By Robert Zeglinski
In John Fox’s first season, the Bears started 0-3, the statistical death knell of any team looking to make the postseason. That stretch had the team facing three NFC powerhouses in the Packers, Cardinals, and Seahawks, with established veteran star quarterbacks and foundations for each. Given the Bears’ relative lack of talent and status with a new head coach and general manager, the winless start was more or less part of expectations.
The 2016 season hasn’t been as kind in those respects.
While yes, the Bears have been decimated by injuries defensively, and are currently without their starting quarterback in Jay Cutler, their 0-3 start this year paints the picture of a franchise derailing off of the tracks. Following the Bears 31-17 loss to Dallas on Sunday night, they have started the season winless to quarterbacks with 16 combined starts. Sunday in particular, was the most embarrassing, as Chicago fell behind 24-3 to rookie Dak Prescott and company, with most of the game being played in garbage time. The barometer is set very low. Whatever defensive upgrades they have made pale in comparison to the relative failure they’ve had to rattle these inexperienced players on above average to borderline playoff teams.
The Texans, Eagles, and Cowboys appear to be solid with elite level players at some positions while possessing general flaws like any other organization. However, they are hardly the murderer’s row compared to what a less talented and organized Chicago had to face years previously. Being in a rebuild, the Bears never had the thought of winning a Super Bowl this year, far from it, unless somehow the dominoes fell in destined fashion.
But they were expected to progress. They were expected to have a collective coherence together where everybody understands their responsibilities as a growing team. The haphazard product, which again, admittedly has been hampered by injury, has the Bears free falling.
And injury can’t even be that much of an excuse considering every team deals with the same problem. “Next man up” is a cliché in sports but it’s inherently true. Be prepared to step in to do your job at an effective level. Coach that player to reach that level. It sounds simple enough but Chicago doesn’t have a grasp of the concept at the moment. The Bears don’t have enough depth to withstand losing starters like Danny Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, Kyle Fuller, etc. but the guys stepping in should show they have an understanding of the system they are playing in.
Now, there’s the danger of excuses pouring in, something this team cannot afford if it’s to progress. A hard rebuild – bereft of talent and depth – looks like this and will have difficult strife on the way to contention. The Bears have no current draft picks from the Jerry Angelo era on the roster or in the NFL, and only a few from Phil Emery’s tenure in Fuller, Kyle Long, and Alshon Jeffery still with the team. That’s not a recipe for success. This is the product you get while your incumbent general manager in Ryan Pace fills the bare cupboard.
Patience is key, but only to a point. To coach John Fox’s credit, he’s sticking to his regular veiled shtick.
“They don’t cancel the rest of the season. You’ve just got to find a way.”
Fox has never been known to reveal much in press conferences, nor should he necessarily change his status quo, but he better hope his team finds a way soon to back his words up.
Chicago next has division rival Detroit on the docket, with Cutler in all likelihood returning to his mantle. If the Bears fall to 0-4 against a flawed struggling opponent much like them at home again, it will comfortably be over a year since their last victory at Soldier Field. In fact, the next few weeks present “winnable” games for the Bears. Following the Lions, comes the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, teams with a combined one win on the season.
Chicago cannot afford to continue pitching an embarrassing loss shutout leading into another schedule quirk where they face Green Bay and Minnesota – two powerhouses – in back-to-back weeks on national television before the bye week. An 0-8 start with Fox and all of the talent on this roster, whether healthy or not, presents catastrophe. That scenario would have the hot seat for the veteran coach beginning to metaphorically emit flames.
You can already see him beginning to lay the possible groundwork of a scapegoat. When asked if it’s a given that Cutler even returns when healthy, Fox responded, “I don’t think there are any givens.”
Not to draw too many conclusions but you know that he knows what the potential future could hold, so why not blame the brunt of the team’s issues on the flawed starter to save your own job? It’s what Marc Trestman did to try to save his career on the lakefront two years ago. However, moving to the backup quarterback won’t have the desired effect to “inspire” the team, it just doesn’t work that way.
