Preseason football's list of redeeming qualities is relatively short, though its main perk is likely all that matters. It's football, stupid, and football is great. Tonight, football is back, at least sort of, when our beloved Chicago Bears take on Peyton Manning and rest of the new-look Denver Broncos under the bright lights of Soldier Field.
The starters will play for less than a quarter, the schemes on each side will be decidedly vanilla and much of the execution will leave something to be desired. If it's a close game in the fourth quarter, it's very likely even the most super of super fans won't be able to recognize a single soul on the field. But still. It's football! Football is back! This is good news because football is one of the best things in the world.
I don't care much for the preseason; I'm leery of trying to glean too much from an exhibition game. But assuming you're going to sit back and strap it down on Thursday night to watch the stars go through the motions and scrubs play their adorable little hearts out, here is a handy guide of things to watch for.
1. Brandon Marshall And Peyton Manning In New Uniforms.
While lame, the preseason does offer us a first glance at what new players look like their new threads. New, new, new. That's what tonight is all about, at least on the surface level. And look: the game at hand features what could be the two most highly publicized players to switch teams in the offseason.
You've heard of this Peyton Manning fellow, yes? He's an excellent pitchman and occasionally quite funny. He's also put together an esteemed career as an NFL quarterback, to the point where he may be the best ever to do it. Tonight, Peyton Manning puts on a jersey other than that of the Indianapolis Colts for the first time. You could say he's changing horses, or something. But for as weird as it will be to see Manning swap the royal blue and white for navy blue and orange, the sight of Brandon Marshall in a Bears uniform might be even more peculiar.
Make no mistake: before he's ever played a game, Brandon Marshall is already the most distinguished wide receiver in the history of the Chicago Bears. Over the course of my lifetime, I can't even tell you who's second.
Curtis Conway? Bernard Berrian? Marty Booker? You know, Marcus Robinson actually was pretty great for that one season.
Seeing Marshall in training camp is so striking. The man is a monster. He is huge. This is the target Jay Cutler has been waiting three years for. Marshall is the reason optimism is so high in Chicago right now; Marshall is the reason those Super Bowl dreams don't seem so delusional.
We probably won't see all Brandon Marshall can do tonight, but the sight of him in a Bears uniform should be enough to tide you over and let your imagination run wild.
2. Shea Day
It's difficult to remember a rookie as scrutinized from his first NFL practice as the Bears' first round draft pick, Boise State defensive Shea McClellin. McClellin rose up draft boards late in the process, with teams like the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots reportedly coveting him as a rush linebacker in their 3-4 schemes.
Only problem: the Bears don't play a 3-4, they play a 4-3. In Lovie Smith's Cover-2, McClellin will have his hand on the ground to rush the passer and will be dealing with mammoth NFL tackles on every play.
It's true, McClellin's first training camp has been chalk full of 'welcome to the NFL' moments. I've seen him practice up close twice. He's definitely struggled. This is to be expected for any rookie, even a first round pick, though it's a little jarring that he's been getting owned by the likes of J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams.
Tonight, we see what Shea can do for real. I expect him to get plenty of playing time, as the Bears try to figure out if their first round pick is strong enough to play defensive end. As long as Lovie Smith is the coach, he won't have a choice.
3. Safety First
Outside of one quality season from Chris Harris, safety play has been a major issue for the Bears since the departure of Mike Brown. They've cycled through a number of players and have spent several mid-round draft picks trying to correct this, but it hasn't done much good up to this point. Hopefully Major Wright and Chris Conte can change that.
Wright is entering his third season, Conte his second. The Bears' defense is loaded with established veterans, but Wright and Conte amount to a pair of young, high-upside players for Chicago. Conte looked pretty good as a rookie last season; Wright has struggled in the NFL thus far, though it certainly appears as if he has the size, athletcism and tools to turn into a dependable starter. Each has received positive reviews out of training camp.
If the Bears' Super Bowl aspirations are to come to fruition, the last line of defense will have to live up to their end fo the bargain. Let's hope Manning and Caleb Hanie (ha!) aren't beating Chicago over the top for any big plays tonight. That would be an ominous sign.
4. Can The O-Line Get Some?
Listen: it's only the preseason, but any sign of moderate improvement from the Bears' offensive line will certainly be a welcomed sight. These dudes improved, in my estimation, from about a D- through the first six weeks of last season to somewhere near a C. Again: if the Bears are going to reach their lofty expectations this season, it's going to require the offensive line to improve again. Every contender has a weakness, but none can afford a bleeding weakness. The offensive line doesn't have to be great, it just can't be atrocious.