Are the Bears too young?

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Are the Bears too young?

Eventually any story about NFL players getting old is bound to be accurate. Just not right now with respect to the Bears, in the mind of the person whose future is most closely aligned with 30-something veterans like Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher.

The calendar is inexorable but looking at just the numbers is missing the far bigger picture, according to coach Lovie Smith.

Briggs, Peppers, Tillman, Urlacher, center Roberto Garza all received some level of Pro Bowl honor this week. None missed a single game in 2011. The four defensive players missed none in 2010; Garza missed two to have in-season knee surgery.

To me you have to first establish, are they breaking down? Smith told CSNChicago.com. And they are not. Julius Peppers I dont care what the Pro Bowl alternate status says is the best defensive end in the league. How many games did Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman miss?

Obviously you need young players to come along at every position at some point, but we are not seeing players breaking down at our core positions.

Young in many places

Smith is under no illusions about the need for a productive talent pipeline.

But the oldest of the Bears four top defensive tackles is 27 (Matt Toeaina), with Amobi Okoye, Stephen Paea and Henry Melton 25 or younger and Melton selected as a Pro Bowl alternate. The Bears have explored re-signing Okoye to a longer-term deal.

Smith got to a Super Bowl with an offensive line of veterans (John Tait-Ruben Brown-Olin Kreutz-Garza-Fred Miller), all of whom except Kreutz were free-agent hires.

Lance Louis is expected to resume a starting guard spot. Gabe Carimi, JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams are all draft picks and 26 or younger. Centerguard Chris Spencer is 29; recently re-signed guard Edwin Williams is 25.

Across the offensive line, and really over the whole offense, the guys in key positions are young, Smith said. You always reach a point where you do have to go through a transition at every position.

We have two first-round, young offensive linemen (Carimi, C. Williams). You look at JMarcus Webb, Lance Louis, theyre all first-contract guys. You like that. We have a young quarterback Jay Cutler is 28 and all our tailbacks Matt Forte, 26; Kahlil Bell, 25; Armando Allen, 23 are all young.

Corey Graham, the NFC Pro Bowl special teams selectee, is 27. Devin Hester turned 29 in November. Pro Bowl alternate kicker Robbie Gould turned 30 on Friday.

Transition process

Time will exact its toll. Urlacher, 33, is signed only through the 2012 season and if he is held out Sunday because of knee soreness, you may be looking at his eventual successor in Nick Roach, 27, whom some in the organization see as the prototypical middle linebacker in the Smith defensive schemes.

Linebacker, along with wide receiver and cornerback, will be the priorities of the offseason along with a pass-rushing defensive end. Receiver and cornerback are search areas for immediate-impact players.

But linebacker is a spot where the Bears hope a transition will work, as it has this year at safety, from veteran Chris Harris to youth in Chris Conte and Major Wright.

We transitioned this year at the safety position, playing a rookie in Conte, Major Wright getting more reps, Smith said. Our backup linebackers were new guys.

As for the longer-tenured veterans, theyve played a little bit, Smith said, but I feel like they have a lot more football left in them.

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

From the high ground of hindsight, what unfolded in the Metrodome that day in 1995 was actually quite a big deal. But not for reasons that you could have really understood at the time watching the Bears stun the Minnesota Vikings 35-18 in the wild card round of the 1994 playoffs.

It was not so much the game alone. It was the overall context of the time for the Bears, before and after.

Though the 1995 season would get off to a 6-2 start for the Bears before their near-historic collapse, the Minnesota game would prove to be the high-water mark for the coaching tenure of Dave Wannstedt. This was the postseason, and the Bears looked to be going where then-president Mike McCaskey envisioned when he made the play to beat the New York Giants in securing Wannstedt, who was unquestionably the hot coaching prospect coming out of the Dallas Super Bowl pantheon after the 1992 season.

To fully grasp the situation, you need to understand the undercurrent of venom that had developed between the Bears and Vikings. Bears-Packers might have been the glitzy rivalry, but what had grown between the Bears and Vikings was true hostility, with little of the respect that the Bears and Packers had managed. The Vikings carried grudges for Pro Bowl slights going back almost to the Bears' Super Bowl win. One Bears defensive lineman remarked that his most hated opponent was Minnesota right tackle Tim Irwin, adding, "He's a guy that, if I ran over him with a car, I'd back up over him to make sure I got him." Dwayne Rudd's backpedaling taunt after an interception came a couple years later, but you get the idea.

