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Rebuilding the Chicago Bears, Part 1

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The Bears are in rebuilding mode, but what does that really mean? How long does it take a team to go from pity to playoffs? Turning a team around does not take very long, but it is by no means guaranteed.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

John Fox claims the Bears are ‘building,' not rebuilding. A lot of fans are less sure. With a 1-3 start and the stench of 2014 lingering, the playoffs seem a long way away. While Bears fans will continue to hope for the best, one win does not mark a major turnaround for the franchise. If we accept that we are rebuilding, shouldn't we consider what a rebuild looks like in the modern NFL?

I don't consider a team that slips into the playoffs only to lose quickly to be ‘rebuilt.' On the other hand, fluky things can happen and a team can be ‘good' without winning the whole thing. The 2007 New England Patriots were just fine, for example. In the last decade, the Bears have made it to the conference championship game (or farther)  twice. Getting that far requires at least one playoff win and it puts the team knocking on the door of the Super Bowl. If a team gets that far, it's a contender and not a fluke.

What is it going to take for the Bears to get back again? After going 5-11 last year, maybe the conference championships seems like a distant fantasy. Still, it's closer than we might think.

While the mantra of the NFL is ‘Any Given Sunday,' and there is an illusion of parity from time to time, the reality is that in the last ten seasons of professional football, only 18 teams have made it to their conferences' championship game. That's another way of saying that 14 teams haven't seen a conference championship game in over a decade. For armchair GMs and suffering fans, it might be worth studying what happened to all eighteen teams that have made it. What did these teams do between their appearances in these penultimate games and the last time they recorded double-digit losses?

First, six teams have made a single deep run in the last ten seasons: Arizona (2008), Atlanta (2012), Carolina (2005), Minnesota (2009), Philadelphia (2008), and San Diego (2007).

There is some variety to the stories. Arizona was only two years removed from a 5-11 season when they made it to the NFCCG, but Atlanta took five years to rebuild from going 4-12 in 2007 to making a deep run in 2012. Carolina had a losing record in 2004, but their total rebuild could be seen as taking four years, rising from a 1-15 season in 2001 to their place in the NFCCG in 2005 (under head coach John Fox, interestingly enough). [Edit-the Panthers actually made it back in two years under Fox, as was pointed out in the comments below, not four] These rebuilds took an average of 3½ years.

Of these six teams, only Atlanta changed its general manager over the course of its rebuild. This is a bit misleading, though, because Minnesota didn't have a GM during this time and a change in GMs immediately preceded the San Diego fall and subsequent rise. Four of these teams changed head coaches during their turnarounds, and while Brad Childress was with the Vikings from 4-12 to 12-4, the dip to 4-12 was really the start of his tenure after replacing Mike Tice. Really, then, Andy Reid is the only true outlier, keeping his job and seeing things through to a recovery.
When it comes to the front office, then, the Bears are following the script, even if they are on the aggressive side of things.

Quarterback can be a sensitive subject in Chicago, but it is worth pointing out that of the six teams that turned things around for a single push, only the Eagles hung onto their quarterback. Arizona signed Warner, Atlanta drafted Ryan, Carolina brought in Delhomme as a free agent, Minnesota likewise landed Favre, and San Diego drafted traded for Rivers.

Things get a little more complicated if we consider the teams that have made more than one push. Only twelve teams that have made multiple runs into the conference championship games over the last decade. These aren't one-off teams that caught lightning in a bottle. These are teams that have hung around and played consistently competitive football. Given the general attitude around Chicago, it might seem amazing that the Bears are in this group.

It is worth noting that each of the twelve teams in question has seen at least one season with 10 or more losses during the 2000s. Some of them, like Seattle and Green Bay, have had a 10+ loss season, a push to the championship game, a fall to 10+ losses again, and then another push.

First, the obvious one—Chicago made it twice in the last decade, both times with the same GM and head coach but with different quarterbacks. The first rebuild was from 2004 (5-11) to 2006 (13-3), and the dip came at the start of Lovie Smith's time with us, essentially marking the beginning of his rebuild. Maybe this is actually a reboot? Whatever term we use, he turned the Bears around and got Chicago closer than anyone since Ditka. After that, the Bears didn't rebuild so much as they retooled in order to make a second run.

On the other hand, Denver really was rebuilt twice. First, after going 6-10 in 1999 they needed a new GM and a new quarterback to make it to 13-3 in 2005, even if they kept the same head coach. Then, from going 4-12 in 2010 to 13-3 in 2013, they needed three years and fresh everything. Of course, that fresh everything included John Fox as the head coach and a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. The first Seahawks rebuild (2000 to 2005) needed time but kept the same major players. The second Seahawks rebuild replaced everybody.

Overall, the average rebuild time for teams that have made multiple runs hovers right under three years to go from ‘really bad' to ‘ready to win a playoff game.' This is probably the real reason for hope. Maybe we are rebuilding. However, there's pretty good reason to think that we will be able to rebuild in short order, so long as we do it right.
That's where a note of caution comes in. From the outside, a ‘rebuild' and a dumpster fire look pretty similar.

Consider the Buffalo Bills. Since making it to the Super Bowl during the 1993 season, they have endured nine 10-loss (or worse) seasons. They have seen revolving doors at GM, head coach, and quarterback. More frustrating than the constant changes, of course, have been the stretches of stability when ‘stability' meant ‘staying bad'. In other words, they have tried exactly the things that worked for other teams, but it hasn't worked for them.

There are fourteen teams that have not made it to a conference championship game since 2002. The two teams from Ohio have not made it to the AFCCG since 1988 (Bengals) and 1989 (Browns). With the average NFL player only 26 years old, this means that John Q. Football player was in diapers, or not even born, the last time these teams made it. If there is a moral here, it's that changing everything is not the answer by itself. It has to be the right change. Next week I want to explore some of the ‘failures' made by teams that seem to struggle perpetually, but for now there is real reason for optimism.

I'm reassured by two things. The first is that for most of the teams that have turned things around, the rebuilds were accomplished fairly quickly, with only a couple seasons between "as bad as the 2014 Bears" and "almost to the Super Bowl."

The second thing is that the man at the helm right now, John Fox, is one of the people who has made this turnaround happen before. Twice.