By Robert Zeglinski
It’s a tale as old as time, or a story at least as old as whenever the NFL’s charter franchise was last relevant. A story that could mesh with established ideas of tradition, lore, and yes, complacency.
Winter is reaching its apex in the Western Hemisphere and the Bears, both those in the wild in their cozy caves and on the football field, are nowhere to be found. This is not a dramatic development. It’s not new for any resident in the mythical Heartlands. The last 35 years have seen the Bears of the football variety enter an early hibernation and take ages to awake from their subsequent slumber. They disrupt the prerequisite order of nature (being unsuccessful in football endeavors early in the calendar year) and have been punished for it each and every time. By direct contrast, their cousins in the forests and mountains stay true to themselves. These bears feed well in the late fall and prepare for extended inactivity out of a healthy initiative. Bunkering in for such inactivity is a feature of quality survivalism, not a bug. (Barring climate change disruptions, this won’t shift!) Even in taking into account general advantages at the top of the food chain, such as distinctions in size and speed, it’s no surprise that these bears are revered for their ferocity much more than their primary cultural adaptation.
One group consistently lives up to its namesake, bringing unprecedented weight and color to a leading species in the animal kingdom. The other is an afterthought, a mistake sitting among the least regarded, least intimidating peers behind the fabric of pro football’s pioneers.
The 2020 off-season officially began almost a month ago for the Bears. The moment they concluded an uninspiring victory over the Minnesota Vikings’ backups in the season finale, they were on a fast track to back to the drawing board. In the weeks since, cruise control has been a mandate, not a fallback. A moment to reflect before chaos. To check in with loved ones, friends, each other. But with Super Bowl LIV on the horizon, moderation, just relaxing their shoulders, and finding a gap in the schedule to simply breathe will soon prove impossible.
The NFL’s calendar is different from anything you might stick on your fridge or see in your smart phone. There’s never a moment to sleep, never a chance to bat away a chance at improvement. If you’re not working, you’re not trying. If you’re not working hard, you may as well never bother taking the field come September. In a field of workaholics and type-A personalities on a steady diet of aggro-tunnel vision for the “culture,” this is a stark reality. There is no holiday season. There are no three-day weekends. There’s barely a differentiation between seasons themselves. You’re either working and preparing to play, or working, preparing to play, and playing. Any idea of an in-between in such a set-up is a myth, a fallacy designed for those teams who want to get ahead, and those who fall behind.
The Bears find themselves in an existential pickle this spring. A roster constructed to prevail in the here and now is not ready to win. A quarterback once tabbed as the long-term future, looks more like a cautionary tale of damaged goods, over-analysis, and tunnel vision arrogance. And a general manager at the helm for five years, with but one winning season on his resume (that’s a 20 percent success rate for the math prodigies out there), has unfathomable pressure to get this show back on the rails. Or else.
The list of what the Bears (and Ryan Pace, by extension) must focus on to live up to their cousins in the wilderness in the fall may seem endless. These are arduous tasks that cut out the faint of heart on a whim, and in preliminary evaluations at that. But then again, every priority and to-do list for NFL teams pose the same challenge. No one ever sees real bears complaining about a lack of prey to hunt. They get the job done, often by tearing into a juicy salmon from a river, and their reputation precedes them as such.
Every objective and formulaic exercise starts with whomever is taking snaps. Everything else is filler and meaningless fodder by direct juxtaposition.
No self-respecting franchise can enter another season, given the roster replete with talent that the Bears have at their disposal, with Mitchell “One-Read” Trubisky under center. Chicago has no room to breathe moving forward. A litany of issues face a mediocre 8-8 outfit that could and would be solved thanks to standard competence and experience at quarterback. Competence and experience are adjectives no one has ever used to describe the 25-year-old Trubisky. He is, at this stage of his career, the antithesis of everything the Bears need from a face-of-the-franchise on offense. A regression to the mean if the bar of acceptance was a few inches from the floor. If the higher-ups at Halas Hall are seeking a callback to the drudgery facilitated by Bears quarterbacks of yesteryear, Trubisky is their man.