What's easily forgotten looking back through the mists of time was the epic decision made by Wannstedt to make a quarterback change, from a quarterback he wanted in free agency to one he knew well from their time together at the University of Miami. That was every bit the turning point of the season and the real reason the playoff trip and win ever happened.

The Bears had been annihilated in their first game against the Vikings in the 1994 season — 42-14 — and something was really, really wrong, which become glaringly more evident just a few weeks later, even though the Bears were reaching a 4-2 mark under quarterback Erik Kramer, the centerpiece of an aggressive offseason foray into free agency. But the Bears then lost — badly — to the Lions and Packers, with Kramer throwing three interceptions against Detroit and two against Green Bay, the latter in only 10 pass attempts.

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I talked privately to Kramer after the Green Bay game, specifically about why it was that he was playing his absolute worst against Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, all teams with which he was intimately familiar. My thought: You know those defenses and where their people are going to be.

Kramer shook his head: "The 'other guys' I know. It's my own guys. I don't know where they're supposed to be."

It wasn't a comment on his receivers whatsoever. It was Kramer admitting bluntly that he was not getting the West Coast scheme of coordinator Ron Turner and its timing element.

Wannstedt knew it wasn't working and made the change to Steve Walsh, who'd been the Hurricanes' quarterback under Jimmy Johnson when Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator.

That was the tipping point, and Walsh and Wannstedt are among the principals of "Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon," airing on Monday at 8 p.m. on CSN.

Anyone with any time spent in or around the NFL knows that beating a team three times in a season is incredibly difficult. The Bears had been blown out in the first Minnesota game but had pushed the Vikings to overtime in the second and would have won had Kevin Butler not missed a 40-yard field goal try.

The playoff meeting was No. 3, and after the Vikings put up a field goal in the first quarter, the Bears scored with a Lewis Tillman touchdown in the second and just pulled steadily away from the winner of the only NFL division that produced four teams with winning records.

From there it would be another decade-plus — 2006 season — before the Bears would win a playoff game.

Bears numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

Bears numbers don't indicate 3-13, yet still lie

In doing some post-season wrapping up of my Nerdy NFL Notebook as we begin turning the page to the 2017 season, part of it involves compiling where each team finished in big-picture team offensive and defensive categories: overall ranking (total yards), as well as team rushing and passing ranks on both sides of the ball.

So if the Bears wound up ranked 15th overall in total yards gained and allowed, they should've finished…oh, 8-8, right? It adds to the deception of some of the deeper issues that focus on a lack of playmakers, which tied into their inability to make plays when it matters most. In John Fox's 9-23 start, 18 of those games have been decided by six points or less. They've won just six of those games. 

Offensively, the Bears ranked higher in total offense than five playoff teams: Kansas City (20), Detroit (21), Miami (24), New York Giants (25) and Houston (29). They wound up 17th in rushing offense, better than four teams who advanced: Seattle (25), Green Bay (26), New York Giants (29) and Detroit (30). And their 14th-ranked passing offense ranked better than the Giants (17), Kansas City (19), Dallas (23), Miami (26), Houston (29).

On the other side of the ball, they'd be even better off before allowing 109 points over the final three losses. Their total defense ranked better than Detroit (18), Green Bay (22), Kansas City (24), Atlanta (25), Oakland (26) and Miami (29). After being gashed for 558 rushing yards the last three games, they fell to 27th in the NFL against the run (better than only 30th-ranked Miami). But the seventh-ranked pass defense, despite collecting a measly eight interceptions (among only 11 turnovers), was better than nine playoff teams: Miami (15), Pittsburgh (16), Kansas City (18), Detroit (19), the Giants (23), Oakland (24), Dallas (26), Atlanta (28) and Green Bay (31).

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What do all the hollow numbers indicate? A lack of complementary, opportunistic football, playmakers on both sides of the ball, a minus-20 turnover ratio, and a lack of quality and continuity at the quarterback position — to name a few. All of those playoff teams have more impact players (or kept more of their impact players healthy) than the Bears in 2016.

While some of the numbers aren't that bad to look at, and some even raise an eyebrow, there's still a deep climb from the most significant numbers: 3-13.