It bears repeating on the first Monday of September that one Friday night in August hardly suggests an NFL team will play on a super Sunday in February.
The Bears generally looked good in preseason, but not that good — and Mike Ditka can't stop by practice every week to inspire the gang. Exhibition games revealed a Bears offense with improved imagination and organization under head coach Marc Trestman as well as a capable defense likely to show more daring under coordinator Mel Tucker, provided it stays disciplined.
We saw meaningful progress between meaningless games, with overachieving rookies making the team and underwhelming starters getting cut. We felt palpable enthusiasm at Halas Hall, the residue of change.
The 53-man roster general manager Phil Emery assembled includes enough talent for the Bears to win 11 games and qualify for the postseason. Or go 6-10 and take a quarterback in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. The truth likely lies somewhere near the middle, in the land of 8-8, which guarantees wholly entertaining games one week followed by wildly disappointing duds the next.
Say hello to the Middlers of the Midway and welcome to the 2013 Bears regular season.
Approach it with knowledge acquired since training camp started.
The Bears benefit from Devin Hester wearing their uniform instead of another team's, a debate for months. Until the Bears become an offense that can threaten a defense regardless of where they start drives, field position matters. Hester helps provide it.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton's durability poses the greatest concern along an iffy defensive interior that remains the most overlooked potential issue. Melton, making $8.45 million thanks to the franchise tag, left the Aug. 9 exhibition with a concussion and didn't return to the field until Wednesday.
Jay Cutler can come as close to reaching his potential as he has since 2008 by embracing Trestman's coaching, as two impressive quarters against the Raiders underscored. If somebody starts using Cutler's contract situation as an excuse, remind them Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker are NFL starters. Cutler will make millions in '14, the only question is where.
The Bears did the right thing keeping two quarterbacks, but it remains baffling why they never made Josh McCown prove himself worthy of being the second. Has the Bears backup quarterback/Cutler interpreter really impressed Trestman more in eight months than, say, Jordan Palmer did in 10 days?
Brandon Marshall needs to report to work Monday with a clear head, a big grin and a commitment to behave as well as he did throughout his first season in town. No more cryptic comments or diva-like distractions or we will start to wonder if he was the guy Cutler said at the beginning of camp had yet to buy into Trestman.
Martellus Bennett will stay funny and engaging as long as he produces but, if for whatever reason the tight end gets lost in the offense, his comedy act could wear thin on everybody. Nickel back Isaiah Frey deserves credit for returning as the most improved Bear, but so does secondary coach Jon Hoke. If Earl Bennett had played college football anywhere but Vanderbilt, his concussion risk and bloated contract would have made him expendable by now. Charles Tillman blitzing is as smart strategically as it is cool aesthetically.
Fullback Tony Fiammetta, signed off the street in June, earned his roster spot and could emerge as a valuable asset clearing space for Matt Forte in the red zone. Speaking of Forte, his powerful preseason makes 1,500 rushing yards and 70 receptions realistic goals. The numbers will pile up if Trestman gets Forte 25 touches per game.
To say Forte will run behind a sturdier line says little given the shabby state of last year's squiggle. But on the left side next to Bushrod, vet Matt Slauson quietly has stabilized that spot. If Kyle Long had made the pulling block Slauson executed against the Raiders, postgame shows in Chicago might have added an extra half-hour. Long indeed arrived NFL-ready, as did right tackle Jordan Mills, but remember both are rookies and have much to prove before deciding which one to invite to the Pro Bowl.
A team starting three of 10 rookies on the roster — Long, Mills and middle linebacker Jon Bostic — reveals itself as one caught between rebuilding and contending. The Bears either will make the playoffs or start revamping the roster one day after their final game.
Quite possibly, they could do both in a season full of surprises for which we have waited long enough.