The Chicago Bears entered the hyper-condensed NFL offseason this summer armed with about as much salary cap space as any team in football. While most teams spent the days following the end of the lockout hastily cutting veteran players to get under the league's newly minted cap line, the Bears stood idle. If for only for a moment, it may have been enough to cause delusions of grandeur: this was a team that reached the conference finals last we saw them, didn't have any pressing expiring contracts, and owned enough cap room to seemingly fix their very glaring problem areas. As it could have been reasonably deduced, the Bears were in position to reap the rewards for years of frugality.
Of course, some things never change. Add the Bears', shall we say, fiscal conservativeness to the list. As a host of impact players joined other contenders, the Bears did nothing. In fact, they did less than nothing: they lost Olin Kruetz -- longtime starting center and tenured team leader -- after a surprisingly diminutive offer, and traded tight end Greg Olsen, last year's leading receiver and their quarterback's BFF -- for a mid-round draft pick. No one invested (read: players, fans) was particularly happy about it.
Some saw the Bears' offseason as foolish; most saw it as embarrassingly thrifty. In a sense, it was also very arrogant. Here were the Bears, a game away from the Super Bowl, choosing to ignore a vast crop of free agents apparently because they thought their own guys were better. While both fans and media were quick to blast general manager Jerry Angelo for playing it safe, in essence, he took a huge gamble: just imagine how loud the calls for his and Smith's head would have grown had these Bears finished under .500. It takes fortitude to be this cheap. Old habits die hard.
After Monday night's impressive 30-24 victory over the Eagles, the Bears have officially reached the halfway mark of the season. Somehow, this team feels unfamiliar. It shouldn't be that way. A quick look across the depth chart shows that all of the usual suspects are still around and kickin'. But while the names remain the same, this is hardly the same troupe that lost to the Packers at Solider Field last January. In some ways they're better, in some ways they're worse. But mostly, they're just different.
These Bears have long been a team heavy on star power, and that hasn't changed a bit through eight games this season. As such, we decided it's time to rank that star power. The Bears end the first half at a promising 5-3, and here is why:
10. WR Johnny Knox // 20 catches, 362 yards
If it's any indication as to just how up for grabs the last slot in these rankings were, consider this: the Bears offensive line -- as a unit -- actually warranted legitimate consideration. Alas, the 2011 season extends farther than the last three games. When taking the season as a complete body of work into account, there was simply no way to justify the offensive line's inclusion. Still, the fact that it's even up for debate qualifies as a minor miracle.
The Chicago offense is undoubtedly improved across the board from a year ago, with the lone exception being at receiver. Knox has more yards than any of his fellow flankers, but he still trails last year's 1,000 yard pace by a healthy margin. After Earl Bennett's huge game in Philadelphia following a return from injury though, it's possible that this unit could look much better by the end of the season.
9. DE Israel Idonije // 24 tackles, three sacks
Few players on these Bears could make a claim for qualifying as underrated, but if anyone does, it might be Idonije. The monster from Manitoba leads the defensive line in tackles, even if he's slightly off-pace from last year's eight sack season.
8. CB D.J. Moore // 35 tackles, three interceptions
Michael Vick put one in Moore's stomach during the fourth quarter on Monday, but Moore couldn't hold on for the interception. At this point, that registers as a bit of a surprise. Moore has morphed into the new Nathan Vasher for the Bears over the last two seasons, finding a way to be at the right place at the right time. He's no shutdown corner, but he's the living embodiment of a defensive playmaker.
7. CB Charles Tillman // 47 tackles, two forced fumbles
Tillman over Moore might be a controversial choice, but D.J. doesn't have to cover the opposition's best receiver every week. Tillman does. Peanut, for all of his faults, may actually one of the most indispensable players on the team. Could you imagine if he went down? For as unspectacular as Tillman is in coverage at this point of his career, he's certainly better suited than, say, Tim Jennings to cover the likes of Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings.
