28th). Much of the Bears’ success on defense this coming season will rely on health: Linebacker Brian Urlacher missed nearly the entire 2009 season after dislocating his wrist week one against the Packers, but has gotten off to a rough start this preseason with a strained calf muscle that has kept him out of practice. His status going into the regular season will be crucial. But elsewhere, defensive tackle Tommie Harris seems ready to regain his 2007 Pro Bowl form, and the acquisition of free agent DE Julius Peppers should help the Bears’ pass rush immensely. With both the Packers and Vikings heading into the season with defensive issues, especially in the secondary with injury concerns (Packers) and ineffectiveness (Vikings), the Bears’ defensive unit should at least hold its ground in comparison to their NFC North counterparts.
Now, like all teams, the Bears have issues. (Not as many as Fantasia Barrino, but still.) The biggest for Chicago seems to be the offensive line (which seems to be a problem for all NFC North teams). Jay Cutler has been running for his life this preseason and was sacked a whopping five times in just one half of work in the Bears’ second game against Oakland. Cutler’s sometimes-suspicious decision-making won’t improve in the face of consistent pressure and could be a huge problem going into the regular season.
The Bears are also woefully thin behind Cutler, something they acknowledged this past week with the signing of journeyman quarterback Todd Collins. Unfortunately, even a young Todd Collins didn’t scare opposing defenses, and at 38, Todd Collins is about as intimidating a pocket presence as Phil Collins. But in a league that lacks superstars at quarterback (Trent Edwards, anyone?), it’s not unusual to lack QB depth. Certainly all of the NFC North teams would be in boatloads of trouble if their starter went down, either due to injury or due to death by natural causes (talking to you, Brett Favre).
Having said all of that, my prediction of the NFC North division winner doesn’t change. Barring an injury to Aaron Rodgers, I think the Packers’ offense will be even more unstoppable than last year and I think their depth on defense is good enough to overcome some of their injury concerns. But given the wide receiver injuries, Brett Favre’s slim-to-none chances to repeat his “magical” 2009 season, Adrian Peterson’s fumbling issues and the loss of Chester Taylor, I do like the Bears to compete, if not for the NFC North division title, then for the NFC Wild Card.
It’s been a tough year for Chicago. The Cubs have been the biggest disappointment in baseball. Lou Piniella retired suddenly. The White Sox, though still very much in the AL Central chase, have fallen back of the Minnesota Twins. LeBron James’s “decision” was not to go to the Bulls. Oprah Winfrey announced she’s folding her talk show, a Windy City institution for 25 years. (Oh sure, there was that Stanley Cup, but I’ll bet most of you already forgot about that. I know I almost did.)
But the Bears could very well put the “second” back in “Second City” this year. Although that’s no Super Bowl endorsement, for Bears fans it has to be better than the more prevalent endorsement of their crushing irrelevancy.