Ask David Haugh

Tribune staff reporter

We briefly interrupt this autopsy of the Bears offense to bring attention to one of this season's few positives by naming the unit's MVP – most versatile player.

Hands down, it's John St. Clair.

St. Clair will start again Sunday at left guard, his third different starting position along the offensive line this season. The last time the Bears played the Packers, St. Clair filled in at left tackle for the injured John Tait. Earlier this month against the Giants, he replaced Fred Miller at right tackle.

Remember that St. Clair also caught a touchdown pass against the Chiefs lining up as an eligible tackle.

Devin Hester has played three positions this season. St. Clair has contributed at four.

Under contract through next season at $750,000, that's a huge value for such versatility.

"We've got a lot of confidence in him," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said.

How many players on offense can the Bears truly say that about?

Tight end Desmond Clark is the only other offensive player having a season that met or exceeded expectations.

But has anybody else?

Here are some other questions in a week full of them.

I'm curious as to how much input Lovie has in the offensive play-calling during games. It's my understanding that Lovie is a defensive-oriented coach and that Ron Turner handles the offensive play-calling. So the Bears' inability to deviate from an offensive script and take maximum advantage of things that are working would be Turner's problem, not Lovie's, yes? —Andrew, Portland, Ore.

Turner formulates the game plan, calls the plays and works with position coaches to handle personnel groupings while Smith keeps abreast of every play by keeping an open line of communication on his headphones. In many ways, Turner is the Assistant Head Coach/Offense given how defensive-oriented Smith is. But Smith is still the head coach and if, for instance, he senses a trend developing or wants a certain run or pass play called, he maintains the right to tell Turner what to do. That's what good head coaches do; allow their assistants autonomy yet stay involved enough to offer strong direction without meddling too much.

Your "No Take Off" article was great, but do you really think that the Bears wouldn't be a factor in the NFC if it weren't for all of the injuries to the defense, and do you really think that Rex Grossman is nothing more than a backup? —Allan C., Solon, Ohio

Nobody suggested that health didn't contribute greatly to the Bears' demise. But the only injury sustained to the offensive line was to left guard Ruben Brown, and that wasn't enough to explain the line's woeful year. Running back Cedric Benson's limitations weren't tied to injury. So, yes, the defense dropping from fifth to 29th in the NFL rankings can be attributed in large part to assorted injuries. But as inconsistent as this team has been, it's too big of a leap to say this team would have been a playoff lock if it had stayed healthy. As for Grossman, he possesses enough talent to start in the league if surrounded by the right talent. But without a running game, consistent offensive line or dependable receivers this season, he sputtered. So the point was that the Bears brass believed before the season they had three starting-caliber quarterbacks when all three have looked more like backups.

Where do the Bears rank league wide regarding number of times penalized this season? There is an old coach's chestnut that says that the teams that penalized frequently are penalized so much because of poor coaching. Do you agree with that statement and is the number of penalties yet another indictment of Team Lovie? —Joe Kopala, North Aurora, Ill.

The Bears are ranked fifth in the league in penalties committed with 100 behind Arizona, Green Bay, Cleveland and Oakland. The biggest offender has been right offensive tackle Fred Miller, whose seven false start penalties is the NFL's eighth-highest total in the category. There also have been enough flags for late hits, delays of game and unsportsmanlike conduct to conclude this is an undisciplined outfit. For that, the coaching staff bears responsibility because the Bears are a veteran unit that returned 20 of 22 starters this year and not a young upstart team like the ones who have committed more penalties than they have.

Do you see the Bears competing next season or are the Bears officially in a rebuilding mode? Obviously, our O-line needs major upgrades but using three QBs this season proves our needs at quarterback, our inability to run the football requires a RB, and our WRs are leading the NFL in drop passes, not able to make plays, and one of the league's worst in YAC. Not to mention Lance Briggs contract issues and we have major safety issues. —Arif, Aurora, Ill.

In today's NFL, teams can rebuild and compete simultaneously. It's more likely the Bears will compete for a playoff spot or NFC North Division title rather than the Super Bowl. But competitive they should be. An offensive line upgrade and the right running back addition can return the Bears to respectability immediately. Consider the Packers, Browns and Vikings are teams that look playoff-worthy now only a year after their critics had deemed them lost causes.

