This is a new weekly format we're trying out at Windy City Gridiron, but its not something you haven't seen or heard before. Two writers (in this case, Kev and I) will tackle an issue from both sides, exchanging ideas and evidence and then having you decide which side of the fence you're on by voting in the poll at the end. The first issue we're going to look at: whether or not the Bears' offense will be consistently good enough by the end of the season to help the Bears make the playoffs and a deep playoff run.
TJ: I guess we should define what we mean by "consistently good." The Bears don't need a top-10 offense to win the division or get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they need to have a couple of key factors for me: a decent third down percentage (currently at 41%, 13th in the league), limit turnovers (I'd say around one a game is okay), and scoring 21 ppg at least. The defense has scored five touchdowns this year to boost the Bears ppg average, but the offense needs to provide them than the thirteen against Detroit.
Kev: I agree. Fundamentally, solid means consistent. You wouldn't call an up and down team solid, nor would you call them consistent. You mentioned the third down percentage this year (the previous two years they were near the bottom of the league) but let's take a look at some of the Bears' other per-game offensive rankings this year: 22nd in total yards, 18th in 1st downs, 10th in rushing ypc and ypg, and 25th in passing ypg. The rushing game, despite the run blocking looking pretty bad at times, is in decent shape, and the pass game will continue to improve. The Bears offense, no doubt, will be consistently solid by year's end.
The other thing to keep in mind when discussing the offensive consistency is the defense. It's hard to penalize Jay Cutler for not having more passing attempts in a game when the team's defensive play has put them in a position where they just don't need to put the ball in the air.
TJ: I'm with you: the defense skews the offensive numbers a bit. The Bears have scored five defensive touchdowns this season, which is in essence five less opportunities for the offense, but the defense is leading the league in turnovers (14 INTs and 7 recovered fumbles). That's plenty of additional opportunities for the offense. The Bears' offense is averaging 21.2 ppg (the team - defensive touchdowns included - is at 27 ppg), which is a good number, but the sheer volume of extra possessions the defense is giving the offense should be helping the offense by providing shorter fields and better scoring chances.
The offense has played really well in spurts, but those have come after the defense has made big plays and turned the tide in the Bears' favor. The offense rolled against Dallas and the Jaguars after numerous big plays by the defense - remember what the offense looked like in the first half in both games? The only game the Bears have scored more than ten points in the first half was the Colts (24). Are the slow starts to games a problem? I think so, especially when you're still finding a rhythm and have to face great pass-rushing defenses (49ers, Texans, Packers, Seattle) over the balance of the season.
Kev: You say the offense should be bolstered by the number of additional opportunities the defense is giving them, and I would say that's true and false. Yes, the additional opportunities should help out in situations, but we also have to take a look at what the goal is. The defense is forcing turnovers all game long. What a lot of these late ones, the Bears are also going to take a relatively safe approach. It's what you do when your defense is being ridiculous in its production. So the opportunities are there, but the incentive to take risks is not, which is going to keep the ball from going downfield as much, and from hitting the end zone as often.
At the end of the day, if they can get to a point where they can consistently count on 20-21 points per game, the way this defense is playing they will win a lot of ball games.
TJ: The offense has to get to that point though where consistency is the standard, and I have my doubts. The running game has been great thus far (at least 93 yards on the ground in every game this season) but it's the passing game that concerns me. Cutler's Quarterback Rating is 78.3 and he's completing 56% of his passes. He has eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's had some great games this season (Colts and Cowboys), one horrid game (you know), and the rest have been okay.
I don't think we've seen the final product yet since Tice is still adapting his playbook as he goes and seeing what works and what doesn't, but that doesn't mean its predetermined to get there, either. Cutler and Mike Tice are still feeling each other out but if we're faced with a situation later in the year like we had in Green Bay (where Marshall has minimal impact and the passing game in general is turrible) can they respond appropriately, or is it going to be another ugly offensive performance that cost the team home field/division crown/a playoff spot?
Kev: You mention Cutler's QB rating on the season, but consider this. Since the statistical anomaly that is a 1 TD, 4 INT game, Cutler has a passer rating of 88.7 with 5 TDs and 2 INT. I'd be pretty okay with him maintaining that for the duration of the season, since it's ahead of his career average. (If you consult this list updated through week 2 of the season, amongst passers with at least 1,500 attempts, he'd be 30th or so).
Also, the Bears are showing a continued dedication to getting the run game going. While in the most recent game, it was to some degree because of the injury to Cutler, they found a way to get their rushing attempts in there. In 2012, when the Bears run the ball twenty-five or more times, they win games. Late in the year, the Bears will have two starting-caliber running backs to grind games and whittle the clock late when they need it.
The pass blocking is getting better, particularly on the left side where it's needed. While Carimi still struggles, the left side of the line seems to finally be figuring out what it needs to do.
TJ: But it also seems like last year's Webb struggles have been merely flipped to the strong side with Carimi. With so much addition being paid to helping out J'Marcus Webb, it seems like Carimi has been given a lot of responsibility to block in one-on-one situations that, frankly, he can't handle yet. And the penalties, lawdy the penalties, are just maddening. The Bears have had more penalties than their opponents in each game this season, and we've seen enough false starts thus far to last an entire season.
In general, I'm concerned about a number of factors gelling in the next few weeks so that the Bears' offense would be consistently good to close out the season: the offensive line holding up; health (which is less of a concern with Campbell and Bush, but our backup lineman aren't world beaters... hence why they're backups); the up and down nature we've seen thus far in games; and Tice adjusting to defensive blitz packages and/or schemes that limit Marshall. I think the offense can get there, but I have some doubts. I mean seriously, has a Lovie Smith team ever had an offense you would call "consistently good" over the balance of a season?
Kev: I hear you about a Lovie Smith team with a consistent offense, but when has Lovie ever had players that you legitimately want to see in key positions? The big thing for me is that the offensive line really does seem to be making strides, and I see it when I look at things like Lester's sackwatch post or Ronk's recent breakdown of some key offensive line plays. I'm seeing improvements, and if they can get Gabe Carimi to settle down, I think they'll be okay in the long haul. Not a great offensive line, but I'm not looking for a top-5 or top-10 offense; I'm asking for top-half, and right now I'm getting that.
I think the big key will be how these teams perform past the Panthers and Titans. I'm not willing to take any NFL team lightly, but I'm counting those as Bears wins. Should that happen, I think the Bears will have built a lot of confidence on a big win streak, and that momentum will help further stabilize them.