There’s only one best-case scenario in the NFL: You win a ring.
On the other hand, worst-case scenarios can go in a bunch of different ways, and I always have preferred to save the best for last, so let’s get the nasty stuff out of the way first.
The worst possible case for the Bears in 2013 starts with the possibility that hiring Marc Trestman to be the head coach was not the stroke of genius general manager Phil Emery believes it was. What if it turns out that there was a reason (or reasons) Trestman has been out of the league since 2004, and he has no more luck than Lovie Smith, Ron Turner, Mike Martz or Mike Tice had unlocking the magic we all believe is buried somewhere inside of Jay Cutler? And what if it turns out Cutler just doesn’t have the people skills or just can’t speak or understand enough NFL football to be all that he can be?
Worse yet, suppose the offensive line is no better this year than it’s been the past few years.
J’Marcus Webb at any other position still could be J’Marcus Webb. There is at least one reason, if not several reasons, that the Jets and Jaguars didn’t want Matt Slauson and Eben Britton back. Kyle Long never will have more than four starts in college before he plays his first NFL game. Roberto Garza, hopefully, won’t start to slip, but it’s not likely he’s getting better as he turns 34.
And even though the Bears are paying Jermon Bushrod like an elite left tackle – he’s good, not great – he might find playing in front of Cutler a lot different than protecting Drew Brees. And what if it turns out Martellus Bennett is no more than the journeyman tight end he’s been his first five years in the league?
All of that would just mean the offense hasn’t been fixed. But where things really could get ugly is if the defense that has carried this franchise over the past decade or more no longer is the dominant force it has been.
Brian Urlacher was the face of the franchise for the past 13 years, and he is retired. D.J. Williams will be more athletic than the injured Urlacher was last year, but it’s unrealistic to believe he can be the force Urlacher was. Israel Indonije was the Bears’ second-best defensive lineman, and he’s in Detroit. The Bears are counting on 2012 first-round draft choice Shea McClellan to emerge as a force in Indonije’s spot, but if he doesn’t, the Bears will struggle to rush the passer consistently, and that will have a ripple effect thoughout the defense.
For this defense to carry the Bears for stretches of the season, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman will have to play like the All-Pros they’ve been. As each marches deeper into his mid-30s, particularly after seeing how quickly Urlacher’s impact diminished, their ability to do that is a major concern.
Finally, injuries always are a concern, and I hate to even go there as we never want to see anyone get hurt. But this is a team with virtually no depth or young talent on the rise because of the failures of the Jerry Angelo regime in the draft. Should either Cutler, Peppers or Briggs be forced to miss significant time with injuries, the Bears will have no chance of playing in the postseason.
The worst-possible case for the 2013 Bears is that the offense fails to improve and Cutler, once again, finds more wrong with what they’re doing than right; the defense fails to produce the takeaways that have been its staple in recent seasons and is unable to keep games close; and Peppers, Briggs and Tillman all start their slides down the backside of the hill.
Fear that perfect storm, because, if it happens, the Bears will be a 4-12 or 5-11 team, and the fix will be at least a few years down the road.
Thankfully, that’s out of the way. And just for the record, I don’t believe there’s any chance the worst case will become reality. I also don’t believe the 2013 Bears are going to the Super Bowl, but under the heading of a best-case scenario for this season, there is a road map the Bears could follow there.
There are a number of highly respected NFL insiders I’ve spoken with the past few months who believe Trestman is an offensive savant, and that Cutler is exactly what he needs to finally prove his genius to the rest of the league.
Anyone who knows anything about the game and has watched Cutler play knows that he has unique gifts and more than enough physical ability to be an elite quarterback. The key is whether he will drink the Kool-Aid that Trestman serves up?
Brandon Marshall is one of the best receivers in the league, and Matt Forte and Michael Bush are as good a one-two punch at running back as you’ll find anywhere. While Bennett isn’t special, he’s a huge upgrade at tight end, and while the offensive line is unlikely to be special, it might be perfectly maleable to adequately accomplish exactly what Trestman wants to do.
If Alshon Jeffrey and Earl Bennett still can take one more giant step forward at receiver – what I’m about to say might sound like a foreign language no living Bears fan ever has heard – these 2013 Bears could boast a top 10 offense and swap points with the best of them.
The defense will not be as good as it was in 2012 and probably wouldn’t have been even if Urlacher, Idonije and Nick Roach all were back and they still were adding Williams and the two rookie linebackers. The defense scored nine touchdowns last season, and only one defense in NFL history ever has scored more.
But if another year of wear doesn’t slow Peppers, Briggs and Tillman, each unit still will be anchored by one of the best in the game at their positions. Corey Wooton was the most improved player on defense last year, and he, Henry Melton, Williams and Tim Jennings are capable of having big moments.
The other thing I love about the upside of this group is that I expect Sedrick Ellis to prove to be one of the biggest steals of 2013 in free agency, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him return to his Pro-Bowl form under Mel Tucker.
The defense will allow more yards and more points than it did last year, most likely will have fewer turnovers, and, almost certainly, won’t score as many points. But it could very well be stout enough to win as many as 10 games again or possibly more with a vastly improved offense to take significant pressure off it.
One more cause for optimism is the schedule. True, based on last year’s performances, it appears to be a much tougher slate than 2012. But it doesn’t include San Francisco and Seattle, which both beat the Bears last year, and you won’t find Atlanta on it either. Those are the only three teams in the NFC that I really couldn’t in good conscience pick the Bears to beat short of some miraculous fall off from those clubs this year. And it’s quite possible the Steelers and Ravens, whom the Bears will face, could be looking at somewhat sub-par years next to what we’ve come to expect from them in recent seasons.
Again, I just can’t see this team in the Super Bowl this year. But if everything I’ve laid out goes right, it’s not impossible to imagine the Bears in an NFC title game against the Niners, Seahawks or Falcons. Much like that 4-12 disaster I diagrammed above, I don’t see the Bears in the NFC title game, but it won’t be the craziest thing that ever has happened if it does.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears and pro football for Shaw Media. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.