By Robert Zeglinski
In this popular time of “tweeting” and “snapchatting”, it seems our world has lost a sense of patience and nuance. Breaking news and people are judged by the village mob that forms every time new controversy forms. Sometimes, the controversy manifests itself from that mob’s sensationalizing of the news. It’s not healthy, nor is it an accurate representation of those who have an attention span longer than 15 seconds.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the sports world and the now “defunct” Bears.
The season opener is a little less than two weeks away and the sky is falling because of preseason performance and litany of injuries completely out of the team’s control. Of course, in our fresh hyper sensationalized perspectives, the Bears are complete failures and have no hope or reason to be viewed this fall by any sane fan. General manager Ryan Pace is supposedly now an incompetent dunce who should have been prepared with every possible fail-safe. Really, he should have had a crystal ball to help him see the future.
I never said the short attention span was rational.
Please, let’s just take a deep breath for once. Inhale and exhale, if you’ve forgotten. Let’s take stock of what we’ve known this offseason since March and what’s fair concerning the Bears.
In 2015, the Bears went 6-10. Yes, they were highly competitive in most of their games, yet they had a top 10 pick in this past May’s draft. This team is still lacking in talent in many areas, particularly of the young variety, that two years can’t repair.
This is only the second year of the John Fox and Pace era. Unlike previous regimes, this organization isn’t slapping band-aids on any more for a team that was past its prime. The Phil Emery’s and Jerry Angelo’s went for the quick fix to build around a talented defensive core, while never properly addressing the offense. And they had more time than they think. You can overhaul a professional roster in the NFL, provided you show direction towards youth. This is the first time in easily over a decade, that Chicago has shown that desire.
With this in mind, people began to set high expectations for the 2016 Bears and their prospects. Again, rational was never part of the job description for fans.
‘Could this team make the playoffs?’ ‘Look at the new talent defensively.’ ‘Jay Cutler is finally comfortable with his offensive weapons.’ ‘Hey now, their schedule seems pretty favorable for a surprise run!’
While the Bears could certainly play some meaningful football in January, the odds aren’t stacked in their favor, at least this year. Chicago has the third easiest schedule in the NFL, but the division rival Packers and Lions have the second and fifth easiest respectively. Minnesota, the reigning NFC North champions, who will be likely be without starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater but are still a quality team, check in with the 14th most difficult, but their schedule is inflated by having to play two more first place teams. They also largely have the same exact slate of opponents that their division companions do. So while fans in Chicago may start checking off 10-11 wins when looking at the season slate, there’s no doubt the same phenomenon is happening in Green Bay and Minnesota. The statistical probability and random factor of the NFL leaves it unlikely for one division to have three teams with 10-13 wins each.
Yes, this team added some fine players on the defensive side of the ball.
Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman look like game changers at inside linebacker for the Bears. Willie Young and Lamarr Houston, fully healthy, look to dominate and set the edge aggressively on a consistent basis on the outside. Leonard Floyd, while considered a reach by some, has shown flashes of his incredible athleticism and instinct that will serve him well in his career. And Eddie Goldman looks like the lynchpin of a defensive line for years to come.
One caveat: the defense is also the third youngest in the league.
With youth, comes growing pains. Especially for a unit now largely put together through two drafts and free agency periods. Guys like Floyd, Goldman, safety Adrian Amos, and defensive end Jonathan Bullard have to show they belong if this team is to take any measurable steps forward, let alone become a playoff team. For rookies and second year players, that’s a lot to ask, even if it is still possible.
Jay Cutler finally looks comfortable in his surroundings at Halas Hall. He seems much more confident and has taken control of matters concerning his team, a facet that many will agree he didn’t do early in his Chicago career. Coming off of a career year of efficiency, he should be able to take another step forward. That’s just doing the math. But his new offensive weapons and roster turnover have to allow those dreams to come true.
The Bears offensive line basically has four new starters this year, if you count Kyle Long’s position move back to right guard. Cody Whitehair, Bobby Massie, and Ted Larsen will now fill in on a line looking to gel quickly. Charles Leno is your lone incumbent starter playing the same position at left tackle. Larsen is only in after the bright future of the second year Hroniss Grasu was put on hold due to a torn ACL a few weeks ago. Grasu’s injury reset all the progress this new group was making together as they now had to work with a new center. For a position group that also had it’s depth decimated by early retirements of guys like Manny Ramirez and Nate Chandler, the pressure isn’t ideal on the thin starting group. Offensive linemen need to work as one and become a wall, so it’s not wise to throw them a curve ball after all of the previous changes. The offensive success of this team will be defined by whether this line comes together. Stay tuned.
Your skill positions are now missing the NFL’s yard from scrimmage leader in the past eight years in Matt Forte (even though it was wise to move on for youth), and a starting tight end two years removed from 90-plus receptions in Martellus Bennett. The method behind Pace’s madness in moving on from both is sound, and the Bears certainly have a capable plan in place to replace their production, we just have to see this plan through.
Receiver Kevin White after all, is in actuality a rookie, after missing his first year due to injury. This is a man described as having freakish ability with a lot to learn about the NFL game, given his inexperience. White has struggled this August in the preseason and Cutler echoed the same sentiments this past weekend, describing these struggles as “growing pains” from this really “being his rookie year and not playing a lot of college football.” The Bears believe in White, enough to even publicly constructively criticize him, but it’s going to take time for him to be successful and morph into a dominant player they need him to be. These things don’t happen overnight.
With Forte’s absence, Chicago is undoubtedly moving towards a running back by committee movement with Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Jordan Howard. It’s how Fox has operated with his teams in the past and that’s probably what it’s going to take to replace the immense production of Forte. With the exception of Rodgers, you’re working with guys who have never had featured roles in the league and have little to no experience on regular basis. These players are far from known commodities while flashing their talent before like Langford and Carey.
As with White and the defense, we need time to ascertain the concern level of these players, and if they don’t succeed right away, that’s okay. They’re young, they’re learning.
It’s difficult to accurately predict how this Bears season will go. Given their injury issues, which seem to be slowing down, and their youth on both sides of the ball, it’s fair to set a range anywhere from five to 10 wins. There are too many questions at the moment. But please, don’t act like this preseason has shone a light on the truth of this team’s issues that you chose to ignore.
Even if they don’t reach the playoff summit, that’s okay, because they’re still growing. We know they’ll be competitive, we just don’t know if they’re ready to win. There’s a difference.
After Chicago’s listless performance against Kansas City on Saturday, Cutler made sure to maintain, “You know, we still have time.” That’s speaking both to prepare for the opener against Houston and throughout this rebuilding process.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.