No one needs me to tell the Bears that with no more than solid placekicking, they would have been 14-2 and the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, or that even at 12-4 and the No. 3 seed, if Cody Parkey hits a 43-yard field goal, they would have advanced past the wild-card round to a divisional playoff against the eventual NFC champion Rams.
Assuming the Bears don’t sign a street free agent such as Matt Bryant to come in and try to knock them both off, first-year kickers Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry will compete for the job to replace Parkey in Bourbonnais. Whether the Bears get it right this time around remains to be seen, but special teams are about a lot more than the kicker, and this year’s Bears actually have a chance for their teams to be quite special.
In the return games last season, the Bears were very good on punts – thanks mainly to first-team All Pro returner Tarik Cohen – ranking second in the NFL returning them and 10th covering them, but they were awful in the kicking game, only 28th returning kickoffs and dead last – 32nd – covering them.
What better answer to that dilemma than to bring in Cordarrelle Patterson, the NFL’s most dangerous kickoff returner over his first six seasons in the league?
Punter Patrick O’Donnell had his best season as a pro, finishing 10th in punts downed inside the 20 and boasting one of the league’s best percentages with only 20 of his 62 punts returned, but he was still only 17th in net average at 39.7 yards a punt.
After dipping a toe in the free agent waters, the Bears re-signed O’Donnell and long snapper Patrick Scales, so the punting should be solid and respectable if not special.
Coverage may or may not be a concern, as Josh Bellamy isn’t much of a receiver, but he was one of the Bears top guns on special teams and is now a New York Jet.
Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan were also solid contributors who are now in Green Bay and Denver, respectively.
Three burning questions:
1. Will the Bears have the most explosive return games in the league?
It is likely that pairing Patterson with Cohen, the Bears will offer a dimension rarely seen in the NFL: a team capable of taking it all the way every time a football is punted or kicked to it.
It will also be a lot of fun to see how special teams coach Chris Tabor schemes to try and get the football into the hands of one or the other every time it is kicked, and some of the gimmicks the Bears are certain to come up with to make this dynamic duo even more difficult to defend.
You have to remember that even more important than the ability to take one to the house every once in a while is the tremendous field position advantages these guys can create every single week.
But Patterson can’t do it alone any more than Cohen did last year on punts, and the Bears will have to block their kick returns much better than they did last season.
2. Can Sherrick McManis hold off all the Young Turks to remain the team’s top coverage ace and who will replace Bellamy?
McManis has made a living on special teams but is pedestrian at best in the secondary. With Nick Kwiatkoski, Joel Iwiegbuniwe, Deon Bush and DeAndre Hosuton-Carson already solid cover guys, and Kevin Pierre Louis, Marvin Hall, Javon Wims, Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph, John Williams, Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark all looking for roster spots and knowing they will earn one only if they can excel on special teams, it will be interesting to see who’s left standing after Labor Day.
3. Is the Bears new kicker already on the roster?
Pineiro looks like he could be special, while Fry’s short-lived but perfect 14-14 AAF run last spring showed he’s got the nerve, but we have no idea whether Matt Nagy and Pace are through auditioning kickers yet.
The Bears will be in great shape if … Cohen and Patterson are like Butch and Sundance, and Pineiro proves to be who we think he is.
The Bears are in trouble if … the team still can’t block kickoff returns and the new kicker has a case of Parkey’s goal-post radar.