So here’s the plan. We’re going to tell everyone that the cops are coming, and we’re shutting things down. We’ll wait til they all drive away – the bandwagoners and frontrunners and MCNOWN jersey owners – and once they’re around the block, we’ll bring out the good stuff, put some records on, and get to it. Sound good?
Sorry about the darkness.
How are the kids, anyway?
Fine. They’re gone. Thanks for staying.
Yes, the Bears are 0-2, and going to play an angry winless Super Bowl contender at their house, with a key defensive component back in the lineup. Yes, they're missing the starting quarterback and their best remaining wideout. Yes, they’re likely coming home 0-3, and then they’re going to face a Raiders team that just took down the Ravens, followed by a surging Chiefs team. No, I’m not going to tell you that 0-5 is out of the question. Our SBNation mothership itself says we're screwed.
But that’s not why we’re here, you and I. The fans who would care are halfway home by now. We're here to talk about the future, mate - and why you should watch every snap of the 2015 season.
Experience is what you get, they say, when you don’t get what you want, and experience is what we’re likely to get this season. So what’s there to look forward to? What can we comfort ourselves with at this point? What do we know about the 2015 Bears? And why should we watch them?
We know that the 3-4 is going to take time. The Bears elected to transition to a 3-4 primarily to provide more flexibility against the pass. There are other factors involved, most notably the Shea McClellin issue (what do you do with a tweener in the NFL except switch him into a 3-4?) and the availability of Eddie Goldman in the draft. But the driving factor is located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, probably filming a State Farm ad as we speak; we’ve got five more years of looking at that toothy grin after TD tosses to the Packers’ seemingly goddamned inexhaustible fountain of terrifying WRs, and we’d better be doing something to make those five years palatable.
Having said that, you don’t throw a switch and go from a 4-3 to a 3-4; responsibilities and terminology and communication all change, and the record of transitioning teams isn’t great in Year One. We’re also short some key components of a successful 3-4, and others are question marks. But we’re going to be playing a lot of defense this year, especially until Six gets back under center, and with playing time comes experience and knowledge. As Emil Faber once opined, knowledge is good.
That will be a good philosophy to pack along for gamedays during the transition, because teams switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 have taken an average of 1.7 seasons worth of games before their yard and point control figures normalize to their 4-3 performance or better. (I’m defining that as the first three-game stretch in which yard/point control averages within one standard deviation of 4-3 numbers). So buckle in, because this season is going to be a rough one – and a chunk of next season might be, too.
We know that the QB of the future isn’t on the roster... Because we’d probably be looking forward to watching him play a lot more than we are.
There’s a reason for that. Generally, NFL teams break down into three categories of QB roster management:
We have a franchise QB and he’s backed up by a competent fill-in. This is the Packers, the Seahawks, the Falcons, the Patriots, the Colts, the Panthers, et al. "Franchise" is a relative term, but for the sake of brevity, let's say that these teams have exactly zero interest in trading their current quarterback away. They'd hang up the phone on a trade call.
We have a serviceable QB and we’re grooming the franchise replacement. This is less common anymore, because teams just don’t let franchise QBs sit. I think that’s a mistake (see Gabbert, Blaine; Locker, Jake), but I’m not paid to be an NFL GM. As a result, it’s really the Browns that fit into this category, along with the Jets (by default), and the dumpster fires that erupted in Philadelphia and (fine, to a lesser extent) St. Louis as a result of swapping shaky starting signal-callers.
We have two backups. Houston, we have a problem.
See anyone missing from that list? Yeah, it’s us. It’s genuinely okay in the NFL to be in either category A or B, but C is a death sentence, and I can’t categorically say that we’re not there. If Clausen is not the QB of the future (and he’s not), then we…must…have a franchise QB, right? We're in category A, right?
Consider this comparison of the career of two quarterbacks. We’re going to look at big numbers to prevent any single-season statistical jiggery-pokery.
Quarterback B played eleven injury-plagued seasons, struggling with interceptions and issues with long-ball accuracy, although he retired as the leader in completion percentage until Drew Brees unseated him in 2014. He won a little more often than he lost, but he was often the beneficiary of strong defenses that allowed him to play aggressively when he had the ball. In the final analysis, he’s been viewed as a quarterback that was good enough to get his teams into the playoffs, but not to make deep runs once he got them there.
Pencils down, class! Quarterback B would be Chad Pennington.
