The mood was the same on both sides of the ball Friday night. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton was adamant and so was defensive coordinator Greg Blache: The Bears are better at this point than they were this time a year ago, after four exhibition games and week from one that counts, Sept. 3 in Minnesota.
Crowton, in fact, is convinced "we're further along than we were at the end of last year."
If the exhibition season is any measure, remember the Bears defeated St. Louis and Indianapolis last year, two teams that would win 13 games each. Then the Bears went on to a 6-10 mark of their own. Friday night they were throttled 34-28 by the Tennessee Titans, the Rams' opponents in January's Super Bowl.
The Titans' No. 1 offense ran up 31 points while the Bears' No. 1 offense managed three. Not all of Tennessee's points came against the Bears' No. 1 defense, but that could be read as neither the Bears' starters nor backups being good enough to play with a top NFL team.
One reason given was that the Bears did little in the way of creativity and scheming to stop the Titans. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged this and Blache said so.
"I could have gone and helped those guys out there a little more than I did," Blache said. "But I purposely didn't help them. I wanted to see how they would handle things. We purposely didn't go after them, didn't do much blitzing early, and I wanted to see how they handled a championship football team running base defenses, coverages and whatever. And we dropped the football."
Little snapshots hint the Bears are better. They averaged 4.0 yards per rush in the four exhibition games; last year they averaged 2.6. Curtis Enis averaged 3.7 yards per carry compared with his 3.2 for the 1999 regular season. But he averaged 3.8 yards last preseason.
The Bears are running the ball better. But as in so many areas, they are not a good running team. Coaches have longed for someone to pair with Enis in the backfield. Free agent Marlon Barnes averaged 4.7 yards per carry, making him the most deserving back in the eyes of many teammates.
The key to the Bears' offense is not Enis or Barnes (or James Allen), but Enis and Barnes as well as making good on a lot of talk about returning to a more physical running philosophy.
"We've got to get the run game going, that's evident," guard Chris Villarrial said. "When the run's called, we have an opportunity and we've got to do it. We can't sit back on our heels the whole game; we've got to start pounding people for a while. We have to pick that up as a unit and as an offense."
The Bears' offense, however, is approaching a fork in the road. The quarterback class of 1983, topped by John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, cemented the AFC as a passing conference that could never beat the NFC until Elway started handing the football to Terrell Davis in the late 1990s.
If Crowton's offense remains centered around the passing of Cade McNown and a receiving corps, are the Bears headed in the same direction?
St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner may have been the NFL's MVP last year, but the Rams and Titans are not playing in the Super Bowl without Marshall Faulk and Eddie George respectively. The Bears may have run better in the preseason but they are still a passing team, with a 60-40 pass-run ratio after throwing the fourth-highest number of passes in NFL history last year.
If the Bears cannot control a game with their running, fourth quarters will fall more and more on the shoulders of the defense. This defense showed little in the preseason to suggest it is ready to take even a portion of that load.
"It's hard to assess things right now because I'm still learning the defense and learning the people I'm playing with, still trying to jell and fit what I'm doing out there," said cornerback Thomas Smith, a central figure in the rebuilding of the defense during the off-season. "But we do have a lot of talent on this team."
Attention has focused on the pass rush, which produced eight sacks in four exhibition games compared to nine last year. Sacks may be an overrated statistic according to some, but the 1999 regular-season pass rush matched the lackluster results of the preseason, which were better than this year's rush. The Bears weren't good last year and in this critical area, one pivotal to their success on defense, they are not better this year.
"Our biggest problem is guys not doing their assignments," Blache said. "It has nothing to do with working with each other. It's being consistent."
Coaches have made dramatic changes in their starting lineups and are not expected to stop, even to the point of changing back if performances dictate. Improvement is only an objective; winning is a goal.
"We've done some good things this preseason but not good enough for where we want to be," defensive backs coach Vance Bedford said. "There's stuff we've got to put together for Minnesota, for Randy Moss and Cris Carter. But they've come a long way from last year."
Saturday was spent pondering personnel decisions, some of which were influenced by play in the Tennessee game. A number of scouts were at Soldier Field to evaluate quarterback Shane Matthews for purposes of a trade.
The Bears, however, are unwilling to trade Matthews to either Tampa Bay or Minnesota, their first two opponents and two teams that were interested in him in the off-season. And they like the idea of him staying in Chicago.
"You're always trying to put together the best 53 [players] to help you win," vice president of personnel Mark Hatley said, "and Shane's definitely one of those guys."
Titans 34, Bears 28
Bears insist they're better
But running game, pass rush raise questions
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