There is no denying the expectations are high for the Bears in 2012 and as the preseason winds down for the team this week and the final roster comes together, I think it's time to start thinking about actual predictions and realistic expectations for the 2012 Chicago Bears. No doubt they have improved their team, but the NFL cannot be looked at in a vacuum, every other team has at least tried to improve (except the Dolphins) so while Bears fans can look at 2011 and ahead to 2012 and think "Hell yeah, Super Bears, Super Bowl" is that really possible? And for Lovie Smith's job, does it even have to be?There are so many things that go into a winning season for an NFL franchise; skill, injuries, coaching, depth, schedule and yes, even luck. Look at the Bears schedule though, and it's hard not see at least 10 wins and, according to some, 11 or 12. But the NFL is known for its parity, that is, every year new teams make the playoffs, there almost always seems to be a last-to-first story and a matching first-to-worst team. The Bears have improved, but so have many other NFC teams.
Let's look at games that may have seemed no-brainer mark-it-a-win-dude when the schedule came out in April that may not be the same now.
Week 1 vs. Indianapolis - The Colts were the worst team in the NFL last year. Their defense was atrocious and their offense, without Peyton Manning, was unwatchable. But they have made the moves for a quick turnaround. Obviously, wunder-QB being the poster child, but then the rest of their draft had all sorts of toys for Luck and trading for Vonte Davis show they want their rebuild to be quick. Don't get me wrong, this team is still bad and will lose a lot, but I won't be shocked by a week one upset where Luck torches the Bears for 350 yards and three TDs. There isn't much film on him yet and we've seen other rookies come out and catch teams by surprise in week 1 before. Not to mention the questions on the o-line for the Bears could spill over into the first couple games, a la last season when the group got off to a slow start thanks to position battles dragging late into training camp.
Week 4 at Dallas - Now some fans on WCG have been more realistic than others. Looking back at the schedule release thread, most were quite realistic; 'I could see Dallas going either way,' 'Dallas is so streaky it's hard to to know if they'll play to their talent or not.' Others seemed to be marking it a win without really thinking about it. Dallas has a ton of talent, they have some question marks at receiver but Romo is a good enough QB with a good enough defense to overcome that. Primetime, at Jerry's World. Ehhh, I'm not feeling so great about it. I don't want to say it could be another Nightmare at the Meadowlands, but Rob Ryan's defense looked good against a bad Rams o-line the other night.
Week 8 vs. Carolina - Cam Newton was unlike any other rookie QB ever. Could he have a sophomore slump? Of course. However, Carolina has greatly improved its team, to the point where it doesn't need him to be as other-worldy as his rookie year. Cam is surrounded by iffy receivers, but Greg Olsen is a good enough receiver, Brandon LaFell is improving and Steve Smith is still dangerous. Cam torched the Bears last year for 409 combined passing and rushing yards and three total touchdowns. That defense looks to be much improved as well; Luke Kuechly looks to be as good as advertised and could be a Rookie Defensive POY candidate and injured players Jon Beason and Captain Munnerlyn are healthy. Just look at all the guys this team had on IR last season. They are more formidable than they seem.
Week 13 vs. Seattle - The Seahawks have had the Bears' number the last two seasons. Pete Carroll is just somehow able to out-coach Lovie it seems. Starting with that debacle in 2010, where Cutler was sacked five times, and continuing last December where, even though Marshawn Lynch was held in check, he still had two TDs and Tavaris Jackson outplayed Caleb Hanie. Hanie was sacked four times. The Seattle defense hasn't gotten worse and is one of the better units in the NFL. Who knows what they have at QB, but Seattle could be a sleeper team and another one to cause trouble for the Bears. It's easy to say "Cutler and Marshall will destroy Seattle" but Seattle features a big secondary that looks to match opposing receivers who stand tall like Marshall and Jeffery.
That's four games I think could be tougher games than a lot of fans think and let's say they drop three of them and then lose to the Texans and the 49ers. That's five losses already and a Packers sweep can't be ruled out. 9-7 might be good enough for a wild card, but it probably wouldn't. There is always a chance for two teams to come out of the NFC East, as well as the NFC South.
Now, onto the second part of my thesis. Does 2012 have to be Super Bowl or bust? Some might say yes, but I am not so sure. There is no reason that a 10-6 wild card birth and a first round win followed by a loss in the divisional round shouldn't be enough to allow Lovie to come back in '13. In fact, if the Bears merely make the playoffs and bow out in their first game I think he should come back. This team has been tweaked by Phil Emery to win now, but it doesn't have to be right now. It has a two or three season window here. It's not live or die in 2012. Emery will, I believe, continue to improve the aging defense by bringing in younger talent and solidify the offensive line and that will stretch the window for a championship to as long as Cutler is still calling the signals for the Bears.
I think, with as delicate as the window might be for the Bears canning Lovie after a playoff-less season, if it's riddled with injuries again or a quick playoff exit, would be worse for the Bears than letting him coach in '13.
If the Bears go 9-7 in 2012, as I lay out above and they are at full health at most key positions for most of the season, I don't think that should be enough to terminate Lovie and the season to be labeled a loss. The 2012 season is not, for all intents and purposes, a Super Bowl or Bust year.