But then, they wouldn’t have any self-respect, now would they?
Trubisky has received every opportunity to be absolved of fault for his lack of progression (look no further than Matt Nagy scaling back Chicago’s offensive scheme to high school comprehension this past season). He’s failed in every regard at every turn, bringing sane souls to the conclusion that he doesn’t belong at the highest level of modern society’s gladiatorial pantheon. Avoiding another forced hibernation starts and ends with a veritable Bears mission that finds someone who can execute Nagy’s recasted offense in its basic form. Something Trubisky can barely fathom as a concept, let alone put into action.
Fortunately for Pace and his cohort, there’s no shortage of veteran options for the Bears to bring into the fold.
Former Chief Alex Smith, despite a mangled leg, is a tantalizing prospect that would afford Nagy a seamless transition in the short-term. If the main question is health, Smith seems like a safe bet to hedge and picture in Chicago’s navy blue and orange. Though, there would certainly be a limit on the distance a less than able-bodied Smith would be able to take the Bears in January.
Acclaimed “Red Rifle” and likely soon-to-be former Bengal Andy Dalton is another standard bearer. The 32-year-old might enjoy working in tandem with his old offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, once more. Expecting any fireworks in the second season would be foolhardy, considering Dalton’s paltry resume once “Auld Lang Syne” reverberates in the U.S.
Then there are former MVP’s; the crown imperfect jewels of an imperfect, flawed sport; the kinds of player that are only available once every blue moon, if the moon was turned on its axis and then back again.
In this specific organic phenomenon, the MVP in question is none other than current Panther quarterback Cam Newton. Whispers since Thanksgiving have placed the 30-year-old’s future in Charlotte in the spotlight, for better or worse. A 6-foot-5, 250-pound tank built like a tight end or menacing linebacker, Newton hasn’t played in a meaningful game since last September. Due to a variety of shoulder and back maladies, he hasn’t started all 16 games since 2017. Not by coincidence, that’s when Carolina was last a factor in the championship picture.
Newton himself might not have anything left in the tank. His right throwing shoulder might be a tattered mess of scar tissue and ruptured blood vessels past the point of no return. His back injuries and general battered body frame, likely now held on an unsteady table with three working legs, look like insurmountable obstacles for a person once coined “SuperMan.” Even The Man of Steel can take too many hits, too many beatings. Even a superhuman can and does succumb to the agony of sobering attrition.
But if he was prepared to walk away while his body remains in (relative) one piece, Newton hasn’t been operating as such. The Panthers seem to be preparing to trade or release a talisman that once accounted for 45 touchdowns in one year, but their decision doesn’t flip this superstar’s script. A subversive defiance defines a player looking for a home, for one last gasp at adding a piece of jewelry to the ring finger on his right hand. This is not a quarterback desiring early retirement. This is a quarterback that wants to fight Father Time in the ring and win for as long as he’s allowed.
Of every destination matching Newton’s desires, Chicago presents itself as the most attractive. A top-tier defense serving as the ultimate support for when his unit falters. Premium playmakers like Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, and Anthony Miller to lob lasers to. A head coach working with the skeleton of football’s best, nuanced playbook. And a division, despite two playoff berths, ripe for the taking to launch into the postseason. If Newton were to start his second act in the NFL on a platform of positivity and good will, the Bears are his safety net.
Whatever does happen to the Bears’ 2020 prospects in the coming weeks, the seeds they plant at quarterback will extend to every orifice and niche of the rest of the organization. If they find a steady hand, their Plan is back in motion. If the status quo soldiers on in the form of a lethargic Trubisky or a passer who has succumbed to the natural order, the Plan never had enough of a solid base to last without crumbling. The right quarterback keeps them from sleeping when they’re not supposed to. A mistake keeps them in sustained, unnatural hibernation.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.