By Tom Pollin
CHFF's Black & Blue Correspondent

What a difference a year makes. After being a B.J. Raji pick-6 away from facing the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, general manager Jerry Angelo decided the team was only a few minor roster moves away from being able to clear that last hurdle and make possible a trip south on I-65 to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.

The Bears drafted tackle Gabe Carimi with their first pick and signed a trio of Dallas Cowboys; running back Marion Barber and receivers Roy Williams and Sam Hurd in their major roster moves last offseason. It was the team’s non-move that eventually had the most impact on the 2011 season though. Because Caleb Hanie came within 29-yards of leading the Bears to a tying score in the NFC championship game, it was decided that he could be promoted to the No. 2 quarterback position behind Jay Cutler and no other veteran backup would be necessary.

A slow start had the Bears holding on for their playoff lives but they came roaring back to take control of their destiny with a 7-3 record until a dislocated thumb sidelined Cutler for what turned out to be the remainder of the season. From that point the Bears’ season took on the appearance of the Hindenburg landing as they crashed and burned while the front office and fans looked on, stunned at how quickly it all fell apart.

2011 Storyline: The Bears saw Caleb Hanie come within 29-yards of tying the NFC Championship Game and sending it to overtime the previous season but turned a blind eye to the two interceptions he threw, including the pick-6 to B.J. Raji that put the game out of reach at 21-7.

When Cutler went down with the dislocated thumb Hanie was given the keys to the offense with the Bears only needing victories in three of their final six games to assure a playoff spot. Unfortunately Hanie showed that his performance in the NFC Championship game wasn’t a fluke. At times, he looked like a genuine quarterback but not enough to overcome the mistakes, turnovers and generally mediocrity that defined his overall performance.

The Bears had been on a five game win streak but with Cutler unable to play, they went on a five game losing streak to fall out of the playoff race before winning the “Who Cares” bowl against the Vikings in the final game of the season to finish 8-8.

The Vital Signs
Coach (record): Lovie Smith (71-57 with Chicago; 71-57 overall)
2011 Record: 8-8 (20.8 PPG – 20.1 PPG)
Record against the spread: 8-8
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-4 (21.8 PPG – 23.5 PPG)
Record last five seasons: 42 - 38
Best Quality Stat in 2011: Scoreability (7th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011: Real Quarterback Rating (27th)

17 8 7 11 23 13 27 10 24 8 19 25 18 11
Overall =Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS= Quality Standings; SCOR = Scorability; Bend = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

Statistical curiosity of 2011: Until his season came to an end from a knee injury, Matt Forte was leading the NFL in Yards from Scrimmage while running behind an offensive line that ranked 25th in the Offensive Hog Index. Even after missing the final quarter of the season he was 10th in Yards from Scrimmage and only three yards away from rushing for 1,000 yards for the second season in a row. In 2010 Forte finished 10th in yards from scrimmage behind a line that ranked dead last in the Offensive Hog Index.

Best Game of 2011: 30-24 win at Philadelphia on Monday night (Week 9). The Bears were 8-1/2 point underdogs and played like a team that had something to prove. The Eagles converted two turnovers for 14 points to keep the game close but in every other way the Bears dominated the night in one of the most complete team victories they recorded in 2011. Their front seven only sacked Mike Vick once but chased him all over the backfield the entire game and hit him hard a number of times. This was only the second game in Jay Cutler’s Bears’ career where he wasn’t sacked. Cutler also threw two touchdown passes, no interceptions and finished the game with a passer rating of 96.9. Matt Forte pitched in with 133 yards on 24 carries and also caught three passes for 17 yards. When the game clock hit 00:00 the team was in full control of its playoff destiny for the first time in the season.

Worst Game of 2011: 13–10 loss at Denver (Week 14). It’s not an understatement to say that all of Bears’ fandom felt like Wile E. Coyote crushed under another boulder when Matt Prater’s 51 yard field goal split the uprights. The Bears led 10-0 as the game wound down below the five minute mark when a series of blunders (some would claim divine/Tebow intervention) had them snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Marion Barber running out of bounds which stopped the clock for Denver when they had no timeouts remaining and provided them with time to drive into range for a tying field goal. In overtime at the Denver 33, Barber broke through the line and into the secondary before being stripped of the ball. Denver recovered and a few plays later Tim Tebow had another comeback victory added to his resume.

Strength: Linebackers and Pass Defense. The Bears struggled in all phases of the game in the first five weeks of the season as they stumbled out to a 2-3 record. To be fair, two of those games were against the high powered Green Bay and New Orleans offenses and the third was against all-world rookie quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Defensive 10 Week Quality Stat Breakdown
Quality Stat Index Through Week 5 Through Week 10
Bendability 8 6
Real Passing YPA 20 10
Real Quarterback Rating 29 14
Defensive Passer Rating 24 7
Passer Rating Differential 23 13
Defensive Hog Index 30 27

The next five weeks saw a significant climb into the top half of the NFL rankings in all categories except the Defensive Hog Index where their Negative Pass Play percentage ranking dragged them down in that ranking the entire season. Brian Urlacher has the ability to play both the run and pass. He has the lateral quickness to fill running lanes and is the key to the "cover-2" pass coverage with his ability to drop back into the middle of the field and act as a third safety. Both he and Lance Briggs led the team in tackles in 2011. No. 3 on the team in tackles was cornerback Charles Tillman who also had one of his best seasons in pass coverage. Tillman drew the assignment of the opponent's No. 1 receiver each week, had three interceptions and led the team in passes defended, even though he was rarely challenged by opposing quarterbacks. All three were elected to the Pro Bowl last season, Tillman for the first time in his career.

