After six losing seasons in seven years, the Chicago Bears are embarking on a grand experiment. Since they open the season with three games against divisional rivals, it won't take long to see if it blows up in their faces.
"We were a 7-9 team last year so it's not like it's a total rebuilding job we're doing," Coach Lovie Smith told reporters last month. It seems like one. Smith takes over as a first-time head coach. Twelve of his 16 assistants are first-timers at their positions. Both the offense and defense are learning new schemes. Offensive coordinator Terry Shea is handing the reins of his complex offense to second-year quarterback Rex Grossman, who has three career starts. The Bears have praised Grossman's progress, but he has a problem besides learning the offense: Who will he pass to? Chicago's only proven receiver, wideout Marty Booker, was traded to Miami. The team's projected number one wideout, David Terrell, has yet to start more than eight games in a season or surpass his rookie total of 415 receiving yards.
In addition, Chicago backed a dump truck full of money onto Thomas Jones's lawn to make him a featured back in the Priest Holmes mold, but Jones (Virginia) has all of three 100-yard games in his previous four seasons. This may be the only offense in the NFL that can claim linemen as its two marquee players (Olin Kreutz and John Tait). But you can't win the NFL without good line play, and the Bears boldly attempted to improve their defensive line as well. Their trade to Miami may have cost Booker, but it brought Pro Bowl defensive end Adewale Ogunleye to a team that mustered only 18 sacks last season. Chicago also used its first two draft picks on defensive tackles. The secondary is deep -- cornerback Charles Tillman showed signs of stardom last season as a rookie -- and even though linebacker Brian Urlacher is coming off a disappointing season, any team would be glad to have him prowling the middle.
Best Hands: Tight ends were thought of almost solely as blockers until 1961, when rookie Mike Ditka had 1,076 receiving yards. His 75 catches in 1964 stood as the record for the position until the NFL switched to a 16-game season.
Worst Hands: David Terrell, selected eighth overall in the 2001 draft, has been a major bust thus far.
Grading This Year's WRs: Offensive coordinator Terry Shea compares this system to that of the Chiefs, who put up a ton of points without relying on wideouts. Terrell, Ahmad Merritt, Bobby Wade and Justin Gage are unproven in the NFL.
Grade: D minus