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WATCHING the Bears practice this preseason, you think, They've finally joined the NFL mainstream! They got big at receiver, and they made peace with the running back they have to have—and have to have happy—in order to stand a chance of unseating the Packers atop the NFC North.
First, the man who made it happen: new G.M. Phil Emery, who put his stamp on the team quickly this off-season. Just the fifth G.M. in Bears history—George Halas was the first, 49 years ago—Emery made the unlikely rise, in only 14 years, from strength and conditioning coach at the Naval Academy to running one of the NFL's flagship franchises.
Emery believes that almost everything you need to know about a player can be culled from tape. When it comes to receivers, for instance, he believes that you can glean something from how hard a player runs, whether he takes plays off, whether he's a willing blocker, whether he's competitive for the ball. Which brings us to the two wide receivers he imported.
First, he traded two third-round picks for Brandon Marshall, who'd become such a headache in Miami, one Dolphins source said, that the club would have cut him if it hadn't found a trading partner. This obviously puts pressure on Emery, who on tape saw a guy with a willingness to run-block and fight for the ball. If Marshall implodes—he has borderline personality disorder, which can result in severe mood swings—those are two valuable draft picks wasted.
Then, in the second round of the draft, he chose South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, who had lost his first-round status because he caught only 49 balls in 2011, compared with 88 the year before. Emery didn't buy Jeffery's decline. On the tape he saw 23 college touchdown catches (eight in '11—just one less than in '10), and he saw consistent effort in every one of Jeffrey's games his last two years in Columbia.
Fast-forward to training camp, on a hot Saturday in August. Marshall, at 6'4", and Jeffery, 6'3", are making their presence felt in a way the aerially challenged Bears—26th in passing yards last season—haven't seen before. In individual drills against veteran Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, Marshall shreds the coverage in five of six matchups, three times going for long gains. On the other side of the field, Jeffery twice catches balls over the top of shorter corners, just the way Chicago hopes he'll use his size advantage over NFC North covermen.
There's no question this will be a different Bears offense, and quarterback Jay Cutler will be the beneficiary, no longer having to make do with a smaller group of wideouts (or the failed Roy Williams experiment), as in his three previous Chicago seasons. With the fleet and shifty Devin Hester and possession receiver Earl Bennett rounding out the Bears' top four wideouts, Chicago finally can join the rest of the NFL in playing the vertical passing game.
"There are a lot of ways to mix up coverages," says coach Lovie Smith. "But in the end, the passing game is about matchups—a receiver on a corner. And the big-body receiver has an advantage. We needed to change our look."
Well, not entirely. "We'll always be the Bears of Gale Sayers and Walter Payton," Smith says, as if catching himself. "We're going to run." Enter Matt Forte, who signed a four-year, $31.5 million deal in July after a long year of fighting for a new contract. Even with the well-documented struggles of the offensive line, Forte averaged a stunning 4.9 yards per rush last year. This season, offensive coordinator Mike Tice plans to use him more in the passing game, feeling that such a dangerous player in space needs to have three or four chances a game at screens or hot routes.
But Tice will make that call sparingly—he doesn't want to risk Cutler taking a sack because the secondary is flooded with receiving options. With Marshall's size and ability to win jump balls, Tice will be O.K. max-protecting to make sure Cutler—who has been sacked an average of 2.68 times per game during the last three seasons—stays upright.