By Robert Zeglinski
Most NFL teams are ideally relevant for the postseason come December. It’s the month where home field advantage is determined, playoff berths are clinched, and organizations take stock of their roster before the January battles begin. Everything you do is centered around staying afloat, and for some, becoming a juggernaut.
For the Chicago Bears following their 27-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans, this final stretch run has become more like a second preseason of evaluations. Normally each August offers four games in the first opportunity for the front office to ascertain the quality of their coaching staff, players, and progress building towards that contending crescendo. Leading into the season, those first evaluations are more of a tune-up in preparing for the season’s grind.
Yet, as the year begins to close, less than fortunate teams like the Bears, are left attempting to circle the wagons on what went wrong. Picking up the pieces as injuries, suspensions, and by all effective measure – elimination from postseason contention sets in.
The 2016 Bears had high hopes back in August and are now going through the same evaluation process with an almost masochistic five games left to play. What went wrong? Who or what is at fault? These are questions Chicago will have to ask.
Somehow, head coach John Fox still believes they are.
“We’re, believe it or not, getting closer. We’re just not there yet.”
One has to admire Fox’s public confident stance, but posturing only gets you so far. Considering everything that’s been thrown onto Fox’s lap this season, it’d be difficult to blame him if he’s wavered. You’d have the Christmas list with every imaginable toy listed in a comparison of taking stock of everything that’s gone wrong for the Bears.
Let’s go on down the line.
Start with Chicago now leading the NFL with 15 players on injured reserve following linebacker Danny Trevathan suffering a ruptured patella tendon late against Tennessee. Your first two quarterbacks are in all likelihood, done for the season. That’s especially true on Jay Cutler’s part, no matter how much Fox will say Cutler is “day-to-day” and offer conflicting messages to throw everyone for a loop. That leads to career journeyman, Matt Barkley, being the man in tow.
Even if he played well late in garbage time against a horrid Titans defense, it’s not like Barkley inspires confidence beyond wondering whether he’s a quality backup.
Then, players like safety Adrian Amos have regressed after being seen as a building block last season. The Amos seen against the Titans who struggled in coverage was nothing new. Or, a definite foundational piece like defensive tackle, Eddie Goldman, having been plagued by injuries for the second straight year – nullifying any growth. And to top it all off, in an increasingly weak NFC North that’s up for grabs, the Bears have been the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team of consistency even when they’ve had relative health.
On this purgatory-like year, Bears veteran outside linebacker Willie Young noted, “I really think it’s going to help and build us as a team in the future.”
You’re just not sure how much Young and others will continue to believe the more hits this team takes.
Somehow, the Bears have led in nine of 11 games played in 2016, and have even held a lead at the half in five of them. With that in mind, it’s difficult to tell whether they’re competing or playing out the string to hibernate for a long winter. This is the primary question general manager Ryan Pace currently has sitting on his table.
How did all of this become a missed opportunity in this storm?
To understand his thought process, remember that the NFL is a results-driven business defined by wins and losses to personnel evaluators like Pace. There are no moral victories such as finishing strong to build momentum for the next season. Pace will have to take stock of what all of these injuries and vague games in press conferences by Fox mean.
Right now, everyone from the head coach to the fringe roster players are fighting for their place. They’re building a statement that they belong and can contribute something towards the Bears’ ultimate goal of a championship. And yet, beyond individual evaluations of depth guys, there’s nothing to be benefited from winning. The regulars that you would want to see on the field such as the budding star rookie, Leonard Floyd, are still in the concussion protocol.
Chicago won’t tank for draft positioning given that there’s still necessary competitive spirit, but it’s difficult to see them winning a game with what they have available anyway. And that has to be music for Pace’s ears to potentially acquire a blue-chip talent as much as fans and pundits will rip their hair out in frustration over this lackadaisical effort.
It should be seen as a possible blessing-in-disguise. Players like generational defensive talent Myles Garrett could be waiting if all goes well, or rather down the drain. Next week’s “Loser Bowl” with the 1-10 San Francisco 49ers awaits.
But that’s a conversation for another day. Consider that Fox’s Bears will have to win out in these last five games just to reach a 13-19 record in his first two seasons – the same record as the previously much maligned, Marc Trestman. Chicago’s 2-9 start is their worst in the 21st century. The Bears also are just 3-10 at home to this point in Fox’s tenure, with three more opportunities to add more blemishes this season.
Finally, 11,086 tickets were unused by fans this past Sunday at Soldier Field on an objectively quality day of football weather for late November. As it grows colder in December, that generous figure will no doubt grow and hang over the head decision makers at Halas Hall. Results and money talk together.
A reportedly contentious relationship between Fox and Pace on things such as the development of a future young quarterback won’t help Fox’s status here either. Everyone – from the fans to Pace – is reaching a boiling point of frustration with his version of the team. The mythical “year-two” jump to the postseason Fox has enjoyed in previous coaching stops hasn’t happened – an indictment on the original plan.
For precedent, Oakland Raiders general manager, Reggie McKenzie, fired his coach midway through their current tenure to get the man he wanted in Jack Del Rio. He learned from his mistakes. In conjunction with other quality moves in the draft and free agency, Oakland now sits near the top of the league – with one of the brightest futures.
The NFL’s youngest head man in Pace will have to determine whether it’s high time for him to enact a similar slight reboot, and put this franchise back on track towards bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Halas Hall.
Week 13 Vs. San Francisco 49ers
This game is every bit as advertised: all about draft positioning. That’s because the product on the field won’t be great between two of the very worst teams in the league. It’s the “Loser Bowl” for a reason.
When the Bears are on defense: The 49ers have the league’s 29th ranked offense, but much of that statistical output was when Blaine Gabbert was at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick has been under center of late. He’s had the 49ers compete well with two current playoff teams in the Miami Dolphins and New England in the past two weeks.
Chicago’s entire focus will center around confusing Kaepernick, a mobile quarterback who makes team pay with his legs. He’s averaged 250-plus yards from scrimmage, making him a dual threat that the depleted Bears defense might not be able to deal with. Chicago will likely be without three of their top linebackers considering Trevathan’s injury, Jerrell Freeman’s suspension, and Floyd’s ongoing recovery from his concussion. The Bears didn’t get a sack of Titans quarterback, Marcus Mariota last week and without Trevethan and Freeman, they are now very vulnerable in the middle of the field too. Though, cornerback Kyle Fuller may return this week to offer a boost in the secondary. Rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and company will have to show out against an increasingly efficient Kaepernick.
When the Bears are on offense: Barkley’s almost-legendary 20-point rally against the Titans likely would’ve happened if Chicago didn’t set a modern era franchise record for drops, with 10. Receivers Marquess Wilson, Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, and Eddie Royal will have to come through for Barkley if Chicago is to win it’s objectively last “winnable” game on the schedule.
But the mission should have tailback, Jordan Howard, running wild against the league’s last ranked rushing defense. Even while being the NFL’s ninth leading rusher to go with a top-five yards per carry mark, Howard has received just 50 total attempts in the past three weeks. That’s not good enough.
Anything less than riding Howard’s back against an abhorrent San Francisco front will be negligible coaching by the Bears staff.
Three wins combined between these two teams: settle in for the fun!
Early pick: 49ers 22 Bears 19