"But, offense! That's why we fired Lovie! So we can see the real Jay Cutler this year throw for ten thousand yards!"
Sure, seeing the real Jay Cutler without the training wheels offense on is an exciting prospect. Having a line that looks like it could be not only be competent, but good? Also exciting. But lets not fool ourselves, the Bears season lies in the hands of Mel Tucker's ability to marshal a defense that has kept the Bears off of life support for years.
To make progress means to make the playoffs, and for as anemic as the Bears have been on offense over the past, oh forever, they can't make the playoffs without still being a strong defensive team. The NFL may be an offensive driven league recently, but it's not dominated by offensive powerhouses. A team that may be "league average" on offense, but has the ability to bring better offenses down to their level of production, still balances the playing field. Look at how the NCAA's Division 1 teams play. Take a high powered offenses, and pair them against the top defensive teams, and it's remarkably different results. 600 yards per game crashes to about 350 yards, 50 points goes to about 25 points. It's hard to stop offenses in the NFL like the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, or New England Patriots with average or mediocre defenses, but when they face teams with top 10 defenses? They struggle.
2012, Arizona Cardinals at New England? New England scored 18 points. Yet they scored around 34 points per game over the entire season. Denver at Atlanta Falcons? Denver scored 21 points. Season average? Around 30 points. Green Bay at Seattle Seahawks? 12 points (or 19). Green Bay against San Francisco 49ers? 22 points? Green Bay averaged around 27 points per game (and they faced 3 top 5 defenses during the regular season). New Orleans scored 21 against San Francisco, 14 against Denver, and yet they averaged around 29 points a game.
Defense still has a place in the league, especially in the playoffs against high powered offenses. It's the great equalizer to the talent that exists in the NFL. Not every team can have the level of talent offensively that Green Bay has had or New Orleans, but in the world of NFL Salary Caps, look at the strength of their defenses as well. Making the playoffs based on solid defense is still an option in a passing dominated league. Thinking that the Bears reaching the playoffs on offensive talent may be something outside of what the Bears are capable of in 2013. Given the Bears defensive history though, it still probably provides a better path to the playoffs than relying on Cutler and Trestman.
Using points scored and points against, the Bears have been a sub-par playoff team over the past few years. Yes, points scored and points against aren't real metrics of how good a defense or offense actually is. You can't gauge efficiency or garbage time, just a casual inference of general trends of teams' ability to score and prevent scoring during the regular season.
- Playoff teams averaged 26.4 points scored and 20.3 points allowed per game.
- The 4 best defensive teams (by points) in the playoffs? Scored 26.7 and allowed 17.3 points per game.
- The 4 worst offensive teams (by points) in the playoffs? Scored 23.8 and allowed 20.8 points per game.
- The 4 best offensive teams (by points) in the playoffs? Scored 29.8 and allowed 20.2 points per game.
- Playoff teams averaged 26.6 points scored and 20.8 points allowed per game.
- The 4 best defensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 22.7 and allowed 16.1 points per game.
- The 4 worst offensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 21.2 and allowed 16.3 points per game.
- The 4 best offensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 32.7 and allowed 22.9 points per game.
- Playoff teams averaged 24.4 points scored and 19.4 points allowed per game.
- The 4 best defensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 22.9 and allowed 15.6 points per game.
- The 4 worst offensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 21.3 and allowed 20.1 points per game.
- The 4 best offensive teams in the playoffs? Scored 28.2 and allowed 20.5 points per game.
Where have the Bears sat in each of those years?
2012: 23.4 points scored per game and 17.3 points allowed per game.
2011: 22.1 points scored per game and 21.3 points allowed per game.
2010: 20.8 points scored per game and 17.8 points allowed per game.
Not good enough to cut it, compared to the average playoff teams. But, we know the Bears have been a plus defensive team over the past 3 years, so lets assume that Mel Tucker's defense regresses towards the average of 20.8 points allowed per game? The Bears would need to pick up around 4 points per game, 64 points per season, more than they have over the past 3 years to be an 'average playoff team'.
To be a playoff team in 2013 without being as good as the Bears have been on defense in the past 5 years is unlikely. The amount of gains the Bears would have to make on offense would be unprecedented.
2007's Atlanta Falcons scored 259 points, and 2008's 391 points. But, the Falcons also started Joey Harrington in 2007 with the Bobby Petrino disaster, and in 2008 drafted Matt Ryan and hired Mike Smith. 2012's Colts was the same story with Jim Caldwell and Curtis Painter. Neither of these are the Bears situations though, because they both drafted extremely polished quarterbacks.
2010's Packers scored 388 points, the year after they scored 560 points, but the year before, they scored 460. Todd Haley gained 64 points in 2009-2010 with Matt Cassel, going from 294 to 366. Andy Reid did in 2007-2008 with Donovan McNabb. But in these cases, they weren't in the first year of a new system or with a new QB. These were QB's or systems that were growing and developing past the initial transition and installation.
So that brings us to San Francisco's swap from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh, which propped them up 75 points in 2010-2011, and Sam Bradford's St. Louis Rams team, which scored 106 more points after Jeff Fisher was hired. Those two situations, more than any other in recent history, fit the situation that the Bears are in pretty well. Same Veteran QB, new Coach. Both with pretty good defenses.
Here's the problem: San Francisco scored 23.7 points per game after that transition and allowed only 14.3. In St. Louis, they scored 193 points the year before Fisher came, and only 299 the year after, which is less than the Bears have scored in any season since 2006. San Francisco went 6-10 and St. Louis 2-14. Bears were 10-6.
To burst everyone's bubble... it's unprecedented to take a team that is an average scoring team (or in the Bears case, just outside of the bottom 10), change coaches, and subsequently gain 4 points per game in the first year without changing the quarterback as well. Hasn't happened in the past 10 years, and I wouldn't expect it to in 2013.
That's why this season is entirely on the back of Mel Tucker. Any gains that Trestman can make this year is a bonus if Tucker can maintain the defense playing at a rate that it's been historically known for. I can't tell you what to expect out of Tucker in Chicago any more than anyone else, but I think he feels like a kid in a candy store with the level of talent that he didn't have in Jacksonville. If he binges on all those treats and tries to eat too much too fast, if he gets cute and exotic, just to be cute and exotic defensively, the Bears will have to stay home sick during the playoffs and watch Green Bay have all the fun in 2013 for another year.