Last week I looked at how long it took "successful" rebuilds to take place, and we speculated about how long it would take before the Bears were able to take part in the NFC Championship Game again. If you read that article, feel free to skip the next paragraph. If you didn't, click HERE to get caught up.
I find it hard to call a team a "success" when it barely makes it to the playoffs only to lose immediately. However, different people will have their own marks for success, and while the Super Bowl is the true prize, narrowing the discussion to only the teams that win it all can be pretty limiting. On the other hand, in order to make it to a conference championship game, a team needs to have earned at least one playoff win, and that same team now sits only a game away from the Super Bowl. To me, a team that makes it this far is clearly successful. That is why I am using this mark as my measure of "success" in these rebuilding articles.
Okay, is everyone back? Great. One unfortunate reality is that some teams don't turn around quickly. Some teams go decades without turning things around. Now that Chicago fans are buffered by back-to-back wins, it's worth looking at six teams that have not been to a conference championship game in the last twenty years. In that time, the Browns became the Ravens, the Houston Texans were formed, and 120 seasons of experimentation built up, giving us a great roadmap for where we don't want the Bears to go.
The Buffalo Bills (1993), the Kansas City Chiefs (1993), the Miami Dolphins (1992), the Detroit Lions (1991), Washington (1991), and the Cincinnati Bengals (1988) are all 20+ years removed from the last time they made it to their respective conference championship games. To put that into perspective, gas cost $1.16 a gallon when the Bills and Chiefs were last there, and there wasn't a World Wide Web when the Bengals last made it.
Obviously, each of these teams took their own path, and some of them even managed brief stretches of hope, but they averaged nearly nine losses per season per team in the last two decades, with more seasons at 10-plus losses (47) among them than playoff runs (32). When we look at them, we have to be a little careful about what assumptions we make. For example, it's tough to know if a team is struggling because it is always changing its coach or if it is always changing its coach because it is struggling. That's why, to start with, I'm only going to talk about trends before suggesting any real conclusions.
Trend #1: These teams hopped onto the quarterback carousel. Sometimes injuries happened, occasionally players retired, but mostly struggling teams looked for a boost by putting a new guy in at qb. It can get dizzying to keep track of what's a change and what's not a change (for example, how do we treat Washington in 2002?). In terms of simple continuity, Pro Football Reference lists 96 different quarterbacks starting over this time, good for 16 different starters per team over twenty years; that's not exactly a new starter every year, but it is a dizzying pace of replacement. The "stability" of the Bengals--with 11 different starters in 20 years--contrasts with the 21 different starters in Washington over the same time.
However, these teams did not invest in the quarterback position, at least when it came to drafting a quarterback and then developing him (or even just throwing him on the field). In this 20-year span, for all that there were nearly a hundred different quarterbacks started by the teams in question, only 19 picks from the top three rounds were spent on the position, and only 9 of those were first-round picks. In fact, these six teams collectively invested 40 picks in quarterbacks over 20 years,
Trend #2: These teams would stumble, recover, and stumble again. The Miami Dolphins are an exception, in that all of their playoff appearances happened before 2000 with a long empty streak afterward, but even they had a single 10-loss season sandwiched in between sets of back-to-back playoff runs. Otherwise, these teams alternate seasons with double-digit losses and playoff seasons, cycling between extremes. Of them, though, only the Bengals have been able to string together multiple playoff seasons after their respective crashes.
In fact, with the Bengals sitting at 5-0, we might be seeing the conclusion of a successful rebuild this season. I know many will say that Cincinnati needs to prove itself in the postseason, but stability at Head Coach and GM has coincided with 6 playoff seasons and only two dumpster fire seasons.
Trend #3: These teams hung onto coaches longer than quarterbacks, and they hung onto GMs longer than either. The phrase "coach killer" is thrown around to refer to bad quarterbacks, but at least for these six teams, coaches jettisoned quarterbacks way more often than the coaches themselves were fired, and at the same time GMs dismissed head coaches relatively quickly, as well.
Some of this, of course, makes sense. Still, these teams saw 20 or so GM changes in this time, or one a year (given the involvement of some of the owners in this time, tracking what is and is not a real GM change is a bit arguable). On the other hand, there were over 40 head coach switches and more than double that many different starting quarterbacks. In other words, it might just be that the real coach-killers are GMs or owners desperate to cover up their own mistakes.
So, if the Bears want to avoid getting stuck in the same sort of professional football purgatory as these franchises, they need to avoid the same mistakes.
First, if the Bears are going to develop stability at the quarterback position, they need to invest in someone and they need to provide the drafted player with some stability. I'm not saying that Charlie Batch would have turned into a Hall of Famer if the Lions just would have let him sit for years and develop in one system, but I am pointing out that Alex Smith never had a chance, really, to become the player he might have been.
Second, a shift from playoffs to ten-plus losses, or vice versa, happens over twenty times with these six teams. Small plays make such a big difference in the NFL, and the number of opportunities are so small, that yo-yo seasons are common. A team needs to be able to see itself through a down year on the way to building success. Taking a single drop as reason to panic very likely contributes to the erratic history of these franchises, and so that instability simply breeds more instability. Now that the Emery/Trestman experiment is over, the Bears need to stay the course in order to give the talent that they do have a chance to settle down and to develop.
Finally, I need to say a word about the front office. Some people think that the McCaskeys need to get more involved and that the problem is that they don't care. Please consider the examples of Mike Brown and Dan Snyder. There are others who say that the only way the Bears can get serious is to get "real football men" in place to run the team. Matt Millen would seem to suggest that other attributes are more important. If the Bears are to avoid becoming a team that spends decades on the outside looking in, they need to learn from the history of other teams in the NFL and build a stable core, invest in getting the right staff and in drafting the right players, and they need to pick a course and hold to it for a bit.
They've won two games in a row. There are some leaders in the locker room, and on the field. It's time for the Bears to just go about the building process with what might be termed a "blue-collar" ethic and Bear Down.