Only the most optimistic of the Chicago Bears Kool-Aid drinkers thought this current Bears team would be in first place with an easy chance at double digit wins this late in the season. In fact, most fans were thinking that this might be Lovie Smith's final season as head coach. Instead, this resilient Bears squad has clawed its way to a 9-4 record and the division lead.

Still, the surprising success does not mask the fact that this team has holes. A national audience watched the New England Patriots rip apart the Bears on Sunday, and if the vestiges of that carnage don't tell you something, perhaps the sight of QB Jay Cutler's prone body laying on the turf 43 times this season screams a bit louder that changes are needed.

But even if this team didn't have blemishes, consider the fact that the Bears have some players eligible for free agency following the season. For example, on an already shaky offensive line, Olin Kreutz can walk after the season.

It is with all this in mind that we examine the moves the Bears may make this off-season in order to continue contending into the near future.

Improve the Offensive Line Through the Draft and Free Agency

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 03:  Logan Mankins #70 of the  New England Patriots looks on before the game against the New York  Giants on September 3, 2009 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro,  Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

In what is perhaps the most obvious statement this side of "gee it's been awhile since those Cubbies have won a World Series", the offensive line is a problem that requires remediation by Jerry Angelo after the season.

For one, he will have to make a decision on the status of potential free agent center Olin Kreutz. Next, he should draft an O-lineman in the early rounds, and sign a free agent left tackle to protect Jay Cutler's blind side.

On some teams, a guy like Kreutz, who is no longer playing at a Pro Bowl level and who will be playing 2011 at age 34, might be expendable.

However, given all of the challenges already facing this line, Angelo probably wants to re-sign Kreutz. He also needs to take a hard look at former first round pick Chris Williams, swallow some pride and move on. This is not to say that they should release him—that certainly will not happen— but do not count on him as a starter beyond this season.

While the line did play better after the bye week this season, much of that was Mike Martz having to completely move away from his playbook and I can't see him doing that for another year, assuming he is still around in 2011.

Now, we don't know how the labor unrest will affect the status of players, but going by the list of potential free agents from around the NFL, there will certainly be some guys who can come in and improve this line.

The first thing they should do is steal Logan Mankins from New England. A lesser option would be to sign Charlie Williams from the Colts, who is good but not elite.

Angelo should also draft a lineman in the early rounds of the NFL draft. If OT Derek Sherrod from Mississippi State is still around when the Bears pick in the first round, they should grab him.

Address Their Own Free Agents

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 28: Danieal Manning #38 of the  Chicago Bears fields a kick against the Philadelphia Eagles at Soldier  Field on November 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the  Eagles 31-26. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In addition to Kreutz, there are eight other potential Bears free agents. Some of them, like Rashied Davis and Caleb Haney, should be sent packing. But others either need to be retained or replaced through free agency or the draft. If nothing else, some of these guys are needed for depth.

Desmond Clark will almost certainly be gone; hell, they refuse to use him now. The same goes for Garrett Wolfe. But Anthony Adams and Nick Roach should at least be given some consideration unless they want raises. In that case, they can go away.

Pisa Tinoisamoa, if he can stay healthy, is a good player and is worthy of being re-signed. And Danieal Manning deserves to return for his return skills as well as his versatility.

An interesting question will be punter Brad Maynard. He has never had the strongest leg around, but is one of the best at placing the ball inside the 20. Even at 37 they may wish to bring him back on a short deal.

Get a Better Backup QB

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 03:  Todd Collins #10 of  the Chicago Bears lays on the field after getting injured against the  New York Giants at New Meadowlands Stadium on October 3, 2010 in East  Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Image
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Todd Collins experiment did not work out and there is no evidence that Caleb Haney is ever going to be an NFL QB. So the Bears need to go out and obtain a real backup QB in case Cutler goes through another season of getting flattened like a pancake.

Do the names of potential free agents Marc Bulger, Matt Moore, Jordan Palmer, Seneca Wallace, Drew Stanton, Matt Leinart, Luke McCown, Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen, Jim Sorgi, Mark Brunell, Kellen Clemens, Bruce Gradkowski, Alex Smith, Troy Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins and Chris Simms do anything for you?

Tavaris Jackson is also eligible for free agency, but with Favre retiring, it would seem that the Vikings will hang onto him.

Oh, and there is this certain Eagles QB who can be a free agent after the season, but he is definitely not a backup. And there is always Rex Grossman. Moving on...

