When it’s time to look at who on the Bears is overrated, it would be taking the easy way out to pick from the four who were named to the Pro Bowl, and a mistake also. Brian Urlacher (who’s appeared on overrated lists at times), Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Matt Forte are all keys to the Bears’ success. So, while it’s easy to find underrated players that need more attention, who could be considered overrated on an 8-8 team? Turns out, I have a couple of opinions (surprise, surprise).
Overrated: The Offensive Line (Especially left tackle J’Marcus Webb)
One qualification here, the Bears’ offensive line is not overrated on a national media level. Most have doubts about the line’s ability to step up in quality to match the other upgrades the Bears have made during the offseason. The closer to Chicago you get though, the more an alternate view begins to emerge, despite the beating Jay Cutler has taken in the backfield during his three seasons in Chicago.
Jay Cutler has been sacked 110 times as a Bear, 59 times more than he was slammed to the turf during his three seasons in Denver. Cutler was sacked 52 times in 2010 to lead the league. The three quarterbacks that played in 2011 for the Bears, Cutler, Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown, were sacked 49 times.
J’Marcus Webb started the entire 2011 season at left tackle and was as Frank Omiyale-ish as his predecessor, the 2010 left tackle. He led the NFL in allowing 14 of those quarterback sacks and was also at the top of the NFL with eight false start penalties. One reason why he had that many false start penalties is he’s so slow getting out of his stance that he ends up looking like an amusement park turnstile as defensive ends speed past his outside shoulder.
Lovie Smith said in March at the owners meetings, “"I don't want to picture it that we are looking for a left tackle. We feel comfortable with J'Marcus Webb and Carimi. We like what we have right now for what we are going to do with them." It’s a wonder that with the line’s record in protecting Cutler that the support exists as high as it does among the coaching staff, but you must also take into account that the next time Smith criticizes a player publicly it will be when the weather forecast for Hades calls for a high temperature of 31 degrees and a chance of snow.
Bears’ fans will give you a number of reasons why the line, and by extension Webb, can’t help but be better next season (I’ve had some of these thrown my way more than once). Mike Martz, quarterback killer and his seven step drops have been banished from the team. 2010 first round draft pick Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams will have returned from injury. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice is tailoring his new offense to the line’s strengths. The linemen as a group are hungry and motivated to change the perception of their play. George Halas will sprinkle talent dust on them from heaven to help them improve and turn them into champions (guess which one of these I made up).
In both his seasons with the Bears as offensive coordinator, Martz was ordered, after meetings with Smith and Mike Tice before the halfway points of each season, to dial the offense back to fit the line's abilities to execute, which means that they were NOT blocking long developing plays through the entire 2010 and 2011 seasons. After the Smith/Tice interventions the line also received more help from the tight end and running backs to help with their assignments. In today’s NFL it’s important that these positions can get off the ball and into the play as soon as possible. Having them to delay and help block slows down the entire offense.
About Gabe Carimi, the word from the Bears is that he is on schedule to be healthy by the time training camp opens. Taking the team at its word is one thing, Carimi has played 1+ games as a professional. There’s not enough body of work yet to determine whether Carimi really is the answer at right tackle, or answer if he can stay healthy enough to play 16 games. Chris Williams was converted to guard after washing out at left tackle. Now the talk is that, with the failure of J’Marcus Webb to improve, he’s going to get another chance at left tackle.
Tice has said he plans to use more designed roll-outs. Cutler will also have more freedom at the line to call audibles, which Martz wouldn’t allow. The word is that Tice’s new offensive system will be tailored towards a run/pass balance. Unfortunately the Bears have not shown statistical proficiency in either area.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts site runs a series of Quality Stats
to analyze and predict team success. The Offensive Hog Index
is made up of three statistical measures to quantify which team has the best offensive line in football; these are Yards per Rush Attempt, Negative Pass Play percentage (how often a team’s pass plays end in either a sack or interception) and Third Down Success Rate. Each stat is measured separately then averaged to give an overall score. Based on pure numbers this line and its current personnel is among the worst in the NFL.
In 2010 the Bears were No. 23 with 3.89 yards per rush, No. 32 in negative pass plays at 14.6 percent (or one out of every seven drop backs) and No. 27 with a 32.8 percent third down success rate. Combined they ranked No. 32 of 32 teams for the season.
In 2011 they did improve slightly, ranking No. 10 with 4.42 yards per rush, No. 32 again in Negative Pass Plays at 13.2 percent and No. 27 with a 32.5 percent third down success rate which put them 25th in the league at the end of the season. Even though they were 10th in yards per rush, that number doesn’t tell the entire story. Their running game was stopped for a loss or no-gain on 24.1 percent of running plays.
Stripped of the emotional wishing of, "The offensive line has to get better because the rest of the offense will be better," this offensive line is not a viable professional unit that should have been addressed directly when the chance presented itself in free agency and the draft. Jay Cutler better have his peripheral vision finely tuned and his legs in shape by the time the 2012 season kicks off in September, he'll need them.
