Revisionist history is for the birds, but in an alternate reality where Jay Cutler does not break his thumb against the San Diego Chargers in Week 11, there's one moment from the Chicago Bears' 2011 season that could have been looked back upon as prophetic. We remember the 2011 Bears as a team that was 7-3 before their quarterback went down for the season, though times weren't always good. The Bears started the campaign 2-3 and reached a low point during a Monday night tilt with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Chicago was defeated 24-13, but -- as the Bears have made a habit of during the Lovie Smith era -- the score belies just how soul-crushing the loss really was.
Jay Cutler was sacked thrice and driven to the dirt by Detroit's intimidating front seven countless times. The next week, with the Bears at home against the Minnesota Vikings, talk focused on changing protection schemes to keep Cutler upright. There would be shorter drops and additional backs and tight ends kept in to block. This would all start to happen, but not before offensive coordinator Mike Martz went to the grave with his beloved seven-step drops. He was always as obstinate as he was calculating.
The Bears were already ahead handily by the end of the first half against Minnesota, but Cutler remained rather displeased by the playcalling. NBC cameras focused on the quarterback after an incompletion to Devin Hester, and the words were unmistakable: "Tell Martz, fuck him!"
This was over protection schemes, of course, an issue the Bears would later amend, at least somewhat. Yes, Chicago's offensive line made strides towards the end of last year, though the unit is still far from a net positive heading into the 2012 season. It remains the Bears' biggest weakness, and the only part of the roster new general manager Phil Emery chose not to address this offseason.
Just about everything else that plagued the 2011 Bears has been overhauled. A big, nasty target for Cutler in the receiving game? Oh, Chicago, how you will soon love Brandon Marshall. Backup quarterback? Say hello to Jason Campbell. A running back who doesn't blow pivotal late season games by fumbling and/or running out of bounds to stop the clock at inopportune times? Say wassup to Michael Bush.
Depth, particularly for an aging defense, remains a cause for concern in Chicago, though every team has its warts, especially when it comes to reserves. Who knows, the Bears might have great depth, the guys behind Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman just haven't been battle-tested yet. If by God's grace the Bears can avoid the injury bug in 2012, that won't change much. But the offensive line -- the same unit SB Nation recently ranked as the 29th best in football -- remains intact.
Alas, the much maligned J'Marcus Webb is still protecting Cutler's blindside. Our best guesses place Chris Spencer at left guard, longtime stalwart Roberto Garza at center, Lance Louis at right guard and last year's first round selection Gabe Carimi at right tackle. Chris Williams, once a first round pick himself out of Vanderbilt not too long ago, is set to become a jack-of-all trades reserve.
Can this unit make even greater strides than the ones they showed last season? If the Bears are going to compete for the Super Bowl, as they steadfastly believe they can, the line is going to have to be better than ever. By my best estimations, the o-line was somewhere between an F and a D-minus through the Detroit game last year. After that, I'll give them a solid C/C-minus. Cutler was still drilled regularly, but the line proved itself as capable run blockers, and the pass protection did improve. Still: you don't make it out of the loaded NFC with a C-minus offensive line. They need to improve.
Much will fall on the shoulders of Carimi, who missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury that required significant surgery. If he can be the anchor the Bears believed they selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, it'll go a long way to giving the unit the reinforcement they so desperately require.
One former Bears quarterback and current television talking head Jim Miller has already seen enough. On a local radio show, Miller said the Bears have the best offensive line in the division. We can't be sure, but it doesn't even seem like he was high.
Here is what Miller told the McNeil and Spiegel Show on WSCR:
"I think the Bears have a great opportunity," Jim Miller told The McNeil and Spiegel Show. "I think their offensive line is the best in the division. … Absolutely. They offer more versatility than any other offensive line in the NFC North. All of those guys have played either guard or tackle, whether it’s a swing tackle, whatever. You look at Green Bay, I’m not going to put Green Bay’s line ahead of the Bears. I’m not putting Detroit’s line over the Bears. … If Gabe Carimi comes back healthy, that would be my X-Factor, the Bears would have the best offensive line in the NFC North.
Miller is a media member now, but who knows how objective he is. What's not up for debate is how bad Chicago's offensive line has been the last two seasons. This stat comes from Brad Biggs at the Tribune: "According to ESPN, the Bears allowed a sack every 10.5 dropbacks over the last two seasons, easily the worst figure in the NFL. The Cardinals were next closest with one every 12."
If you've watched Chicago Bears football the last two years, the statistic isn't surprising at all. Poor offensive line play in Chicago isn't just an issue, it's turned into an epidemic. There are signs that this unit can continue to improve in 2012, though. If it happens, the Bears lofty goals will come squarely into focus.