By Robert Zeglinski
For years, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has regularly talked about sustained success, almost to the point of it being a verbal crutch. In the midst of a combined 14 wins in three seasons before 2018, Pace never veered from his vision. He was steadfast in getting the Bears to a place where they would have an extended window as to capture glory. To get that sustained success, Pace established the pillars of a quality quarterback, a dynamic locker room and organizational culture, and a young core to build around.
After a 12-4 season that ended with an NFC North title and a disappointing 16-15 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Game on Sunday, the Bears are finally in a position to live up to Pace’s mandated billing. While they won’t be lifting a Lombardi Trophy in a month, they’ll have a chance to do so soon because they should be playing in many Januaries for years to come. Their team construction says as much.
The Bears have Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback that has issues to work through, but is assuredly the future of the franchise. There were many ups and downs when it came to the young quarterback in 2018. By the end of it, as Chicago’s season hung in the balance, Trubisky stepped up and shined uncommonly. Provided he takes the next step towards superstardom – not mere competent leadership – and Trubisky’s the weapon of a signal caller the Bears have never had that makes sure they’re always relevant in the winter. A weapon that’s only improving.
“I’m hungrier than ever,” Trubisky said in the aftermath of the Bears’ playoff defeat. “I’m just scratching the surface.”
The Bears have a galvanizing head coach in Matt Nagy that’s gotten every piece of their organization to buy in unconditionally. Where Nagy is lauded as an offensive innovator and genius play-caller, his real strength comes in motivation and cultivating a familial atmosphere that sets the Bears apart. Nagy, the likely Coach of the Year, is a natural borne leader who understands the nuances of modern football. That kind of combination for the opposition is deadly, and incredibly comforting for those in Halas Hall. Nagy has given the Bears a firm identity, and that means something grand.
“We made tremendous strides as a group, we formed an identity,” said veteran Kyle Long. “And we left some unfinished business out there.”
On the whole, the average age of the Bears’ 22 starters on offense and defense is 26. Only two will be a minimum of 30-years-old by next season in Prince Amukamara and Long, and Long may not even return. If football is a young man’s game, and it is, then the Bears are in their ideal physical primes to take advantage of that notion. They’re not going anywhere because their bodies and natural gifts won’t let them. The teams that most commonly drop off are squads built on aging veterans, and that can’t describe the Bears for the time being.
With this mix, sustained success is on the horizon: ideally with playoff heartbreak eventually completely shelved.
Pace has never completely elaborated on what his mission of sustained success meant, but simple inferences tell the story. Sustaining success is about more than being relevant in December and in the postseason hunt every year. It’s not as basic as getting a playoff berth or winning your division, either. It’s by whatever means necessary giving yourself a shot at competing for championships by being among the last 12 NFL teams standing.
If that means going 14-2, attaining a first-round bye, and clearing a nice home-field path to the big game, so be it.
If that means just barely sneaking in on the last day of the regular season and having the most difficult of roads to a championship, that works just as fine.
There are easier roads to a Super Bowl in the playoffs, but there’s no wrong answer to finding yourself playing meaningful games in January. That’s because if you’ve made it that far, the inherent random and cruel nature of football means you’ll have a chance, no matter the long odds. Every competitor in the playoffs is dangerous and capable of wreaking havoc, as the young Bears learned against Philadelphia.
Prior to 2018, the Bears made the postseason five times in the last quarter century, this year acting as their sixth berth. Every time they did make a jump towards contention, it was a team that lasted for a season or two before fading into obscurity. Teams loaded with talent like Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman, only ever had a lottery ticket once in a blue moon. The 2001, 2006, and 2010 Bears were never able to replicate their successes from individual years, and it cost them dearly.
To be an NFL contender, to win the Super Bowl no less, you have to consistently give yourself a shot at the January dance. To eventually break through that liberating seal of a championship, you’ve got to make your customary appearances when the games are a best-of-one, and hope the ball somehow bounces your way, as cliche as it sounds.
Most often, in punching your ticket, your season still won’t end as desired.Far from it, in fact. Your year is always capable of ending on an interception, a double doink, the possibilities are endless. There will be more playoff pain to come. But the ideal of having been among the league’s 12 best teams means you had a puncher’s chance. The one-time glory outweighs any of the previous pain.
It’s easy to say the 2018 season was a failure for the Bears because they didn’t end up lifting any hardware. That loses sight of an engrossing journey and what this yaer said about the long term direction of the Bears. That would be misconstruing what their overall mission is, and the quality position they sit in.
For the first time in decades, the Bears have a quarterback, coach, and young core to lean on. There are adjustments to be made in certain areas as they continue to mature, but only sustained success can follow.
“You learn from these things,” Nagy said of the young Bears’ postseason loss. “We can’t see it right now, but I guarantee you that feeling we had in that locker room will help us in the future.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.