Underrated – Roberto Garza; Center
I know what you’re thinking; he just trashed the Bears’ overrated offensive line and now claims the anchor of that line is underrated. What the h*** is he drinking? To start with, it’s none of your business what I’m drinking and you can’t have any. Second, Garza stepped in seamlessly to replace Pro Bowl caliber center Olin Kruetz at center after playing guard since he came into the league in 2001.
After contract talks with Kruetz broke down just before training camp last summer, Garza was named the new starter at center. A week later the Bears signed free agent Chris Spencer, who had been a starter at center with the Seahawks. By the end of training camp, Spencer hadn’t beaten out Garza at center became the new starting right guard.
The most noticeable improvement from Garza taking over at center was in his snapping out of the shotgun formation. It was no secret that Kruetz hated the shotgun. Jay Cutler had to spend too much time watching the ball when taking a snap out of the shotgun from Kruetz. By the time he pulled the ball in he had the lost the ability to make quick downfield reads. Garza’s accuracy out of the shotgun allowed Cutler to feel for the ball while he processed what was happening around him.
In November, the Bears signed Garza to a two year contract extension to ensure the one part of the offensive line that worked will be around for a while to help with the rebuilding.
Overrated; Devin Hester – Wide Receiver
Note, I said wide receiver not kick returner. Again, wide receiver, not kick returner. Actually, the less time Hester spends at wide receiver, the better he is as a kick returner. Hester was drafted for his speed and return abilities, not for his potential as a defensive back (where he played in college). The mistake the Bears made was when they signed Hester to his extension they decided to justify the money he earned as a premier return man by using him at wide receiver.
Since that move was made in 2008, every offseason has been filled with “Devin is really making strides as a wide receiver”, or “Devin is showing that he’s something special” or any other variation on that theme. The problem that developed in 2008 and 2009 when the Bears were attempting to stuff this talented return man into a wide receiver slot was he became an average kickoff and punt returner. His punt return yardage average dropped by over 50 percent and his touchdowns dropped to zero.
This offseason has seen the ridiculousness climb to new heights. At the same owners meeting where he declared his support for the offensive line, Lovie Smith expressed his disappointment that Hester wasn’t used enough as a receiver last season. During OTA’s a couple of weeks ago Jay Cutler said, “Devin Hester is having the best camp of all the receivers.” New All-World wide receiver Brandon Marshall got into the act with, “Honestly I think he is going to have a bigger year than me this year.” If that’s the case then the Bears will be challenging the Vikings in the basement of the NFC North.
For every difficult catch that Hester makes he’ll drop another that was right on his hands. He’s also never been a very reliable route runner which forces Cutler to hold the ball a count longer to make sure he knows where Hester will be.
It appears that the Bears’ coaching staff is determined that Devin Hester will play an important role in the team’s offense. Based on past results, if they go through with this move it could be their biggest mistake as they start the season.
Underrated – Charles Tillman; Cornerback
You could say that Tillman has lifted himself from the ranks of the underrated after making the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career last season but his name is still absent when the discussion of lock-down corners takes place. It’s true that Tillman isn’t quite on a level with Ed Reed, Charles Woodson or Darrelle Revis but he’s a physical cornerback that can break a receiver off his route. He’s been called on to shut down the opponent’s number one man since he came to the Bears in 2003.
Tillman has the hands of a wide receiver and doesn’t miss when he locks onto a pass but his real value comes out when he’s moving into position against a ball carrier. For head coach Lovie Smith’s cover-2 scheme Tillman is the ultimate weapon. If a teammate is in the area to make the tackle, Tillman has perfected a punch that is incredibly effective in popping the ball out of the arms of a back or receiver to create a turnover.
The ultimate problem that may be keeping Tillman from receiving more recognition around the league is his nickname. “Peanut” just doesn’t scream “lock-down” corner. Maybe he could use his main talent as a nickname, Charles “Turnover” Tillman (looks worse in writing than it sounds). In the late 70’s and early 80’s Bears safety Doug Plank was the “Hitman”. Maybe he’d let Tillman borrow it for a few years; Charles “Hitman” Tillman. Darelle Revis gets a lot of attention with his “Revis Island” moniker. Maybe we can declare Tillman’s side of the field “Tillman Town”. Whatever it takes, it’s time Tillman isn’t such a secret outside of Chicago.
Underrated Honorable Mention – Robbie Gould; Placekicker
Robbie Gould has been the Bears’ placekicker since 2005. He regularly converts over 85 percent of his field goal attempts each season. In 2011 he missed four from the 40-49 yard range and was perfect everywhere else, including six for six in 50+ yard attempts. Anyone can kick for distance and consistency in a dome. Gould plays half his games in Soldier Field next to Lake Michigan, which can send strong and swirling winds into the stadium, and elements late in the season that can make a football feel like kicking a brick. Gould is one of the best in the game. End of conversation.