by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

As if Bears fans needed another reminder about the importance of QB Jay Cutler to their fortunes, the preseason opener against Denver provided yet another answer. Cutler was held out of action, and the Chicago offense barely moved the ball against visiting Denver in a 31-3 loss to the Broncos.

Yes, it’s only the first preseason game, and quickly forgotten once the scribes from the Trib and Sun-Times take their swings. But the difference between now and a year ago regarding Cutler’s perception in the Windy City is like night and day.

Indeed, Cutler’s critics had been keeping rather quiet in the offseason. More than the preseason opener vs. the Broncos, anyone who has watched the Bears without “Midway Jay” the past two years would suddenly have a new-found appreciation for the ex-Vanderbilt gunslinger for something other than actress Kristin Cavallari, Cutler’s fiance' (and mom to their new child, Camden Jack, born the day before the Broncos’ preseason game).

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Remember, Chicago’s season went up in flames last fall when Cutler was sidelined by a thumb injury in a mid-November win over the Chargers. The Bears, who at that stage seemed at least ticketed for NFC wild card duties, lost five straight after Cutler went down, dropping from postseason consideration until winning a meaningless finale at Minnesota.

Still, Cutler’s injury wasn’t enough of an excuse for GM Jerry Angelo to keep his job. After 13 years, Angelo is out and former Bears scout Phil Emery is in as the new GM.

Head coach Lovie Smith survived the purge after 2011, but it can be assumed that his head is on the chopping block, too, unless the Bears get back to the postseason later this year. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz left town after last season as well, replaced by former Vikings HC Mike Tice.

Oddsmakers, however, don’t seem to be taking the Bears too seriously. Although most Las Vegas wagering outlets are posting the Chicago season-win ‘total’ at a respectable 9, Chicago is a still a consensus third pick in its division, rated behind the Packers and Lions and at 21/4 to win the North. The Bears are also clumped in a second-tier group of teams to win the NFC (16/1) and perhaps into a third-tier of teams to win the Super Bowl (28/1).

In other words, oddsmakers aren't suggesting you hold your breath for a Bears' remake of the epic 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle video.

But there was some good news for Lovie and Tice in that new GM Emery was able to re-stock the Bears’ offensive arsenal in the offseason. On the surface, adding tempestuous WR Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins might seem a dangerous gamble. But Marshall and Cutler had great rapport from their brief time together in Denver, and if Marshall behaves himself, the Bears have their first big-time wideout in the Cutler era. South Carolina draftee Alshon Jeffery could also make an immediate impact in what might be a much-upgraded Bears receiving corps.

Also, adding ex-Redskin and Raider starting QB Jason Campbell provides a much better relief option than Caleb Hanie should Cutler go down again in the fall.

Emery also added backfield cover for workhorse RB Matt Forte with punishing ex-Raider Michael Bush, who provides a nice change-of-pace and should limit the wear-and-tear on Forte (right), who missed all offseason activities due to a contract dispute but finally came back in the fold when a new deal was signed on the eve of training camp.

Tice’s “vertical power game” will also feature fewer five-and-seven step drops that made Cutler too much of a target in the Martz offense. With an emphasis on shorter drops and quicker releases (all well within Cutler’s comfort range), “Midway Jay” ought to receive less of a beating, at least in theory, than the past two years in the Martz offense.

The Tice offense is also seen as a better fit for an offensive line that likely enters the fall in something of an adjustment phase. Keeping RT Gabe Carimi, perhaps Chicago’s best lineman, healthy after he missed all but two games due to a knee injury last fall, will be key.

Meanwhile, Lovie’s defense has an aging look about it, but that collection of 30-year-old + types on the stop unit proved they had some gas left in their tanks a year ago. Oldsters DE Julius Peppers, LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and CB Charles Tillman, all on the other side of 30, qualified for the Pro Bowl last season.

What defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is looking for, however, is an improved pass rush to take some of the pressure off of frequent double-teams on Peppers (left), whose motor is still running. It is hoped that first-round Boise State DE Shea McClellin, who could emerge as a hybrid DE/LB type, can improve the push from the edges.

Marinelli also has concerns about the recurring headaches at the safety positions, ones in which eight different combinations started games a year ago. Into mid-August, the plan is for Chris Conte (FS) and Major Harris (SS) to man the starting roles, but if history is an indication, backups Craig Steltz and Oregon State rookie Brandon Hardin (3rd-round pick) could be called upon.

Hardin will be playing for the first time in two years this fall after missing all fo the Beavers’ 2011 campaign with a broken shoulder, but his size (6'3 and 217 lbs.) suggests he could become the sort of big hitter that Lovie needs in center field.

There are also depth concerns at the LB spots, which is one reason Lovie is not going to rush Urlacher (right) into action during the preseason as he recovers from last season’s left knee injuries. Held out of the Denver preseason opener, Urlacher might see only cameo appearances in the next three weeks as he instead aims for the September 9 regular-season opener vs. the Colts.

As usual, the Bears look solid on special teams, with kick returner extraordinaire Devin Hester still in the fold, and PK Robbie Gould continuing as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. Moreover, punter Adam Podlesh set a franchise record for net punting average (40.4) in his first season with the Bears a year ago.

Summing Up...The Packers remain an elusive target in the NFC North, and the Lions have emerged as a playoff-quality entry, so the Bears are not going to have an easy time of it within their division. The dominoes have to fall right for Chicago to make it back to the playoffs; keeping Cutler healthy and a veteran-laced defense at the same level it was a year ago will likely determine if the Bears are postseason-bound. Or if Lovie Smith indeed returns for another go on the sidelines next season.

Without a doubt, the future is now at Solider Field.


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