Weakness: Offensive Line/Wide Receiver.Jay Cutler was sacked 52 times in 2010, by far the most of any quarterback. The next highest total was 40 times for Joe Flacco. To address that, the Bears drafted tackle Gabe Carimi out of Wisconsin with their first pick in the draft. It was announced that he was being brought in to start at left tackle but he ended up playing right tackle when the season began. It didn’t matter much since he injured his knee week 2 against the Saints and ended up on injured reserve for the season. In the end, there was zero improvement in pass protection by the Bears' offensive line in 2011. Bears' quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, five more times than the next highest total of 44 for Alex Smith of the 49ers.

Since the Bears made the trade for Jay Cutler they’ve failed to provide anyone more competent than Earl Bennett at the receiver position. While Bennett has been Cutler’s favorite third down receiver with his ability to haul in nearly any pass thrown within the same zip code as he is, Bennett would be no better than a No. 3 within a quality receiving corps. They’ve had mixed results at the position with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox and there’s no telling when Knox may be ready to resume full contact workouts again after the horrific hit he suffered against Seattle in week 15 last season.

As for the rest of last season’s receivers, Roy Williams was signed and brought in to be the No. 1 receiver because of his 6’ 4” size, which would have been a great signing if Williams hadn’t played like he was 5’ 10”. Dane Sanzenbacher was signed as an undrafted free agent after being the leading receiver at Ohio State his senior year, which is the equivalent of winning Miss Congeniality at a beauty pageant. 40 years from now Sanzenbacher should be fondly remembering that one season he spent in the NFL. As for Sam Hurd, he’ll be MVP in the Federal Penal League soon.

General off-season strategy/overview: The Bears’ inability to draft and develop players has led to a depth problem in every position group on the team. They still have a talented starting lineup on offense and defense that can compete at a high level, but their window for making another deep playoff run with that lineup is closing fast.

On defense, linebackers Brian Urlacher is 33 years old and is an 11 year veteran and Lance Briggs is 31 with eight years in the league. Charles Tillman is 30 and was in his eighth season. With no successfully developed back-ups at their positions the Bears need to hope none of these three lose substantial time to injury in 2012.

The Bears also will need secondary help with only Tillman and D.J. Moore currently under contract at cornerback. Major Wright and rookie Chris Conte played well at safety when they were paired together but Wright’s ability to stay on the field more than two games in a row has become a big question mark. Craig Steltz provided some solid play last season and is the only other option the Bears currently have available since Brandon Merriweather took up permanent residence in the Lovie Smith doghouse and very likely won't be back.

There has been a lot of talk lately that the Bears should target a receiver in the first round of the 2012 draft but if they want to get better immediately at that position, free agency is where to look. With the wealth of receiver talent on the market for the coming free agent period, if the Bears can’t land anyone who can step in as, at minimum, a No. 2 then Phil Emery was the wrong man to bring in as general manager of the team.

As for offensive linemen, all Bears fans should think back to the mid-80’s “Shufflin’ Crew” edition of the team. The foundation of that team was put together by Hall of Fame general manager Jim Finks who had a simple formula for building a team that was meant to win over the long haul. In the first round of his drafts Finks drafted linemen, on offense and defense, with the occasional linebacker or safety thrown in, and he rarely missed on an early round pick. He built the 70’s Vikings the same way. It works and it’s how the Bears and Phil Emery should approach the upcoming draft.

Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: The patient is at a critical point and can go either way, depending on what moves are made in the coming months. Because the Jerry Angelo years were marked by so many subpar, and a couple of completely abysmal drafts it’s going to take more than one free agency and draft cycle to put a solid foundation for long-term success in place. If the Bears’ core starters can stay injury free for another season, they’ll be serious contenders to make a deep run into the playoffs, even with being in the same division as the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

The likely scenario is that the long, slow downward slide begins on the defensive side of the ball after so many years of excellence out of the core group. Green Bay will still be a Super Bowl caliber team and the Lions have built a solid foundation that should lead to a long run of winning football. The Bears are going to need time to begin closing the talent gap that exists between them and the elite of their division and conference.

Besides the teams in their own division the Bears play the NFC and AFC South next season. While that means they have to face the 49ers, Texans and the improving Arizona Cardinals, it also gives them games against the Rams, Colts and Jaguars. After looking at the entire list of teams they face next season, unless the Bears stay completely healthy and don't lose key players to injury, matching their 2011 season of 8-8 is realistically about the best record they can expect.