The mantra of the Bears has been that these next two seasons is about winning a championship that Lovie Smith faces a playoffs or bust year. Smith must win to save his job or he will be entering the final year of his contract as a lame duck head coach. The Bears were defending NFC North champions and played in the NFC title game in 2010 and 7-3 before Jay Cutler went down. These are all the things talked about on a consistent basis with the Bears this off-season. Throw in the arrival of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Michael Bush to round out weapons for Jay Cutler and the talk starts to head towards thoughts of a hoisting a Halas trophy at a minimum, perhaps even the Lombardi trophy.
While thoughts of winning a Lombardi trophy are legitimate, Bear fans need to balance this talk with long term perspective regarding Smith and his tenure in Chicago. The season narrative surrounding the Bears should no longer be about a good aging defense with an offense that does enough to win games. With Cutler entering the prime his career the defining characteristic of Lovie Smith's team should be about an offense that begins to rewrite the history books in Chicago, and does so by leading this team into a new era.
Thought number one, an aging and consistent defense needs young talent to emerge and show signs of being leaders for the future. There are players who are ready to emerge and be leaders of a defense that doesn't drop off much in production once Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman retire. Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, D.J. Moore, Chris Conte and Shea McClellin represent the best of the young talent the Bears have on defense, they represent the future. Melton, and Moore all need to take the next step in their development for the Bears. Paea, Conte and McClellin need to prove they can play in this league and be players that can be stars in the next two to three years. Melton shows signs of being a star and he needs to fill that role in the final year of his contract and his third full year playing. The third year playing is the year that you can best evaluate a player and Melton has a potential to be one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Five players who could all be starters for the Bears over the next five to eight years and represent the future of this defense. Smith's specialty is defense so these players need to take that next leap forward.
With concern surrounding the age of the defense and just how much production this group will experience in the coming one to two years, the attention now more than ever may be on the offense. The offense now has veteran players that can be counted on, with the trade for Brandon Marshall making it one of the best threesomes in the NFL. Jay Cutler Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall represent one of the top three sets of triplets in the NFL. Now more than ever the offense needs to produce, and produce at a high level. The goal should be to be one of the top five offenses in the NFL, what should be acceptable is one of the top-10 offenses in the league. Concerns obviously surround the offensive line, but since these coaches trust so much in these five players the O-Line needs to perform at a level that results in this offense producing at a level Bears fans are not familiar with. Lovie's specialty is defense but the weapons that exist on offense mean it's high time for the offense to carry the team and give the defense a bit of a break every so often.
This is the most important key in evaluating Smith's tenure in Chicago will be how the offense performs. Smith needs to turn the offense loose like he never has before. Smith all too often has relied on his defense to win games, now in this era with the weapons the Bears have on offense, Smith needs to let Tice and Bates rip it. Too many times we've seen Lovie Smith get up by 14 and then on offense the Bears go into their four minute drill, with four minutes left in the first quarter. The offense needs to show it can hang with Green Bay, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, New England and win football games going away. The offense needs to be a balance between conservative approach Smith like and the reckless and arrogant approach that Mike Martz enjoyed. That middle ground is consistently killer where the Bears are among the best in red-zone touchdown percentage, among the best in third down conversions, are among the best in short yardage situations, dominate time of possession and near the bottom in offensive turnovers. The offense needs to be able to go 80-plus yards at just about any moment during the game, essentially bring a smile to Brian Urlacher's face. This should be the season in time where the offense takes the lead and is the engine that makes this team go. Not because the defense is incapable, but because it's something that hasn't existed in Chicago in a long time.
These three essential ingredients are what Lovie Smith's tenure in Chicago should be evaluated on. Making a deep run into the playoffs is nice and should be the goal but it's high time the glaring and obvious weaknesses are replaced by resounding statements of success and growth. No longer should Lovie Smith's tenure be defined by a good defense with aging stars and offensive ineptitude that does just enough to help the Bears win games. Jay Cutler is in his prime and has weapons to light up the score board.
The future should start now and a near decade of consistency should follow.