Do NOT Offer Contract Extensions To Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo

LAKE FOREST, IL - MAY 4: The head coach Lovie Smith (L)  and general manager Jerry Angelo of the Chicago Bears look over players  during a rookie mini-camp practice at Halas Hall May 4, 2007 in Lake  Forest, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears must avoid the temptation for a knee-jerk reaction by extending the contracts of their head coach and GM. Despite the success this season, there are still legitimate questions about the coaching ability of Lovie and the drafting and talent judgement of Jerry. It's not as if one year wipes out three bad ones.

It may be better for the long-term health of the Bears organization to get a new GM, which also means a new coach. That won't happen after this season due to 1) the money owed them; 2) the labor unrest; and 3) the success in 2010.

But avoiding an extension means that we can judge this tandem after the 2011 season.

Go Wide...Receiver, That Is

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 05:  Brett Favre #4 of the  Minnesota Vikings talks with Sidney Rice #18 on the sideline during the  game against the Buffalo Bills at the Mall of America Field at the  Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on December 5, 2010 in Minneapoli
Nick Laham/Getty Images

As much as young guys like Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett tease us, there is not a legitimate number one or two WR among the current crop. Could they evolve into ones? Doubtful. But twos? Sure. Even so, Cutler needs someone else to throw to.

Another offensive weapon such as a veteran wideout would be helpful, even if it isn't a true number one. No matter what, I would draft someone in the early rounds.

It's unlikely that the Packers would let him go, but Donald Driver is a free agent after the season. Similarly, a much younger Sidney Rice is actually free after the season, though it would take big bucks to sign him. Still, it's not often that a 24 year-old wideout is on the market. Meanwhile, his ex-teammate Randy Moss is available, but the Bears already passed on him earlier in the season.

Almost all of the Jets and Chargers wideouts will be free, including the Jets' Santonio Holmes. Other FAs include the Falcons' Brian Finneran; the Ravens' tandem of TJ Houshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth and Santana Moss.

Hey, T.O. has had a nice year...

Draft Intelligently in the Early Rounds


Angelo certainly has had his share of early round misses. He's been better in the later rounds, but overall it has not been a pretty picture.

This off-season will be the first time in a while that the Bears have even had an early round pick. Last year, their first choice was Major Wright in the third round.

As suggested earlier, the Bears should look to grab an offensive lineman early (and at least one more later) and a wideout. Since you paid such a high price for Cutler, it makes sense to surround him with talent.

Avoid the Offensive Coordinator Carousel

CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 28: Offensive coordinator Mike Martz  of the Chicago Bears watches as the Bears take on the Philadelphia  Eagles at Soldier Field on November 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The  Bears defeated the Eagles 31-26. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Ge
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jay Cutler has had a lack of consistency in his coaching since coming to Chicago and some believe that has affected his play. Last season, he clearly never jelled with the tandem of Ron Turner and Pep Hamilton, but he truly seems to have bought into the Mike Martz system.

Except that this is not the Martz system. Tight ends that catch the ball? A QB that rolls out? A balanced offense?

But since Martz has demonstrated the willingness to adjust, why not bring him back next year and see if the consistency pays off?

Hey, a Little Luck Doesn't Hurt!


You make your own luck, they say. While that may be true, sometimes injuries just happen and can't be avoided. Much of the success in 2010 can be attributed to good health, including the return of Brian Urlacher.

If the core veterans can stay healthy in 2011, giving time for the new guys to mesh and the drafted players time to learn, that will allow the team to contend while still building for the near future.

Work on Tackling in Camps and Preseason

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: BenJarvus Green-Ellis #42 of  the New England Patriots runs against the Chicago Bears at Soldier  Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated  the Bears 36-7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the ongoing problems with the Lovie Smith Bears is that the tackling at times has been sloppy. Now, one valid reason is that the defense preaches taking the ball away, and it's hard to wrap up when you're trying to strip the ball.

Don't expect Smith to change his defense, but tackling is something that can be worked on and should be the focus immediately from the first workout to full pad contact and into the preseason games.

Forget about changing from a base cover 2 scheme; that's what Lovie knows and he's not going to change. But this defense needs to tackle better.

Limit Devin Hester to Returing Kicks and Punts

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: Devin Hester #23 of the  Chicago Bears runs against the New England Patriots at Soldier Field on  December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears  36-7. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Look, the Hester-as-receiver experiment will never produce the true number one wideout the Bears had hoped for, so let the man focus on what he does best and go out and acquire and/or draft for help in the receiving corps.

As soon as Devin was used more in the offense, his priorities changed and the thing he did best, returning kicks and punts, suffered.

This year, he has once again returned to glory as his workload has been reduced. So imagine if he's allowed to focus entirely on returns. We could be witness to an historic season in 2011.

Sure, put him out there occasionally or use him in a trick play once in awhile, but do not ask him to be a wide receiver in this offense. Isn't it good enough to be one of the best ever at doing one thing?

By Bob Warja


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