By Robert Zeglinski
There’s an air of inevitability in the NFL. Typically, the cream of the crop will rise to the top more often than not. The Chicago Bears came into Lambeau Field a broken down skeleton of a team and left a battered one. By all respective measure, there was no reason they should have hung around with the Green Bay Packers enough into an eventual 26-10 loss.
Green Bay, while decimated by injuries themselves, still possessed one of the best offensive lines in the league, had defensive stalwarts like Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels present, and above all, Aaron Rodgers was under center. With Bears quarterback Brian Hoyer breaking his arm early in this contest, all semblance of a Chicago offense was lost with third-stringer Matt Barkley. It’s almost as if the football gods had designs on entertaining themselves with an embarrassment of a game.
Everything came up green and gold. If you were a prognosticator with any relevant amount of money on the line here, you would have bet the house on a Packers’ blowout. Yet, somehow, that didn’t happen.
A plucky Bears team with no hope of winning anything relevant besides a fantasy football styled consolation bracket this season, held it’s own with their bitter rivals.
The Packers only had a 6-3 lead at half. On the first possession entering the second stanza, standout rookie Leonard Floyd scored a touchdown on a sack fumble even temporarily giving the Bears the 10-6 lead. Floyd in particular, gave fans something to watch with three tackles, three pressures, two sacks, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, and a touchdown. Floyd enjoyed every bit of a breakout game that is much needed as the Bears push themselves towards a top pick next April. Among a miscast team of heroes, these are the kinds of performances that set a foundation and that offer glimpses of a potentially bright future should the puzzle piece together.
The ideal now is to string together consistency for Floyd on a regular basis. One gets the sense he and other young stalwarts on this roster, will.
Anyway, with largely most of Chicago focused on Los Angeles and the National League Championship Series, the Bears were putting up a fight under no spotlight.
Yes Green Bay did pull away in the end, but not in any way anyone expected them to. Consider that while Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and 356 yards, it took him 56 attempts and 39 completions to do so. That’s an average of 6.35 yards a throw, a decidedly mediocre statistic. Chicago treated Rodgers like a quarterback they didn’t fear would attack them vertically, and lo and behold, somehow it worked.
When you throw in the fact that the Bears defense was on the field for almost two-thirds of the game with a lot of backups playing in the secondary, it’s a wonder the dam didn’t collapse earlier. Barkley wasn’t going to win in Lambeau Field in primetime, but the defense oh so valiantly attempted to.
It is at this point in the season where you’re completely mistaken if there’s any relevant investment in wins and losses for the Bears. Maybe moral victories don’t matter and aren’t anything to be proud of, but what to watch for are team efforts against vastly superior teams as well as individual showcases. This is where to find solace in a team that’s trying to grow up. Regardless of any criticism hurled his way in the coming months, Chicago has somehow not yet given up on head coach John Fox, and in the end, that may count for something.
But the fight does come with caveats.
The Bears aren’t playing well by any stretch. A 1-6 record obviously reflects that notion. They don’t have a discernible identity on either side of the ball. This is the worst scoring offense in the NFL at just 15.9 points per game. But somehow, they’re still staying united. This is a train that in all likelihood probably should have derailed at the start of October, and yet here it is ploddingly chugging along. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a positive given Chicago’s place in the standings, but it’s a silver lining nonetheless.
Agonizingly, there are still nine games left to play in 2016. All of that opportunity for growth awaits.
However, there’s still no reason to trust Fox on any injury issue especially following quarterback Jay Cutler’s magical clearance after Hoyer’s injury. It’s hard to believe Cutler would be cleared for the upcoming Monday night matchup against Minnesota if Hoyer isn’t on injured reserve. All of the rumblings over the past month have pointed to Fox- whose misguided- favoring Hoyer over Cutler when healthy. Maintain doubt in assuming Cutler’s thumb magically healed just enough, only now, over the course of three days versus two weeks ago.
“It’s good to have Jay back. We’re excited to have him back and hopefully he can remain healthy,” said Fox of his maligned starter on Monday.
Translate the pride and happiness in relations speak to, “We don’t have another option” and or “my job is on the line, so we have to play him.”
