You earn what you deserve in the NFL, a hard-knock lesson Lance Briggs has certainly become familiar with after nine seasons with the Chicago Bears. Briggs came into the organization during the final campaign of the doomed Dick Jauron regime. The Week 1 starter at quarterback that season was Kordell Stewart, and not the proto-Vick version electric enough to make "Slash" a fitting albeit short-lived nickname, but the washed up 31-year old who could barely complete half his passes and nearly threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns over the course of nine starts. Those other seven starts made by Bears quarterbacks in 2003? Those would belong to the very righteous duo of paper-mache veteran Chris Chandler and rookie cannoneer Rex Grossman.
Lance Briggs has been around a long time, you see. When he talks about the franchise, and the city that loves it so dearly, it's wise to pay attention. With an audio recorder extended towards his mouth, Briggs prefaced the Bears' 2012 season with brief but daunting words.
"We deserve to go to a Super Bowl. We all do. The city. People have worked hard for it. It’s time."
In the cliche-bound world of athlete-speak, this seemingly innocuous statement draws headlines. It might even be borderline controversial. A cynical observer of this franchise would say it's gotten exactly what it's deserved over the course of Briggs' tenure: a series of a 'good' but ultimately flawed teams that failed mostly do to a glaring hole or three on the offensive side of the ball. Now that the Bears have finally realized the intrinsic value of pass throwers and pass catchers, they're supposed to be handed the Lombardi Trophy?
It's the type of surveillance that means more coming from Briggs than anyone else, and that includes his more ballyhooed teammate anchoring the middle. Brian Urlacher is the sure-fire Hall of Fame inductee, the one who used freakish combinations of speed and size to become one of the most dominant defensive players of his era. But it's Briggs, short and stocky by league standards, whose sustained success is decidedly more Chicago. Briggs has been named to the Pro Bowl seven times, but he enters this season with only 10.5 career sacks. His elite-level performance is blue collar and understated, the same way qualities so many in this metropolis identify with. Briggs hasn't been without his own bouts of turmoil, from Lambo crashes to all-too-public contract disputes, but his words carry weight. If he thinks Chicago deserves a Super Bowl, we shouldn't be foolish enough to discount the sentiment.
I tend to agree with No. 55. It really is time.
The Bears' last Super Bowl victory came on January 26, 1986, a year and a half before I was born. A great number of those '85 Bears remain relevant to this day, for no good reason other than the supernatural football addiction of this city. I didn't see the '85 Bears first-hand, but their presence never feels far. They sell cars and show up at golf outings and run for mayor of Romeoville. As Bears teams have bumbled their way through the last 26 seasons, the '85 team remains the equivalent of civic knights. Say a bad word about the '85 Bears in this town, and it's your funeral.
Walter Payton is an icon and that defense will live forever for the right reasons, but enough is enough. The '85 team can keep the sainthood, but they can't stay omnipresent. That 1985 season was a long time ago, and there's a good number of fully functional adults who deserve their own squad to canonize. These 2012 Bears feel like our best chance yet.
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It's almost offensive Jay Cutler has had to wait this long for help. When Jerry Angelo traded two first round draft picks for the quarterback before the 2009 season, he believed Cutler could do more than offer the franchise stability at sports' most important position for the time since World War II: he apparently thought Cutler could also turn water into wine. God bless Devin Hester, but he's no ace receiver. Same goes for Roy Williams and Devin Aromashodu, though the former surely doesn't deserve any form of absolution. All of the optimism surrounding this team, all of the lofty preseason Super Bowl talk, can be attributed directly to one man.
Chicago is going to love Brandon Marshall.
Before he ever laces up his cleats for a real game, Marshall already feels like the best wide receiver in franchise history. Over the last 25 years, who's second? Curtis Conway? Bernard Berrian? Marcus Robinson was incredible for exactly one season, but Marshall's track record, youth and obvious rapport with Cutler means Robinson's killer 1999 campaign could be replicated again and again.
There's no overstating Marshall's presence. Funny how a legit No. 1 makes the rest of the receiving corps look so much better. Earl Bennett seems primed for a career year. Hester could do some real damage now that he isn't burdened with unrealistic expectations. Rookie receivers rarely prove to be an asset, but Alshon Jeffrey has earned praise at every turn so far. Jeffrey's development will be of paramount importance as the Bears continue their switch in identity. As a rook, he'll only have to be a red zone threat and keep his head on straight. Cutler will find him.
The NFL is now a passing league, a refrain you'll hear repeated over and over again this season. But isn't it Matt Forte that makes the Bears' offensive talent feel excessive?
Don't get it twisted: Forte will very much be a large part of the passing game. Since Cutler's come to town, Forte is the team's leading receiver. That will mercifully change now that Marshall is around, but Forte will not be forgotten. He'll always be the perfect safety valve, the check-down option explosive enough to take a three-yard pass the distance whenever he touches it. And while the newly signed Michael Bush won't exactly team with Forte to give the Bears a "thunder-and-lightning" running attack, he'll certainly pay dividends. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice has said he thinks both Forte and Bush could run for 1,000 yards this season. Whether that's an expert smokescreen or vague trolling of Cutler and Marshall remains to be seen, but it's obvious the Bears' passing game isn't the only part of the offense that has amped up. This should be the best running attack in town since Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson powered the Bears to their last Super Bowl appearance in 2006. It could be even better.
No Bears preview is compete without mentioning where it could all fall apart. The offensive line improved last season, but still isn't very good. A passing catching tight end and a proven fullback to help the running game would sure look nice, as well. But every team, even the title contenders, have holes. The line doesn't need to be an asset, it just needs to hold its own. If it can do that, the sky is the limit.
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Super Bowl or bust. Briggs and Urlacher have both said it, and they aren't wrong. They've paid their dues, they've punched the clock. Now it's time for glory. The NFC looks loaded this season, so the Bears' path is hardly without obstacles. The NFC North might even be the toughest division in all of football. The 49ers are another trendy Super Bowl pick in the West, the East has the Eagles and Giants and the Cowboys, the South has Drew Brees as well as the always sturdy Falcons. Who knows what miracles Cam Newton can perform as an NFL sophomore.
The point: this won't be easy. Briggs is right, Chicago deserves a Super Bowl, but it won't come cheap. It'll take a lot of luck. It will probably come down to whoever stays the healthiest. But if nothing else, the Bears have put themselves in the conversation.
You can feel something brewing. Training camp practices in Bourbonnais were drawing bigger crowds than midweek White Sox games. The city's streets were flooded with Bears jerseys for mere preseason games. Chicago is hungry for a Super Bowl, maybe even desperate. With years of defensive continuity and a vastly improved offense, it feels like the time.