Stemming the tide: Bears must confront regression to mean to reach Super Bowl success
By Robert Zeglinski
In football, luck sometimes means everything. You can parse down how you’ve constructed your roster to an analytical hard numbers feel. You can spend copious amounts of hours scouting prospective players in the NFL draft and free agent process. You can establish a quality developmental program within your franchise’s culture that churns out regular starters and stars after spending a decent amount time with your organization. You can invest yourself into everything you can possibly control as to make sure team enjoys the most success, and sometimes, none of it matters anyway. Just ask the Bears after missing out on a potential deep 2019 playoff run because of a missed kick.
Sometimes, luck means everything. You take it’s benefits. You take it’s foils, too, as painful as they may be to confront.
Where the Bears particularly most enjoyed great fortune en route to their first NFC North title since the turn of the decade is in regards to turnovers and injuries. As the Bears gear up for their most anticipated season in decades this upcoming fall, they have to be prepared for a likely drop off with the two arguable biggest reasons they won 12 games in 2018. It’s the hardline regression to the mean along the lines of turnovers and injuries that present the most sizable collective obstacle to the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 34 years.
There was an element of skill to Chicago having the most takeaways in pro football with 36 and the league’s third-best turnover differential at +12. When you have preeminent studs like Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks on the same defense, you’re going to find the ball bounce into your hands more often than not. The problem with assuming the Bears continue the same kind of success in relation to turnovers is that a takeaway really often does come down to a fateful bounce or two. That the Bears only lost the turnover battle in one of 17 played games last season speaks to both their skill and having inherent randomness backing them up.
The last five NFL squads to have lead the league in takeaways each experienced a precipitous drop in production the ensuing year. The 2014 Texans went from 34 takeaways to 25 in 2015. The 2015 Panthers went from 39 to 27 in 2016. The 2016 Chiefs went from 33 to 26 in 2017. Finally, the 2017 Ravens went from 34 to 17 in 2018: a 50 percent statistical leap off a cliff, which should be seen as disastrous.
The current Bears aren’t going to be immune to this reality. In fact, it’s more than likely going to hit them hard as much as they’ll still potentially sit among the league leaders in turnovers next year. In football, you’re more likely to get the bounces if you’re talented and balanced well, but fortune is still regularly present in making it happen. There, sometimes the wave hits you, and sometimes it frowns upon your entire prescribed endeavor.
The same sentiment applies to injuries, which NFL teams have even less of their destiny in their hands. Football is a brutal sport. It churns out the careers of players that can’t withstand it’s punishment, and brings about more pain and injury than it ever manifests worthwhile joy and success for those involved. A quality strength and conditioning program can help turn this on it’s head to a degree. An emphasis on stretching, nutrition, and relaxation will never overcome the reality of such a dangerous game, nevertheless.
Football players get injured. That’s what they do, and that’s what they will always do. Sometimes the bug will stray away from them, and sometimes it’ll nag away without mercy.
The Bears lost a mere 12 games to injury for their main defensive starters in 2018. That’s after a year where they lost a total of 63 games and were one of the most injury-riddled NFL teams for their previous few campaigns. For the first time in awhile, Chicago never had to consistently about how health factored into their success because they sat pretty for most of the season. It’s no coincidence that the Bears didn’t feel the harsh reality of injuries in football until Eddie Jackson had a late season foot injury, and until Trey Burton sat out the NFC Wild Card Game due to a groin injury.
The healthiest talented team will win almost always win over the talented but injured opponent. The cliche of availability being the best availability applies on a roster-wide level, too.
As the 2019 off-season develops, the Bears are going identify the multi-faceted running back they add in free agency or the draft. They’re going to bolster the depth of their secondary and offensive line. They’ll become more comfortable together and create worthwhile chemistry that only the top tier professional squads enjoy. Sustainability is on the horizon in these areas.
All of it will pale in comparison to the fortune, or lack thereof, they receive with turnovers and injury variance. The bolstering they do over the coming months and weeks is what will help stem the tide. The more complete and comfortable team the Bears possess, the better suited they’ll be to overcome adversity they won’t be able to control as much as they’d like.
In the NFL, luck sometimes means everything. That’s especially so for the inherent volatility of turnovers and injuries.
For the Bears on the precipice of a championship run, they’re at the mercy of what lady luck sends their way.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.