September 12, 2012
When general manager Phil Emery was hired to replace Jerry Angelo in the offseason, team President Ted Phillips said the move was made to close the "talent gap" between the Bears and their division rivals, the Packers and Lions.
Emery wasn't supposed to turn the Bears into the Packers, but that was the general idea: Build through the draft and put together a team that could compete for an NFC North title, even in the face of debilitating injuries.
One week into the 2012 season it's obvious the Packers aren't really the team the Bears should be emulating. They are, of course, the defending NFC North champions and coming off a 15-1 season that ended bitterly with a playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. The Packers won the Super Bowl the year before and that's never a happy thing for the Bears. And a victory in Green Bay on Thursday night would not only give the Bears a perfect start, it would give them a two-game lead over the Packers.
Nonetheless, it's not the high-powered, explosive Packers that the Bears should aspire to be this season. They ought to emulate the 49ers and try to win by becoming a complete team.
The Bears have significantly upgraded their talent on offense. The Bears' Sunday dominance wasn't celebrated much nationally because they played a rebuilding Colts team with a rookie general manager, coach and quarterback.
And while the step up in class is significant with Thursday's road opener in Green Bay, the Packers still are a flawed team, as the 49ers exposed. Green Bay is quarterback-driven with Aaron Rodgers perhaps the best player in the league. His presence covers up a host of problems, including bad defense and no running game. The Packers go as Rodgers goes and things were not easy for him against the 49ers, an ascending team that played tough, physical, speedy defense all day.
The Bears used to play defense that way. They used to win with defense and special teams and desperately try to limit mistakes on offense.
It's great that's no longer the game plan. The Bears' upgrades at the skill positions, including Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Bush, makes them a more dangerous team than they have been in years.
But maybe the best news from the opener was the emergence of some players on defense. Even with Charles Tillman out of the game, the cornerbacks looked good. Tim Jennings in particular, but Kelvin Hayden also had nice moments. Safety Chris Conte seemed fine.
The litany of bad drafts in Chicago hasn't just forced the Bears to rely on too many post-30-year-old stars on defense, it has left a talent gap in the pipeline. The Bears won't be able to compete with a team like the Packers moving forward if they don't successfully draft well on defense. The Packers have their own defensive issues and tried to address them in this year's draft by using their first six picks on that side of the ball. Maybe they will be better later in the year.
Regardless, the Bears are not in a position to be reckless with the football. They stormed the Colts because they dominated the turnover battle.
"When you have a plus-4 turnover ratio, you're going to win a lot of games, kind of simple as that," Bears coach Lovie Smith said on Monday.
The Packers didn't do much right on defense last year, but they did finish tied for the league lead with 38 takeaways and surrendered the ball only 14 times.
The Bears are an improving offense eager to get everyone involved, but they still need to keep mixing in the run with the pass, especially against a team like the Packers that has struggled to stop the run for some time. The Packers offense is so explosive that teams are forced to abandon the run in order to try to keep scoring.
But the 49ers had the perfect game plan to beat the Packers. The Niners took an early lead and never relented. Suddenly, it was Rodgers under extreme pressure while throwing to keep his team in the game. Cedric Benson was useless against a swarming defense.
Can the Bears stop the run like the 49ers? Can they open up the passing game against a suspect secondary? Can they win all phases of a game? That's all it takes to close the talent gap.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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