Bears miss playoffs for 6th time in 7 seasons

Uncertainty is following the Bears into the offseason.

There are 27 unrestricted free agents on Chicago’s roster. As

they cleaned out their lockers Monday, a day after their

season-ending loss at home to Green Bay, players considered the

possibility that there will be a lot of new faces around for coach

Marc Trestman’s second season.

”Every year every team is different,” tight end Martellus

Bennett said. ”It’s just part of the business. It’s almost like

every year at school you get new kids that come to your school.

That’s just how it is. This locker room will be totally

different.”

Signing quarterback Jay Cutler to a new contract easily ranks as

the biggest issue facing the Bears, but hardly the only important

one. Cutler led an offense that was second in NFL scoring with 445

points.

After Sunday’s game, Cutler said he hoped to return, but can

only let the negotiating unfold. He can be retained by the team

with a franchise tag, but general manager Phil Emery has said he

prefers not to use the tag because of the high cost.

After a career-best 89.2 passer rating, there’s little doubt

other offensive players want Cutler back after an 8-8 season.

”One thing I know about Chicago: It’s been a long time since we

had a quarterback like Jay Cutler,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall

said. ”Next year, if we pick up where we left off, we’ll be OK. I

think last year we were in the bottom of the barrel, as far as

statistically on offense, and this year we’re in the top 10.”

Perhaps as important as Cutler’s signing is how to restore a

defense that collapsed amid pressure from injuries that took away

starters Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams and Henry

Melton for big chunks of the season. Also lost to season-ending

injuries were nickel back Kelvin Hayden and defensive tackle Nate

Collins.

”We lost six starters,” said Williams. ”That’s over 50

percent of our defense. You lose two Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame guys

like Peanut (Tillman) and Lance, and lose two starting D-tackles,

we lost Kelvin. We lost me. It’s tough. But guys fought through

adversity and came together and did what they had to do.”

The injury-plagued defense finished last in the league against

the run and allowed a league-worst 5.3 yards per rush, half a yard

more than any other team.

The overall defensive decline has led to speculation about the

future of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Players called such

talk unfair.

”I thought Mel did an exceptional job,” said Tillman, who was

lost for the final eight games with a torn pectoral muscle. ”I

think he did a really good job despite all the injuries we

had.”

Tillman, who is third in franchise history with 36

interceptions, will be 33 in February and is without a contract. He

said he hasn’t thought about retiring and wants to return.

”I think it’s the first time in my life that I’ve had to make

decisions like this,” he said. ”I’m not worried about it.

Whatever happens is going to happen. Whatever happens is going to

be for the good.”

Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings are the other two past Pro

Bowl players not under contract for next season besides Tillman.

Williams also is without a deal.

Veteran return man Devin Hester and 34-year-old center Roberto

Garza are free agents. Like all the defensive free agents, they

want to return to complete what they think was left unfinished by

Sunday’s defeat – the sixth time in seven years the Bears missed

the playoffs.

”You saw at times what we’re able to do and be able to finish

as one of the top offenses and being able to go out there and score

points,” Garza said. ”Obviously, we’ve got to continue to build

on that. It’s not good enough and we’ve got something really

special going on here.”

It’s possible others will leave for salary cap concerns, like

defensive end Julius Peppers. Others could be added.

Bennett would like to see the Bears get interested in trying to

sign his brother Michael, the Seattle Seahawks defensive end.

”Hopefully when that starts, I get to go upstairs and talk to

some people about that,” he said.