By Robert Zeglinski
All the way back when the Chicago Bears came off of their bye week this season, they believed they were on the cusp of piecing a quality season together, even while sitting at 2-6. Returning injured players such as defensive tackle, Eddie Goldman, and quarterback, Jay Cutler, were beacons of hope for a team languishing. The Bears were the most confident 2-6 team in NFL history.
And did they pull themselves out of their deep funk? No. They fell in seven of their last eight games.
Sunday afternoon’s 38-10 laugher of a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, that was over before it even started (the Vikings took a 17-0 lead to start the game), capped an embarrassing, record-setting low of a year for the league’s charter franchise.
Go on down the line of new “accomplishments.” Records galore. The regime of general manager, Ryan Pace, and John Fox, added plenty to the ledger in 2016.
A 3-13 finish is the worst mark for Chicago since 2002 – a transplant season spent in Champaign, Illinois, when they went 4-12. For the first time, the Bears went 0-8 on the road, eclipsing a previous mark of 0-7 in 1974 – when the NFL had a 14-game season. They haven’t had fewer than four wins since 1973. This season’s 3-13 is their worst 16-game season, ever. In two years, Fox’s Bears have won nine games – only one more than the widely maligned, Marc Trestman, in his inaugural 2013 season. This will be the sixth straight January the Bears don’t make a postseason appearance – now the sixth longest in the league.
And to top it all off from a statistical on the field standpoint, the Bears have set a team record-low in takeaways as a defense in back-to-back years. Overall, they have 28 takeaways as a defense in two seasons under Fox and defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. In 2013 alone, Trestman and former coordinator, Mel Tucker, had 28.
Yes, the Bears have a lot to be proud of from the less-than-progressive 2016. Yet somehow, they believe. Ever so graciously, guys are confident, and while you can’t blame them, you wonder where the confidence comes from.
A widely panned post-game comment by pending unrestricted free agent receiver, Alshon Jeffery, had many musing of where the star’s mind wanders.
“I guarantee you we’ll win a Super Bowl next year,” said a defiant Jeffery.
But who does Jeffery mean by we? He’s not guaranteed to return to Chicago unless a long-term agreement can be reached, or, a franchise tag is applied. Because in reality, it’s difficult to ascertain any kind of reasonable contention from the pit the Bears currently reside in.
If Jeffery plans on eventually signing with the New England Patriots to play catch with Tom Brady, sure. But belief in the Bears is just another flawed ideal sold again and again.
Seeing any measure of positivity from the outside looking in moving forward with these Bears is a fickle concept. This game, this league, is and always will be, results-driven. It’s how it works. Everybody has potential. Everybody has hope for the future. Everybody is just this close as long as they make this move and that corresponding move and each puzzle piece just happens to fall into place. But you actually have to have success materialize.
As that sentiment sits with the Bears who will be flush with salary cap space to spend in free agency and hope to put together another draft like 2016’s that produced hopeful foundational pieces in Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard. They’ve been in this position much more often than not.
Actions speak louder than words, general apathy rising, and false hope and unbridled optimism is not an uncommon moniker here. And the common denominator all centers around the Bears.
You see, everyone but the Bears can see what they’ve become, or at least that’s how it appears. There’s five stages of grief and the Bears are perpetually stuck in denial, refusing to take a look in the mirror.
The McCaskey family and this organization fancies itself as a special treasure, but they sit in consistent mediocrity. They’ve made the playoffs five times since 1991. They have finished below .500 16 times in that span. They’re now on Chicago’s longest championship drought after another consistently heartbreaking team in the Cubs, have finally figured it out and are on the brink of their own potential dynasty.
Instead of sharing similarities with other historic teams such as the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, the true story is that the Bears are more like other perennial also-rans in the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, and yes, even an expansion team, Jacksonville Jaguars. The only difference is, that the Bears have a more magnified spotlight on all of their failure given the Chicago market.
Otherwise, you couldn’t possibly distinguish among the bottom feeders of the NFL. The only stability to note here, is middling football management.
But the Bears are always close. They’re always dreaming of a better future. Fan-favorite guard, Kyle Long, has always worn his heart on his sleeve.
“I want to go to the playoffs,” said Long. “A freaking playoff game in Chicago, could you imagine that?”
Long is 28-years-old. He’s made the Pro Bowl multiple times at multiple positions. He just finished his fourth season with the Bears and here he is glossing about something that seems oh so far away. Think about how ludicrous that sounds.
But without hope, what’s a football player? What’s an athlete in general? The fan and teammate in them can only work and hope for the best. Long still understands his words mean nothing.
“I’m so tired of all the talk. Talking is not going to get us anything,” said an exasperated Long.
It’s now just a matter of if Long’s dreams will come true any time soon.
As for Howard, he finished second in rushing with 1,313 yards after only starting 13 games – one of the most impressive seasons for a rookie running back, ever. If he had played all 16 games, if the Bears weren’t dwelling in the NFC cellar, and if the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott hadn’t risen to prominence, Howard would be a prime Rookie of the Year candidate.
In that light, he can only echo Long’s thoughts. What’s an individual accomplishment if your team isn’t winning?
“There’s nothing to celebrate. We’re not winning and that’s the point of the game,” said a dejected Howard.
One needs a magic eight-ball to determine when both franchise cornerstones will finally be satisfied.
So comes another early offseason at Halas Hall, and so comes again questions. The coming days, weeks, and months will be fascinating as to how Pace, Fox, and company spin their current failure and move forward towards building a contender. There are a lot of questions that need to be addressed.
It’s fair to wonder if the Bears will ever have any of the right answers.