Quarterback A, of course, is Six, and although he just might be the best quarterback the Bears have ever had, that's a lot like saying you're eating the best lunch you've ever had: much of that superlative has to do with your personal history of lunches eaten and the quality thereof. Maybe you haven't had a truly excellent lunch since the 1940s. Regardless, Six is functionally a less accurate version of Chad Pennington when it comes down to the stats; three times out of every five he tries, he’ll get you 7.2 yards, compared with two-thirds of the time for the same yardage with Pennington.
No one ever made the argument that Pennington was a franchise quarterback, and worse yet, he got the Jets far enough each year to tantalize with the prospects of the next. As a result, the Jets never developed a viable understudy, and a decade later, they had only a fistful of Participant ribbons to show for their time with him. Sound familiar?
...and we know that the QB of the present is. As Forbes noted back in June, $48 million of the $54 million due Six through 2016 under his new contract is now guaranteed, so it’s all over but the shouting with respect to whether we’ll be seeing him back in 2016; we will. He’ll likely continue to turn the ball over 1.39 times per game, and barring some revolutionary new thinking by Gase, a rapid jelling of the new defense, or the emergence of White as a Marshall-grade receiver, he’ll likely post the same .500ish record next year, too.
The big question is whether he’ll be talking to roster fodder like Clausen next year when he comes off the field, or to someone actually worth developing. Names like Jared Goff, Connor Cook, and Cardale Jones are going to be in play in the top ten picks, and at this point, there’s no reason to think the Bears won’t land there. (Checks the windows to see if any bandwagoners came back.)
We know that there’s plenty of auditions to be seen this year. Once the season gets on rails toward mediocrity, it’s time to start taking what we can from it, and the spotlight is going to be hot on some new and recent Bears additions. Is Goldman the space-eating 3-4 NT we need him to be? Do we have the ends to make Fangio’s rush vision work? Is Langford the logical successor to Forte? Can Wilson be a load-bearing strut at WR, or is it time to cut bait with him? Does Vereen fit as a starter? Where should Kyle Long be lining up, anyway?
This was never going to be a team that made a deep playoff run with questions like these; hell, it would have been impressive if this team made the playoffs. But there are strides to be made at positions other than QB, and Six has shown that, when everything quiets down around him, he can do good things. How would he fare with a Monstersesque D handing him the ball with frequent short fields? How would Langford fare with Long clearing lanes around the right tackle position? How would he fare if a Jon Baldwin-type WR matures in time for a known quantity to come back strong in 2016?
We know that every draft is important – so keep an eye on the positions we need. Know who’s left on this roster from the 2008 draft? #22. That’s it. Shield your eyes before you visit this site and keep scrolling ‘til you get to 2003, so that you can safely eat solid foods for the remainder of the day. The past decade of drafts have been nothing short of a collective debacle for the Bears, who are starting a fraction of their players from the draft. Look, there’s nothing complex about NFL salary-cap algebra: to field a winning team, you’ve got to draft solidly, find some surprises here and there that the other guys didn’t spot, and when you do need to dive into the Tinder that is the free-agent market, you need to shop selectively. The last time the Bears surprised anyone with a draft pick was probably Lance Briggs. Twelve years ago.
Going forward, we need better. No on expects sixth-rounders to become starters every year, but first-round picks should evolve into reliable starters (and possible Pro Bowlers); second-rounders should challenge for starting positions; third-rounders should hold down special-teams spots and provide competent depth; fourth-rounders and beyond should have some practice squad potential. To draft dozens and dozens of players from 2005 through 2015 and have a handful left at this point is beyond reprehensible in the modern NFL.
As a team, we’ve got needs. The offensive line is still a work in progress. We’re not quite to a true ‘next man up’ receiving corps. The defense is short reliable secondary depth, and our linebacking looks brittle – as 3-4 linebacking groups go – and not quite ready for prime time. Know what we’re missing this year, and what’s going to make us better in years to come – because…
We know that ashes can hold promise. We all like to say differently, but nobody saw the ’85 Bears coming in 1981, or even 1983. The 1984 team showed potential, but little more. No, the ’85 Bears aren’t walking through that door anytime soon, but we could be looking at a very different team in 2017 – a team with a few years of the 3-4 under its belt, with a new franchise QB under center, a young but seasoning running back, a couple of home-run receivers, and a solidifying line. So keep watching.
With the lights on.