By Robert Zeglinski
Apathy and hope.
Two inherent opposite concepts, that have played as the tune for the 2016 Chicago Bears. After weeks of putting their best foot forward finishing close games, the Bears finally imploded in a 42-21 loss to the Washington Redskins on Saturday. A tank running dangerously on empty couldn’t get the engine roaring again.
The Redskins, a team fighting for a playoff berth, came out with the exact result expected. Washington’s roster is full of explosive weapons and is demonstratively suited to take advantage of a beaten down Bears team. That the defeat – a humiliating one at that – came on Christmas Eve, was just appropriate timing for Chicago.
This franchise hasn’t experienced much success during head coach John Fox’s tenure to this point, and the symbolism couldn’t be more glaring.
There were 478 yards allowed, a season high. Five interceptions by quarterback Matt Barkley. And a sobering 21,663 empty seats on a balmy weather, fine holiday. It would’ve been difficult to figure 5,000 diehard souls were still hanging around in the fourth quarter.
Yes, you just read a sick version of ‘12 Days of Christmas’, Bears style.
What Fox and this team possessed, even while injuries relentlessly piled on (18 players on injured reserve) in as an excuse, was a scrappy mentality to not burrow in once all hell broke loose.
Seeing Sunday’s effort paints a different picture. All of those magnanimous football clichés can only hold up so much when you’re outmanned, outgunned, and quite frankly, outcoached. The full weight of collapse will wear on a team.
But somehow – and can you really blame them – the Bears are selling progress.
Staring in the face of record futility, Fox was immediately asked in the postgame press conference about this 3-12 team’s supposed ascension. He didn’t mince words, even if the sell becomes more arduous.
“Hang with us, better days are to come,” said Fox.
His partner-in-crime, general manager Ryan Pace – a man whose had to perform a complete strip down of a roster to restock that mentioned cupboard – said much of the same on this proposed budding success.
“What I’d say is, I promise it’s coming,” said Pace of a future wave.
More promises, whether they’re empty or not, are what the Bears need. It’s all they can do at the moment. It’s both Pace and Fox’s job to sell progress as mouthpieces. They better be as genuinely convinced, or faking it, for the sake of the rest of the organization to move forward.
This is what Chicago sold following the maligned Marc Trestman days, and it may yet still be true. Better health could offer the Bears future blessings. A potential number three overall pick in next year’s draft could net a generational player. And, this organization is flush with cash in cap space to fill an abundance of roster holes.
But it’s fair to wonder whether the Bears are that close to the mountain.
This franchise has been selling hope and promises for years, to no avail. Chicago has missed the postseason in nine out of the last 10 seasons. In the past 26 years, they’ve made the playoffs just six times. For pure comparison’s sake, the Houston Texans, an expansion team from 2002, has made the playoffs in four of the last six years. Furthermore, the Bears have won just 14 games in the last three seasons. They may finish with their first 0-8 record on the road, ever. And finally, they may have their worst record in a 16-game season ever. Go on down the line.
Rebuilds in the NFL, unlike other sports, aren’t supposed to take this long.
You either harmonize within the first few years, or implode. Otherwise impatience or injury, or the like, sets in. Contending windows and the opportunity to become a contender, fade away with the flick of a finger. The salary cap plays a role as well as does sticking with the modus operandi too long. These are just some of the reasons as to why teams such as the Bears have been perpetually spinning their wheels for now decades. It’s just so hard to find that right mix. Once you do, everything slows down in a calm haze. Until then, frustration and the nadir of reflexive oversight reign.
The franchise with the most wins in NFL history has been relegated to an afterthought in one of the largest markets, as fan expectation becomes “how will they blow it next?” in contrast to any bright future.
And it’s fair to ascertain whether these pieces that have many salivating at future prospects, are as bright as one will care to admit. Or, whether all of the holes on this team can be filled in time to capitalize on whatever machine is being built.