I saw a stat a while ago on ESPN that said that 6 out of the last 7 losing Super Bowl teams did not make the playoffs the following year. If this stat is true, why, in your opinion, has this been the case and what parallels are there between those six teams and this year's Bears team? —Jeff Urbanczyk, Windsor, Maine

The Seahawks are the only team this decade to make the playoffs the season after losing the Super Bowl. Seattle did so in 2006 but also won only nine games after winning 13 the previous year. Before that, the Raiders, Giants, Rams, Panthers and Eagles all failed the make the playoffs the season after finishing as runners-up. Those teams dropped from an average of 12 wins to six, not as dramatic as if the Bears go from 13-3 in 2006 to what looks like could be 5-11 in 2007. Every team that went through the so-called jinx suffered injuries at key positions. But at least in the case of the Bears, an intangible missing element tied to motivation seemed to make losing a much more acceptable notion at Halas Hall.

Any chance the Bears get Bob Sanders in the off-season? If not him, are there any free-agent safeties they might consider? —Ian Rucker, Washington, D.C.

It's a good thought given the Bears' desperate need for stability at the position. But word out of Indianapolis is that the Colts will use the franchise tag on Sanders the way they did on Dwight Freeney. Retaining Sanders and tight end Dallas Clark have been identified as the Colts' top two off-season priorities. The Cowboys also are likely to lock up Pro Bowl-caliber safety Ken Hamlin, another unrestricted free-agent. Other serviceable veteran options are on the list of unrestricted free-agents – Gibril Wilson do anything for you? – but it's not considered a top year for safeties on the open market. If the Bears can't get an impact player via free agency the draft offers another option.

I don't understand your endorsement of Danieal Manning. Manning's inability to make tackles as the unblocked free safety has been a major reason for the number of big plays against the defense this year. Yes, Manning is young and fast, and as a practical matter, must be part of the defensive lineup going forward. Are we fans missing information about Manning that isn't evident on the field? —Michael S. Kang, Atlanta

There are no secret reasons why Manning looks like a keeper from this vantage point. You make excellent points about his poor tackling and vulnerability to the big play this season. He is a better complement at safety than a primary playmaker but has too much speed and athleticism to discard. He has improved and gives the Bears flexibility. Also, the coaching staff contributed to his stunted growth by switching him between cornerback and safety during a critical phase of the season.

Why is it that the one name that no one has mentioned with regard to the 2007 disaster known as the Chicago Bears is Ted Phillips? He's the president, the guy at the top. Why haven't I seen his name mentioned once? I can't believe he's not in some way responsible for some of this mess. —Randy M. Multack, Bellevue, Wash.

Nobody in the front office escapes culpability after this disaster but Phillips' real input into what happened on the field this season ended last winter when he extended the contracts of Jerry Angelo (through 2013) and Lovie Smith (through 2011). There are people understandably disappointed in Smith's demeanor and game-day decisions and Angelo's apparent retreat into the Halas Hall bunker. Even though the lengths of the deals seemed at least a year longer than necessary – a product of negotiation – but extending both guys' contracts was the right thing to do following the Super Bowl. And Phillips did it. Holding Phillips responsible for the team's inability to sign Lance Briggs to a long-term deal isn't fair because the original offer to Briggs in the spring of '06 was appropriate. So from a football standpoint, Phillips is deep on the list of scapegoats. It would have been nice, however, if either Phillips or Angelo would have stepped forward during this late-season collapse to publicly share their thoughts on what contributed to the NFL's most disappointing team.

Where did No. 75, defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, come from? He was one of the few guys who stood out Monday night in Minnesota? —Dan K., Marshall, Mich.

The Bears poached Toeaina off the Bengals' practice-squad last week and inserted him into action five days after signing. Then Toeaina put his signature on his first Bears game with two tackles for losses on Viking running back Adrian Peterson. As pointed out, it was a play Toeaina made for the University of Oregon chasing down Peterson in a game against Oklahoma that impressed the Bengals. Cincinnati drafted the 6-foot-2, 311-pounder in the sixth round. "On film, I watched him run step-for-step with Adrian Peterson and make a tackle on a cutback for a negative yardage play," Bengals line coach Jay Hayes told the web site. "For a guy 300-plus pounds to do that to a Heisman candidate speaks well of him." Toeaina's first impression spoke well enough of his potential to expect him to be in the mix for a roster spot next summer, especially if the Bears find veteran Darwin Walker too expensive to keep.

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