Speaking of emulating the legendary Trestman, the Bears are now 6-13 through 19 games of Fox’s tenure. Chicago was 10-9 through the same stretch under the mad offensive genius. Progression is not on the horizon. A potential top-five pick and shot at a new quarterback in April seems more likely, without Fox present. There’s time of course, but the groundwork of a fresh start is already being laid down.
When continuing to talk about this season’s ongoing struggles, Fox quipped, “You make your own luck.” Not an uncommon concept from Fox for a team to create plays and the idea of luck.
The kind of luck that this team needs right now however, involves every available rabbit foot, wishbone, and four-leaf clover.
Week 4 vs. Detroit Lions
Last year had the Bears beat the inexperienced Raiders at home to come off the schneid. If there was ever a welcome reprieve for a winless team, it would be the just as injury-riddled Lions.
When the Bears are on defense: The status of the Bears defense without nose tackle Goldman and several defensive backs in the concussion protocol could not have come at a worse time against quarterback Matthew Stafford and a space and pace offense in Detroit.
Stafford is currently sixth in the NFL in passer rating, third in yards, and is tied for third in touchdown passes with seven. Detroit’s offense as a whole is fourth in the NFL in produced yards and fifth in scoring. Needless to say, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has built himself a finely-tuned machine with his veteran signal caller.
People thought the Lions would miss the presence of an all-time great in receiver Calvin Johnson. Years past, it seemed like this offense was purely jump balls lobbed up to a generational talent. It actually turns out now that the multitude of diversity presented to Stafford has the offense thriving with efficiency.
Marvin Jones, who was acquired from Cincinnati in the offseason, leads the NFL in receiving yards with 408. If Stafford isn’t going to his favorite target, he has tailback Theo Riddick, tight end Eric Ebron, the electric presence of slot receiver Golden Tate, and the ever-steady Anquan Boldin. It’s the kind of offense that strikes fear into opposing defensive coordinators given the matchup and game-planning issues presented.
Without much knowledge of who will be back in the secondary, the potential return of “Mike” linebacker Danny Trevathan will bring a necessary boost to where at least Detroit won’t be able to successfully run the ball. This game will be predicated on how the Bears generate pressure on Stafford, something they haven’t done to opposing quarterbacks all year.
There currently is not a consistent enough dynamic pass rusher on the roster as Willie Young and the young Leonard Floyd are merely adequate. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has had to scheme around this issue with exotic blitzes and that’s the left the Bears vulnerable as they haven’t hit home as often as he would like.
We’re looking at a shootout because neither team is going to get stops. Fangio has used Floyd in more coverage than he would prefer, but the opportunity to let him loose on the rush against an average Detroit offensive line could offer a breakout game. And it would be nice if someone like Trevathan or Freeman can get home on Stafford when called upon. It could be the difference.
When the Bears are on offense: Brian Hoyer is what he is, a backup quarterback who can check down the ball efficiently and matriculate an offense down the field when given time. There is much less of an explosive element when he’s on the field however so Chicago would be better served to have the healing thumb of Cutler back in the fold.
It took Hoyer 49 attempts to accrue 317 yards against Dallas, which averages out to 6.46 yards an attempt. That is below average of successful pass attempts which typically hover around 7.5 yards. The Bears get horizontal with Hoyer on the field.
Against a Lions team that may not have middle linebacker DeAndre Levy and stalwart pass rushing defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, the opportunity will allow the Bears to go vertical and often if Cutler plays.
Rookie Kevin White had a bit of a coming out party with Dallas with a terrific catch while draped over a defender so he’ll have the matchup advantage here. Alshon Jeffery will be lined up against Detroit’s number one corner in Darius Slay. That didn’t seem to matter much last season as the Lions had no answer for a Jeffery running rampant in their secondary with eight receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown in one game. Tight end Zach Miller, with two touchdowns on Sunday also looks to continue his reinvigoration so figure him to factor in.
If the offensive line gels enough to give Cutler time against a depleted Lions defense after allowing no sacks against the mediocre Dallas, we could be in store for an aerial show. Baby steps are key.