The 2016 draft class featuring Jordan Howard, Leonard Floyd, and Cody Whitehair looks to be the foundation that the Bears need to spark a run. But then you see the aberration of the 2015 class with either half of the picks on injured reserve (Kevin White, Eddie Goldman, Hroniss Grasu) or have become spot players (Jeremy Langford, Adrian Amos.)
Two drafts and a deep, stark contrast in quality. Pace must make 2015 an anomaly, not routine.
A defense many are enamored over potential dominance with, is on the verge of attaining a franchise record low in takeaways with 10 presently, breaking last year’s mark of 17.
Great defenses get the ball away from offenses and set the field on lockdown. Good defense’s stop you often but offer a reprieve.
The offensive line, which has allowed less than 30 sacks through 15 games, looks like it needs at least one more quality athlete at tackle for true consistency. The secondary is a mess, with not one player one could reasonably count on as part of the franchise unless health permits. The receiving core may lose its best player in Alshon Jeffery and be filled with unproven, but vibrant bright spots nonetheless in Cameron Meredith and Kevin White.
On the field with other opponents, the Bears have again played divisional games competitive, a sign one could figure the gap is closing in the NFC North. But they accomplished the same moniker of competiveness among frequent enemies last year, yet here they are further entrenched in the mud.
And of course, the lack of a franchise quarterback, which takes years to develop, even if you place the man in the right atmosphere and culture. This is a position Chicago has never experienced fortune with finding a superstar in the modern era, or in 90-plus years of existence. Finding one will be the greatest determining factor as to whether Pace and Fox deliver on their words of hope, and whether they right this ship of promises.
Because of the rash of injuries, Chicago has had 62 rookie starts this season, second in the NFL. Other youthful teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys have exploded in 2016. However, the league leader in rookie starts in the Cleveland Browns is in line for the number one overall pick. Youth and inexperience proving to be a delicate seesaw that doesn’t automatically mean teams become flourishing catalysts.
Fox and others won’t back down from positivity though.
“We see improvement. It’s not in our record, but I think we are closer than people think.”
It’s up to the Bears to make these promises become reality, to offer actual evidence of that improvement in the right direction, and soon. Until then, it’s another long winter of discontent, and apathy at Halas Hall.
Week 17 at Minnesota Vikings
In the final week of the season, Minnesota and Chicago have nothing to play for, as both have been eliminated from postseason contention. If Chicago loses, they will slot in with the number three overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. If the Bears win, they may fall back to number six overall. Theoretically, there’s a lot on the line.
When the Bears are on defense: The Bears had fun with Minnesota’s putrid offensive line en route to a 20-10 win on Monday Night Football at Soldier Field on Halloween. Chicago’s defensive front recorded five sacks of quarterback Sam Bradford. It was the primary reason Chicago corralled its second win of the season.
But with the bright rookie Floyd likely shut down due to a second concussion, there isn’t as much depth or flash among Chicago’s veterans to sink the Vikings. Young hasn’t recorded a sack in almost a month. While McPhee, is more of a complimentary pass rusher. Bad news as Bradford is coming off a week where he threw for three touchdowns and 382 yards against the Packers. Without a pass rush, the Bears blight of a secondary is exposed. Not a good mix.
When the Bears are on offense: Minnesota’s formerly dominant defense has capitulated in recent weeks after giving up 34 points and 38 to the Colts and Packers respectively. But, Barkley has thrown 12 interceptions in six appearances A movable object meets a stoppable force. That being said, the Vikings defense should be favored in this matchup given the abundance of playmakers in the secondary with shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and his partner, Trae Waynes.
Howard can set the Bears all-time rookie rushing record if he rushes for 61 yards, but even if he plays well (with limited carries), it might not matter if Barkley is in another giving mood against an opportunistic secondary. The Vikings were torn apart by Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers, two generational passing talents. To put it lightly, Barkley obviously does not fit that moniker.
The Bears closed last season with a blowout defeat in Minnesota. This time, expect much of the same, but with a bright spot of a quality draft slot. For Auld Lang Syne.