By Robert Zeglinski
To many, the Chicago Bears are only living up to an ideal of the disappointment they’ve become, as they hope to leave the 2016 season behind in a lackluster heap that’s blown away in the wind. There isn’t much reason to believe in a team well out of the playoff race, as player development and these final battles can’t captivate everyone. This is what years of pent-up frustration will do to a crowd desperate for any semblance of hope. Pessimism is ingrained in the mind. The Bears have the overall most wins in NFL history, but they haven’t done much to consistently add to that mark in awhile.
Everything is meaningless, right? Woe is everyone.
Others will want their time validated when they tune in on Sunday afternoons. That’s fair and balanced. You’re only guaranteed four months of your team’s football every season. Well, unless you enjoy August and the preseason, (more power to you). If the Bears aren’t making any competitive noise, at least they aren’t waving the white flag to where fans are objectively upset in their lack of effort. With a thorough enough search – grab a spotlight – assume they’ll find some reason, any reason, to believe in a vivid future. Of course, while disregarding that this has become an all too common exercise by the end of each year for an increasingly exasperated fan base.
Ultimately, that’s what 2016 has been for the Bears.
A tug-and-pull of among the fan base, the organization, and those who cover this currently hapless, but ultimately growing team. That’s how it’s been for largely the last eight weeks or so. Moral victories abound. Momentum, whether it does mean something – or however it’s defined – the referendum on sale.
A 20-17 loss to the Detroit Lions, one filled with positivity, but in the end – regret – was every bit a team still searching for it’s own identity. Still believing in a greater purpose and whether this will lead to the top of the mountain. A team missing more than half of its starters trying to understand what there is to build on even if there won’t be much relevant winter football for now.
Guys with more pull in the organization believe the search for that identity.
“It’s in our hands at this point, you know what I mean? We have to finish together,” said Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.
Hicks is a guy has turned himself a leader with his play this season, so his thought process more than likely reflects the group. You have to wonder where this path does take the Bears though. Finishing together for the sake of finishing is one thing. Actually succeeding with wins is another. Chicago doesn’t do that.
They find ways to lose, essentially what 3-10 teams do. They make mistakes and take penalties – 11 for 139 yards – at the most inopportune times. A bounce from cohesion to disorganization. Head coach John Fox’s Bears haven’t improved much in this regard.
Sure, criticize a first place Lions team for not blowing their competition out of the water. There aren’t many advanced statistical marks to refer to what they do well on either side of the ball. The Lions weren’t supposed to be here. Preseason prognosticators that are always correct didn’t see this jump coming, and for good reason.
Yet, Detroit has eight wins in the fourth quarter this season, a clutch and impressive mark. They’re currently the NFC’s number two seed and are in line for a first-round bye should they take care of business down the stretch.
Exactly how did these cardiac cats get here?
Save for untimely interceptions thrown by their quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Bears (over half of his seven picks have now come at Chicago’s hand), they don’t turn the ball over, as the Lions have just 10 giveaways all season – tied for second least in the NFL.
And they don’t make mistakes in crunch time. They take advantage of what the opposition gives them. When the Bears reward Detroit as they did with timely holding penalties, the Lions don’t go blank. They cash in with a score or get off the field as a defense. Yes, the Lions aren’t a juggernaut, but they’re opportunistic, the mark of a team ready for the postseason.
Winning ugly is still winning. A lesson these Bears will hope to learn beyond trying hard as a team comprised of cast-offs and fringe roster players presently. They’re merely doing what they’re capable as Fox would agree.
“Our guys compete their tails off – that’s not our issue – it’s doing the necessary things to win,” said Fox.
Asking more in competing is irresponsible.
But even while the talent for Chicago is significantly improving, results are always the bottom line. Feel free to count on youth such as Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. It’s safe to throw in Eddie Goldman there too. Guys like Nick Kwiatkoski and Bryce Callahan are also potential chess pieces, etc.
The roster coming together slowly but surely, and here the Bears are still, 3-10. They’re still 0-7 on the road with the ability to make franchise history in going 0-8 away from Soldier Field for the first time (When they went 0-7 in 1974, the league had a 14-game season). And, they still seemingly haven’t climbed out of the funk they were supposed to be leaving in the beloved Marc Trestman.
With Sunday’s loss, Bears head coach John Fox is guaranteed to finish with less wins than his predecessor in two years. So even while the Bears are displaying signs of light, you wonder where the buck stops. You question whether they have the right man in charge to galvanize this group once they’re fully stocked and prepared for ring-fitting.
Where they finally turn a corner and have all of this effort translate into something meaningful beyond momentum that simply doesn’t exist. A tangible concept created only out of feeling. Feelings don’t last forever.
Patience is indeed a virtue in a long rebuild for the Bears, but with enough time, it’ll run thin.
Maybe it already has.
Week 15 vs. Green Bay
The Packers come into Soldier Field on Sunday as one of the hottest teams in the league, with the league’s hottest quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. If Green Bay wins, they’ll have tied the all-time series between the rivals.
When the Bears are on defense: The last time these two met on ‘Thursday Night Football’ was the market correction Rodgers needed to right his 2016 season. In the past eight games, Rodgers has thrown 22 touchdowns, is completing 67.9 percent of his passes, and has a remarkable 108.3 passer rating. He’s only thrown three picks in that same span too.
So much for a “down year” that has Rodgers on pace for 39 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope for Chicago. If not for a lackluster offense – that had just 189 yards – ironically led by current quarterback Matt Barkley after Brian Hoyer broke his arm, the Bears defense doesn’t run out of gas last occasion. Chicago’s defense pressured Rodgers and covered Green Bay receiving core well enough with a similar group of band aids, that they actually held a 10-6 lead in the third quarter of the 26-10 loss.
The key will be to replicate that effort, as this was the game where Floyd – a top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate – broke out with two sacks, a forced fumble, and a touchdown. Floyd will have to do something similar again as he’s improved aplenty in the past two months. Floyd’s complimentary partner, Pernell McPhee, is also healthier than the spot duty he was relegated to in Green Bay, so that’ll help.
When the Bears are on offense: Barkley returns to the scene of the crime of his worst performance of the season. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ exotic zone blitzing schemes proved to throw an inexperienced Barkley off kilter to the tune of two interceptions and general inaccuracy.
With three starts under his belt now, there’s comfort as Barkley is a different quarterback than the one that appeared at Lambeau Field. He’s playing within himself and has lead an offense without an objective number one passing option well according to expectations.
This is Barkley’s opportunity to rectify past mistakes and instill belief in a Chicago front office searching for its quarterback of the future.
It won’t be easy against a Green Bay defense that’s allowed just 36 points in the past three weeks combined, but it’s not an impossible task. The return of star receiver Alshon Jeffery from suspension, and as always a steady dose of the running back Howard, will help Barkley immensely.
As long as Barkley plays to his skillset, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have success against a unit that struggled mightily in the midseason. How much success he has exactly, will no doubt factor into offseason evaluations of his standing on the roster.
Beating Green Bay is always a way to build up goodwill in Chicago.
Early pick: Packers 28 Bears 19