By Robert Zeglinski
There’s a crucial mistake many make in regards to competitive windows in the NFL. They assume, by proxy, that windows will last longer than the blink of an eye. They believe that windows won’t be flashes in the pan, adventures into once bygone eras of success that never quite possess enough staying power. A window opens, a crisp, comforting breeze wafts in, and the room’s atmosphere becomes luxurious. It’s comforting. It’s easy to get lost in the moment and lounge, to imagine what could be, what will be. Joy and achievement in one year in one place in time clouds perception. The gravy train is destined for greatness and triumph and affluence year after year. The opposition has no say in the matter. Consistency in victory is a guarantee, a rite of passage, and not a rare privilege rooted in fortune with injury and the right mix of players coming together at the specific right time. You can’t perceive any regression from this vantage point because it’s a foreign concept in lieu of a rapid ascension to the top. Falling back down to earth in disappointment is never a consideration. A fall from near the top is too catastrophic a thought to even envision due to the pain it would, and does, cause.
A fall from near the top can, theoretically, be recovered from. But most often, the perforations created in your body on the way down can’t be patched up. The wounds are too severe, too catastrophic, too far gone to simply allow you to get up and dust yourself off and make something of nothing. It’s here where one imagines what could’ve been in melancholy, rather than what was.
The Bears entered this season on a platform of stratospheric expectations. They were a Super Bowl contender. They were a juggernaut poised to go pound for pound, taut for taut, blow for blow with other NFC heavyweights. They were the best team in their own city since an iteration that embellished in music videos and media and their very presence of talent more than any other. Their plan, no matter how justified or lofty in assertion, became a rough ride of it instead.
Most factors in the championship puzzle have a semblance of a collective identity by mid-season. The Bears, defined by a still-special defense and nothing else, did not. Most aren’t sitting in a place of discord and chaos with no way to climb out. Ask the Bears where they stand on the long-term future of their proposed franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Ask them whether the toll of significant injuries to cornerstones like Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan have played a role in their slow-rolling demise. Discuss the reality of tuning the outside out, of turning the television with those darned talking heads on it, off. Their answers won’t amount to much more than a careless shrug or frustrated huff, or both.
Even in the rare case where a team finds itself smack dab in the middle of both of these prisms while pushing for a title, they’re not in any mathematical precarious position. They’re not multiple games below .500, needing significant assistance from the outside in addition to clean perfection. Perfection, of course, being an outright impossibility based on all preceding evidence. There remains a feasible path back to relevance for the occasional also-ran, that might allow them to become the headliner again. They only have hope because the numbers haven’t ruled out their hope, as they do for so many.
The realistic end to the Bears’ 2019 season is a somber fizzle out. A former division champion with nothing to play for by the moment the calendar shifts to the next decade. At 7-6 with three match-ups remaining against teams currently in the postseason picture, bleak is the operative underlying word. Bleak is the status quo, the only means of existence for a squad once left for dead and buried alive, destined to stay six feet under. The Bears not only have to win out, they have to cross their fingers that others such as the Rams and Vikings fall short enough to keep a sliver in the window cracked open. In other words, they should be hoping to die, rather than seeing fateful childish superstition play in their favor.
At least a bucket of ice cold reality hasn’t seemed to crush the spirits at Halas Hall just yet.
“We’re in a position now where we’ve gotta have help,” a melancholic Matt Nagy said. “But none of that matters if we don’t win. It means nothing. Let’s control what we can control.”
It’s a testament to Nagy’s work that the Bears have a pulse. How his players have rallied behind his message, how one of pro football’s former worst offense’s is suddenly one of the hottest over the past month, is a dramatic tonal shift from the walking corpse roaming Soldier Field in late October. The Bears appear to have finally pieced it together. They’ve figured out what they were supposed to accomplish, and morphed into the team many believed they would be back in August and September.
But it might be too little, too late. It might be too vast of a hole to dig out of. It might be too tall of a mountain to climb. It is a reach of titanic proportions by the standards of a franchise not used to responding in kind to self-made adversity.
On the heels of a three-game winning streak, anything can happen to a team believing again. But the wounds of the near-past don’t fade away because you decide to ignore them. They take their sobering effect regardless, and you merely get better at soldiering on. They close the window before you ever had a notion of its openness being temporary.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.