Chicago Sun Times via Richard Milz
Are the Bears for real? Long snapper Patrick Mannelly, a remnant of the Dave Wannstedt era, has been around here too long to fall for that one.
‘‘We’ve started off 3-0 and that’s great. But we’ve had good starts before and fizzled or things have happened,’’ said Mannelly, who has played in a franchise-record 234 games with the Bears. ‘‘I don’t think you can say we’re better than we were in prior years. We’ve got a lot of games to go.
‘‘We were 7-1 last year [and didn’t make the playoffs]. We were 7-3 [in 2011] and playing some of the best football we’ve played since I’ve been here and Jay [Cutler] goes down. We’ve got the potential to be a pretty good team. But you can’t say that yet.’’
Bears coach Marc Trestman is even more adamant that the Bears’ 3-0 start is not an indicator of a breakthrough season for a team that has missed the playoffs five times in the last six seasons — despite records of 3-1 (2009), 7-3 (2010) and 7-1 (2012).
‘‘Past performance is no indication of future success. It can’t be,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘You’ve got to go out every day and earn it in practice and do it on Sunday.
‘‘Nothing in the past is relatable in my opinion, other than the fact that we have signs that we can be a good football team and we’ve got good people and good character in our locker room to get it done.’’
Trestman is new in town, but you don’t have to be here as long as Pat Mannelly to know that some of those signs are indeed indicators that what the Bears are doing now is real. Even Mannelly can see that.
‘‘Offensively you see a little difference [from previous teams] and a lot of that has to do with coach Trestman and his scheme, but also the talent we have,’’ Mannelly said. ‘‘We have an o-line that Jay has been sacked [only] three times. You look outside and see [wide receivers] Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and [tight end] Marty Bennett — I mean, we haven’t had that before. That makes a difference. Just as a fan sitting on the sideline watching, you look out there and say, ‘That’s a talented offense.’’’
It remains to be seen how much of a difference that will make, but already there are enough signs to indicate that general manager Phi Emery and Trestman are not building a house of cards.
That’s not to say the Bears are going to win the Super Bowl — though noted soothsayer and Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Ditka thinks they are. Like the rest of the NFL, the Bears are a key injury from returning to the non-playoff muck. If they don’t improve on offense and defense they will ultimately disappoint. But already there are indications this team will have more staying power than the faux contenders of previous years. Here’s a few to consider:
The Bears have two rookies — first-round pick Kyle Long and fifth-round pick Jordan Mills — not only starting on the right side of the offensive line, but playing well. When’s the last time that happened?
But it’s more than that. Trestman and his veteran staff have instilled a discipline and focus that allow players to maximize their potential. Cutler isn’t just better this season (94.0 passer rating, 10th in the NFL); he’s better at the right times — in the first quarter (117.0 rating) and the fourth (108.5).
The Bears, who had more false starts than all but five NFL teams last year (25), have not had a false start this season — the first time the Bears have not had a false start in three consecutive games since 2001. The Bears had 21 penalties through three games in 2012. They’ve had 11 this season. Sunday’s game at Ford Field — where the Bears had nine false starts in a 24-13 loss in 2011 — might be the ultimate test. But the Bears have given every indication they can handle it.
Trestman, a master of measured response and discipline, has a history of consistent performance — with his players and coaches and on the sideline.
His Montreal Alouettes teams in the CFL rarely slumped — only twice losing three games in a row. In five seasons in Montreal, his Alouettes never lost more than three games in any five-game stretch.
The Alouettes were nearly as good in the second half (29-16, .644) as they were in the first half of the season (30-15, .667). His only significant collapse came in 2011, when the Alouettes lost their last three games to finish 10-8, then lost to a sub-.500 team in their first playoff game. But that was after Trestman had won two Grey Cups in three appearances.
JAY CUTLER IS BETTER
In his previous four seasons with the Bears, Cutler has been a disappointment for a franchise quarterback whom the Bears traded two first-round draft picks to Denver for in 2009. His accuracy dropped form 60.5 in his first season to 58.0 in 2011, when he missed the last six games with a broken thumb.
Under Trestman, Cutler’s accuracy is at a career-high 67.3 percent. He’s still not perfect, but he recovered from fourth-quarter interceptions to throw game-winning touchdown passes against the Bengals and Vikings. He’s finishing strong, too. In his last five drop-backs of the first three games, Cutler has a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
BETTER OFFENSIVE LINE
Former GM Jerry Angelo deserves credit for acquiring Cutler, but it was Emery who recognized that Cutler has to be in a comfort zone. Emery revamped a shaky-at-best O-line with four newcomers — he signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson in free agency and drafted Long and Mills.
The Bears still are 22nd in total offense through three games, but the new line has protected Cutler (three sacks — he was sacked 11 times in the first three games last year) and avoided penalties. No false starts and two holding calls. Most of all, it has kept Cutler in a positive frame of mind — by this time last year, he already had shoved and berated J’Marcus Webb as they returned to the sideline after an aborted drive at Lambeau Field.
Even when the Bears were building their 7-1 first-half record, the potential for disaster was looming in a difficult second-half schedule that included the Texans, 49ers, Seahawks and Packers.
Things can always change in the NFL, but a similar scenario is less likely this season. The Bears play the Lions (2-1), Ravens (2-1), Cowboys (2-1) and Packers (1-2) at home in the second half and the Rams (1-2), Vikings (0-3), Browns (1-2) and Eagles (1-2) on the road. Unless the subtle but significant signs of progress are a mirage, the Bears will have the opportunity to build on their early success.
Chicago Sun Times via Richard Milz