Chicago football fanatics are used to wearing a blindfold for the majority of the calendar year before accurately gauging the pulse of their beloved Bears.
More often than not, the true colors of the team only bleed through the fabric after months of toying with the hopes and emotions of the fanbase.
Last season, it took until late December to fully grasp that the Monsters of the Midway would see their playoff (and title) hopes dashed yet again.
But it’s not only the uncertainty of an upcoming campaign that makes the question mark the perfect banner in the Windy City.
Nor is the arrival of Marc Trestman and company solely responsible for the ambiguity. No, the question mark that punctuates the end of the words “Chicago Bears” resonates so well because they saunter into next season as a team without a defined place in the NFL hierarchy.
At the top, there are the exclamation points, the teams seated in pole position to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy. You’ll hear their names proclaimed with conviction in each of their respective cities: The Packers! The 49ers! The Patriots! The fans know that they lay claim to a dynastic product in their own backyard, and they want you to know it too.
To the other extreme, there are the periods. You’ll only hear the names of these perennial failures grumbled softly under the breath of disappointed supporters, but if you listen closely, you can discern their names: The Raiders. The Cardinals. The Jaguars.
If you’re lucky, you might catch one of these squads after a rare victory and catch a brief glimpse of confidence from the fanbase. Otherwise, the football chatter is kept to a minimum in areas cursed by a period franchise.
In the middle lies the sea of question marks, the teams that appear talented enough to succeed but don’t have the pedigree or track record to engender a sense of blind confidence from their support base. Some are stronger than others, but all share in their sense of uncertainty, and their annual quest to define themselves on the field, one way or the other.
For the Bears, the question mark will either flatten into a period come late fall or straighten into an exclamatory mark of joy if the team survives until early winter. Here are a few of the small question marks that combine to create the larger questionable whole which defines the 2013 Bears. Chicago faithful can only hope that 2014 will commence with declarations of “The Bears!” instead of another forgettable flub.
Can the new look offensive line create chemistry in year one?
This isn’t an evaluation of the changes made to the protection this offseason. Frankly, a group of refrigerator boxes could have protected Jay Cutler better than the supposedly more mobile men tasked with the duty in 2012.
Jermon Bushrod brings multiple Pro Bowls from the Big Easy and Matt Slauson presents a formidable-if-unspectacular interior upgrade. Roberto Garza remains slightly above replacement level, J’Marcus Webb only stands to improve after kicking over to the right side and young guards Kyle Long and James Brown have both shown promise during offseason activities.
However, the Bears will likely roll into 2013 with only one player manning the same spot that he did last season (Garza), which can lead to communication breakdowns as players adjust to a new alignment. Some of the best offensive lines in the league- the Patriots and 49ers of the world- achieve success with continuity.
The upgraded talent up front may be deemed a failure if the group experiences extended growing pains.
How quickly will players adjust to Marc Trestman’s new offensive scheme?
One of Trestman’s cornerstones as an offensive mastermind is his adapted West Coast Offense. Jay Cutler has called his adjustment to a new offense a three year process, but a veteran laden Bears squad has little time for long-term projects at this stage in the game (not to mention Cutler himself, in the last year of his contract).
Some components of Trestman’s West Coast already appear well in place: a multi-faceted running back and receivers who can consistently line up outside to spread the field, to name a pair.
But Cutler and Trestman must realize that when the clock starts ticking in week one, a much larger clock will simultaneously continue counting down the minutes on the Bears’ short term window of opportunity.
Any defined offense seems like rocket science compared to Mike Tice’s vanilla scheme, and one must wonder how well Cutler, Forte, and Brandon Marshall can function when only given time to grasp the more complex formations at a rudimentary level.
Is Lance Briggs capable of commanding a top-flight defense?
Yes, the Brian Urlacher question, but with a more relevant approach.
Instead of placing an overarching onus on the entire defense to perform in lieu of their leader’s departure, focusing on how Briggs can command a playbook seems much more pertinent in determining the ability of the unit to transition smoothly into 2013.
New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker plans to keep Lovie Smith’s 4-3, Cover-2 blueprint intact. Briggs has been asked to direct the play call in the huddle through OTAs and will likely do so through the regular season after the departure of both Urlacher and strong side starter Nick Roach.
Briggs has always operated with a predator's mentality and charmed reporters with his wit off the field, but whether or not he can command a defense as the central cog remains to be seen.
Will any of Phil Emery’s draft choices make a significant impact?
The question applies to both the 2012 and 2013 draft classes. Second year draftees Alshon Jeffery and Shea McClellin showed flashes of promise last season which were often followed by elongated stretches of curious absence or outright poor play. Third-rounder Brandon Hardin returns after a season-ending injury whisked him away from the gridiron before he could record a single professional snap.
The 2013 group, headlined by guard Kyle Long and linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, will undoubtedly hear a consistent call to action as first year players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
If the upcoming season ends without at least one cemented starter from either of the last two draft classes support for general manager Phil Emery stands to take a dive.
Is Jay Cutler a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback?
The “Jay Cutler as a franchise quarterback” argument takes the crown as the most important, most obvious and most overstated debate in Windy City football banter by a sizeable stretch.
Every pundit has their own earth-shattering opinion to fan the flames of discussion, but two fact s are nearly indisputable amidst the chaos.
1. Jay Cutler has not proven himself worthy of the title “franchise cornerstone” since setting foot in Chicago.
2. 2013 is a put-up-or-shut-up campaign that will either end in a lucrative payday for the man under center or a search for a new quarterback.
The skill positions are staffed by some of the top performers in the league. The line is likely still a few steps below elite, but by recent standards presents a clear upgrade. No Bears offense since the '80s has been as capable of supporting a top tier passer as this bunch.
Your move, Jay.