Fox hitched his wagon to Hoyer with the largest hook possible, and now he believes in Cutler? Feel free to do a spit take. Someone’s just covering their tracks.
With Minnesota up on the docket and then a bye week, Chicago’s season potentially looks a lot different with health and their starting quarterback. There are plenty of winnable games in the second half of the season with a player in Cutler that can actually make every throw. Irony is ever present too with Cutler having Fox’s job in his hands as well as in all likelihood, his own future in Chicago.
If Cutler plays at a Pro Bowl level and wins five or six of the next nine games, this mismatched duo probably returns together next season- whether anyone likes it or not.
Said Fox more of Cutler way back in Week 5, “It’s performance based. So anybody that’s performing well, I don’t think we’re going to be likely to change.” Even Fox can’t deny his previous comments of dissent as much as he tries.
The question remains as to whether the Bears want to win these games versus just taking their lumps with young players like Floyd shining from time to time. A winning streak now may set you back and take you out of the top 10 of the draft, away from a blue chip player you need in an ongoing rebuild. Professional sports teams don’t deliberately tank and try to lose, but the overall picture of talent is still presented to them.
Over the next two months, the future and identity of an organization hangs in the balance. Whether the Bears fight their way back into the playoff picture – or conclude their downward spiral – is anyone’s best guess.
Week 8 vs. Vikings, Monday Night Football
Even with a disappointing loss in Philadelphia, the division rival, Vikings, have been the best team in the NFC to this point in the season. They have some inherent flaws like every contender, but this will be quite the mountain for Chicago to climb on Halloween.
When the Bears are on defense: Everyone mocked Minnesota for trading a first round pick for the formerly questionable quarterback in Sam Bradford, but that investment has paid off in spades.
Bradford has modest numbers at 1,204 yards and seven touchdowns, but is the model of game management efficiency with a quarterback rating of 100.3 and just one interception thrown on the year. With a team like the Vikings possess, they don’t need an Aaron Rodgers-type to carry them to cloud nine. They need someone who plays within the confines of the offense, that meaning someone who can make the occasional big play and doesn’t give the ball away, much like Bradford.
The problem herein with Minnesota’s offense- which is what ultimately may have them fall in January- is their utter lack of a ground game and quality offensive line. In Sunday’s loss at Philadelphia, Bradford was pressured on a staggering 40 percent of his 41 drop-backs. That’s not a recipe for success.
And with Adrian Peterson sidelined since Week 2, the Vikings have the NFL’s worst rushing offense in both DVOA and yardage accrued. With balance, this team has enough to go all the way, but it’s not like you can’t poke holes in their operation.
With Chicago’s defense getting healthier, if Minnesota doesn’t spring for more balance, a pass rush of Leonard Floyd, Willie Young, and a recovering Pernell McPhee figure to have a big day against one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Look for them to tee off regardless of a victory.
When the Bears are on offense: This game on national television would have been downright humiliating if Matt Barkley was forced to start against the league’s current best defense.
Jay Cutler’s return marks a way towards risk taking and regrettable chances missed. Cutler’s a quarterback that’s going to make mistakes but at least he isn’t afraid to make them in the confines of a play that’s broken down all around him. The Bears have an element of danger in their passing game again and that’ll be much needed against the number one ranked pass defense in Minnesota.
Chicago will need balance though, and a lot of this game plan is predicated on the health of Pro Bowl guards Josh Sitton and Kyle Long. If neither or only one is able to play, you can expect Cutler’s passing pocket to be torn asunder all night long and any hopes of a quality running game with tailback Jordan Howard to go by the wayside. The Vikings also have the NFL’s second-best rushing defense, of course. An offensive line in shambles won’t get enough push to create any holes against a dominant front seven like this.
If Sitton and Long do play though, then Chicago can try and get Howard and Ka’Deem Carey rolling. Zach Miller and Alshon Jeffery will also have a matchup advantage against the terrifying Anthony Barr and Xavier Rhodes. Put simply, a healthy Bears offense makes this a fight.
Anything less, you have the entire country wondering why they’re watching Chicago again. It’ll be closer than people think.
Early pick: Vikings 29 Bears 21