By Robert Zeglinski
A conversation of meaningful games for the Chicago Bears has struck up in the past few weeks. In a 2016 season where for many reasons the Bears are well out of the playoff race, the ideal to intentionally lose, or lose while competing, has been a significant underlying sentiment for the organization. Maintaining a high slot in next April’s draft is crucial for a team looking to continually add blue chip talent to a budding roster.
But tanking or otherwise selling out to possess better odds in the NFL’s greatest lottery – just doesn’t happen. Players and coaches across the roster are fighting for roster spots and morale down the stretch. Some of these men could potentially not even be with the team next year so they’re trying to prove themselves. Why then, would they pay mind to a draft slot that have may no have bearing on their football careers? They’re not thinking like fans attempting to manage the team. As long as a locker room still believes and isn’t lost by a coach, a team will be playing hard, working for positivity and measured signs of growth to the end.
In the first blustery snow of the winter year – while staring their own draft destiny dead in the face – in a suffocating 26-6 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Bears made their statement of intent. This season ends on their terms in playing for each other to grow together, not for a better shot at a player that might not even pan out. A shot at the number two overall pick has likely gone by the wayside, but you’d be remiss to figure that mattered to Chicago. There are greater models of pride at stake. Head coach John Fox’s future at Halas Hall is still up in the air given his 3-9 team’s struggles, but one would be hard pressed not to be impressed with how his Bears are playing from whistle to whistle even while decimated by injuries.
Chicago now has 16 players on injured reserve with the addition of quarterback Jay Cutler late Monday night – the largest figure in the NFL – so they’re essentially a bare bones team of undrafted free agents. Uniting together shouldn’t be so easy, but it’s a credit to the Bears coaching staff. There are still pillars to attain.
“Hats off to those guys in the locker room. A lot of the young guys had to answer the bell and they’ve done an outstanding job.” Said Fox of his team’s newfound resolve.
And at this rate, you find heroes and leaders where you can. For these Bears, it’s particularly their 2016 draft gems in rookies Leonard Floyd, Jordan Howard, and Cody Whitehair respectively. Even while the 49ers are the worst team in the NFC, general manager Ryan Pace’s plan shined in this contest. Yes, it’s okay to take stock of players’ quality even against the worst of competition. It still matters.
While there are other pieces that could be fixtures such as linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, this three-headed monster sticks out.
In Whitehair’s case, he was to be the Bears’ starting left guard. He almost exclusively played tackle late in college at Kansas State. But injuries to the formerly incumbent center Hroniss Grasu forced the Bears’ hand. Versatility is a virtue.
Now, 12 games into the season, Whitehair looks like the incremental man in the middle for a decade. Offensive linemen often don’t fully receive the recognition they deserve. They’re not the flash players making highlight reel receptions or throws down the field. But you’d be mistaken not to notice Whitehair, especially on plays where he knocks defensive linemen off kilter even while they were lined up offside. Whitehair gave the Bears another scare they did not need when he rolled his ankle early against San Francisco. But, he persevered through an ailing injury that doesn’t appear to be serious.
Now’s not the time to let the team down. “It’s good to see smiles back on the faces of guys,” said the leader Whitehair of the Bears’ third win. A tough, polished, and perennial Pro Bowler – already a top man at his position – at just the tender age of 24.
Not to be outdone, there’s of course of Jordan Howard, a prize get for Pace and company in the fifth round. The NFL’s ninth leading rusher had a historic day against the 49ers with his fifth 100-yard game of the season coming on a three-touchdown performance. He’s been the Bears’ galvanizing force on offense that’s run patiently and explosively downhill. When Chicago has been able to get Howard going, the offense hasn’t been stopped. It’s a testament to Howard’s ability and maturity that he’s been able to handle the increased pressure.
Not every rookie tailback can excel with all of the defensive attention centered on them, but hasn’t bothered Howard, as Fox praised another of his rookie leaders.
“He’s mature beyond his years.” Said Fox of Howard and his rise.
All of the conversation of Pace letting long-time franchise stalwart back Matt Forte walk in free agency has been quelled completely because of Howard’s emergence, perhaps only a shocking development for those outside of Chicago organization. Now, the Bears again have a young franchise star in the backfield.
Finally, to the man that is becoming a superstar week by week in Leonard Floyd. Many criticized Pace for drafting Floyd with the 2016 first round pick. Some saw him as too raw and not yet used to a full pass-rushing role – a skillset he wasn’t exclusively deployed in at college at Georgia. Plus, he was undersized at 240 pounds. This was a player that wasn’t supposed to pay dividends immediately.
Well, Pace would never publicly gloat, but you know the young general manager has to be enjoying watching his hand picked star blossom into an unstoppable force.
After a slow start plagued by injuries and inconsistency, Floyd now has 16 tackles, six and a half sacks, a touchdown, and a safety in his last five games played. Two weeks after a scary head injury that had everyone hold their breath, Floyd put on a show against San Francisco. With four tackles, two sacks, a quarterback hit, a tackle for loss, and said safety, Floyd put himself in a race for hardware at season’s end.
At the moment, he’s one of the frontrunners for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and if he continues his torrid pace, the eventual voting will be a foregone conclusion. The best mentality of pass rushers is continual work. Given the repertoire of skills he’s added over the past three months, he possesses that necessary patience. When you factor in a hungry relentlessness in combination with freakish athleticism, a star like Floyd is born.
“I try to get to the quarterback as much as I can, as quickly as I can.” Said Floyd of his special acumen in finishing plays.
Building blocks such as these men are what give the Bears hope. The draft is an unknown commodity until that time arrives. More or less, Chicago knows what it has in its young talent and it’s crucial that these players continue to flash.
In the 2016 home stretch, Pace’s grand scheme has begun to take shape, even if it’s difficult to envision right now on the outside. What’s important is that the Bears see the end goal in mind, and are continually striving for that future glory, one game at a time.
Week 14 At Detroit Lions
Detroit is one of the hottest teams in the league, as they’ve won four games in a row to vault themselves into position for their first NFC North division title since 1993, and a potential first round bye in the playoffs.
When the Bears are on defense: Last time Chicago played the Lions, they flustered MVP candidate quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to his worst game of the season. Stafford was off target at Soldier Field as he threw two interceptions and helped the Bears salt away their first victory of the season in October.
In eight games since, Stafford has almost been perfect with 13 touchdowns and only one interception thrown, propelling the Lions to contenders.
What’ll be different this time around is that Stafford’s number one target in Golden Tate has been on fire of late, coming on the heels of an eight reception, 145-yard day against New Orleans. Chicago’s boosted pass rush that didn’t have Pernell McPhee or a this confident, Leonard Floyd, on last occasion, will have to get in Stafford’s face consistently to break up this connection.
When the Bears are on offense: Quarterback Matt Barkley has been a surprise filling in as the third string passer. His game managing performance in the snow with no turnovers was one of Chicago’s highlights against the 49ers. The 26-year-old has raised questions of his potential even if only as a backup and the Bears have to be delighted at this development.
Against the NFL’s 20th ranked passing defense, Barkley should have plenty of opportunities to get comfortable again. The Lions also are only around the middle of the pack with 27 sacks – good for 15th in the league.
While Detroit’s defense led by cornerback, Darius Slay, has improved recently, they’re still far from a juggernaut. Seven of the Lions’ eight wins have been decided in the fourth quarter, so expect this one to come down to the end at Ford Field.
Early Pick: Lions 27 Bears 21