6. WR Devin Hester // Receiving: 22 catches, 320 yards, one touchdown // Returning: one punt return, one kickoff return for touchdowns
Hester turned 29 (twenty nine!) last week, but age hasn't slowed down the Bears' all-everything return specialist a bit since he rediscovered his swag midway through last season. No, Hester won't ever turn into a local version of Steve Smith; the fact that those expectations were ever tossed upon him was shameful work from Smith and Angelo. Hester can still be an asset in the passing game, though, and remains the most electrifying return man in the league (sorry, Patrick Patterson). With a punt return against Carolina and a kickoff return against Minnesota, Hester has proved he's still nearly as dangerous as he was during the Bears' Super Bowl run in 2006.
5. DE Julius Peppers // 19 tackles, five sacks
The final sack numbers didn't show it, but Peppers was one of the most dominant defensive players in football last season. He hasn't been quite as good in his second season in Chicago thanks in large part to injuries, but Peppers is still the No. 1 player opposing teams have to game-plan for each week. He's actually on pace to have more sacks than year, even if he hasn't left his finger prints all over every contest like in 2010.
4. OLB Lance Briggs // 45 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble
Lance Briggs turns 31 tomorrow, but anyone who saw him chase down Michael Vick (31 himself, incidentally) last Monday knows Briggs has done well in his fight against the effects of time. Perhaps most impressive of all, Briggs still leaves you noticing just how good he is every Sunday. Players that have been this successful for this long often get taken for granted eventually. Not the case with Briggs. As Nick Roach said:
"Every game he does something that makes you look at him and say, `Man, that was crazy,''' fellow linebacker Nick Roach said.
No, based on the principle of the matter, Briggs shouldn't get the new contract he demanded right before this season began. His last deal was engineered to be front-loaded, and now that he has already earned the majority of it, he wants more money. But, assuming the cap space still exists (hint: it will), why not give it to him? Dude has been a staple for, like, 10 years. That's got to be worth something.
3. QB Jay Cutler // 85.6 QB Rating, 58.7 completion percentage // 1,910 yards, 11 touchdowns, six interceptions
Be honest: did you really think you'd live long enough to see the day the Bears -- the Bears! -- would employ a top ten NFL quarterback? Because that's what Cutler is, at least according to a recent Bill Simmons column.
Yes, the savior label has come and gone and much of the hype has died, but here stands Cutler, halfway through his best season as a Bear in year three. Maybe it's because he finally got to keep the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons, or because the line has worked its way up from an F-minus. Whatever the reason, Cutler looks more collected and self-assured than he ever has before in this city. All of those pristine tools that make talent evaluators drool are still here, too.
Look at Cutler's play the last four games. This is the quarterback Chicago thought it was getting in 2008. It took some time for him to get to this point, but it feels good to have him around.
2. MLB Brian Urlacher // 52 tackles, three interceptions, one touchdown
After a season-ending injury in the opening game of the 2009 season, it looked like Brian Urlacher could be finished. Instead, he's helped cement a Hall of Fame legacy by turning in back-to-back dominant seasons even as he approaches his mid-30s. Urlacher has been everywhere in 2011: stopping the run, tipping passing, making big plays. He's done it all. It's a testament to just how freakish an athlete he is.
While Urlacher once seemed like nothing less than a sourpuss, the middle linebacker has aged nicely into a leadership role. He's the face of this team, and will be until he retires. Given the level he's playing at this season, that shouldn't be anytime soon.
1. RB Matt Forte // Rushing: 805 yards, two touchdowns, 5.4 yards per carry // Receiving: 41 catches 436 yards, one touchdowns
Matt Forte went from rookie sensation to fantasy football bust to something in-between during his first three seasons in Chicago. In year four, Forte has transformed into something else entirely: one of the best offensive players in the NFL. How we got here, no one is sure.
By now, you've heard the numbers: Forte is second in the league in rushing and first in total yards. He's been the engine that propels the Bears' offense all season long. He's even done the unthinkable: made a sports city so quick to turn on overpaid athletes into his biggest cheering section as he plays for a new contract. While the narrative of Forte playing for a paycheck can get a bit nauseating, it's almost certainly helped fuel this amazing season. Hey, maybe the Bears' fiscal conservativeness is working out to their advantage after all.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.