When the Bears take the field Friday afternoon at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais for their first of 23 training camp practices, they will begin to address issues that will ultimately determine whether head coach Lovie Smith, his staff and maybe even general manager Jerry Angelo and others in the front office will be back next year.
President and CEO Ted Phillips implied on Jan. 5, when Smith purged his offensive staff, that a fourth straight year without a playoff game would be the basis for a more thorough house cleaning. Phillips didn't utter a "win-or- else" ultimatum, but that was the implication.
"Ted doesn't have to tell me that," Smith said when asked if his continued employment hinged on postseason participation this year. "No one has to tell me that."
The tone of that airing of the grievances last winter was that the Super Bowl XLI appearance certainly bought Lovie & Co. some time, but that time was running out.
"We're not happy," Phillips said after another 7-9 season added bookends to a 9-7 mark in the 2008-09 campaign. "We're not happy with the season we had. We're not happy with the last three years, and the expectation is we'll turn it around in 2010. At the end of 2010, obviously we'll go through another evaluation process and see where we land.
"There have been many, many established coaches who have had years of non-playoff seasons. But we're tired of that. There's a fine line sometimes between winning and losing, but we expect to win now in 2010."
For that to happen, these key questions must be answered affirmatively:
• Will offensive coordinator Mike Martz and his scheme help Jay Cutler become the franchise quarterback the Bears expected last year?
Cutler and Martz may be the quintessential "odd couple," and they are both possessed of super-sized egos, but that doesn't mean their pairing is a match made in heaven. Cutler is cerebral enough to wrap his mind around Martz's daunting playbook, and Martz is smart enough to know that if he fails to produce a potent offense with the rocket-armed Cutler on the trigger, there might not be any more NFL opportunities on the horizon. In short, they need each other, and they seemed to gel immediately.
• Will the young receivers continue to develop while learning a new offense?
Part of what has made Cutler successful in the past is his ability to quickly grasp the mental aspects of the game. But NFL receivers, especially young ones, are known more for their athleticism than their wisdom.
Had the Bears kept the same offensive staff and the same scheme, players such as Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu all would have been expected to take another giant step in their development.
Now all eyes will be watching to see if the maturation process continues while they learn a new offense.
Cutler could have the entire offense down pat by opening day, but if his receivers aren't on the same page, it will be a fitful start and maybe another season of growing pains.
• Will the return to health of Brian Urlacher and the addition of Julius Peppers elevate the Bears' defense to the level it played at in 2006?
Seven key members from that Super Bowl defense are still on the roster and, with the exception of the 32-year-old Urlacher, none are yet 30, so it's a unit that could still recapture the magic.
But this defense has been no better than mediocre in any of the past three seasons.
Still, if Urlacher can approach his former Pro Bowl form at middle linebacker, Briggs continues to play at the same lofty level on the weak side, and enigmatic tackle Tommie Harris feeds off the energy that Peppers is expected to produce, there is enough talent to make this a playoff-caliber unit.
A lot of jobs depend on it.