We’re about to enter another ‘Twilight Zone’ for the Chicago Bears. So many different aspects of this franchise seem to be on the line. From the future of this coaching staff, to individual players’ futures, the second half of the 2016 season figures to decide aplenty.
As this organization searches for clear direction and a contending launch pad in the years to come, one would do well to keep an eye on what develops down the stretch.
At 2-6, realistically, Chicago is out of the division and in all likelihood, playoff race, as much as anyone will try to convince themselves otherwise. But strong play, team unity, and cohesiveness will go a long way towards accomplishing something special and making the former a foregone conclusion in the future. The schedule is favorable, but it’s not like opponents don’t see Chicago in the same vain.
Who knows what destiny awaits for these Bears. There’s not enough information yet, obviously, to fill in the blanks. Still, it’s a good idea to keep tabs of all the different decisions that await.
A rough crystal ball of the latter half of the 2016 season:
Coaching staff’s future, how Bears finish:
With a steadier hand, the Bears are probably 4-4 and at .500 and in better line for a playoff berth than they currently are under John Fox. But, they’re not, and one win against the Vikings on ‘Monday Night Football’ doesn’t do anything to improve Fox’s standing within the organization.
This is one elephant in the room.
Yes, the Bears have had injuries to impactful players. Jay Cutler’s six-week absence from a thumb injury comes to mind on offense. Pernell McPhee’s return to the Bears defense as it’s emotional leader is what you think of defensively. These two, along with a myriad of injuries to the offensive line, secondary etc., all set the Bears back from the get-go.
Improved standing from any of these players could have helped against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, but alas. It’s skewed negative fan and pundit perception of the quality of this team as well, even while the Bears are quietly ranked 16th overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.
That speaks to underlying numbers of a team that let a few games they were in control of, fall out of their grasps. A decidedly average team, with a few growing bright spots.
Yet this business is defined by the win-loss column. As much as advanced statistics and even the eye test will tell us the Bears haven’t been that bad under Fox this year, they need to prove it on the field more often.
Should they fail to do so, that puts Fox’s job security in question. The only true downside to letting Fox go would likely mean the end of Vic Fangio and Dowell Loggains as Chicago’s defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively. Fox has always done very well to bring in galvanizing and bright football minds. Fangio is regarded as one of the league’s best defensive coordinators, while the young Loggains seems to be finally finding his groove.
Cutting the cord now may stymie the Bears’ rebuilding process in player development, provided they don’t look to promote Fangio or Loggains. Chicago will have to decide if the risk is worth the undertaking, provided they aren’t satisfied with what’s to come. Unless there’s dramatic progress and improved results in for the Bears, it is more than fair to call Fox and his staff’s future into question, especially considering previous reports from up top.
Jay Cutler’s future:
This is the other gorilla sitting in the Bears facilities.
At the end of the season, Cutler will have finished out the last year of guaranteed money on a seven-year extension signed back in 2014. Seeing as how the Bears haven’t made the playoffs since 2010 - Cutler’s second season in Chicago - and how they’re now on their third coach with the veteran quarterback, general manager Ryan Pace and company might elect to move on with a new signal caller.
Yes, Cutler is by far the best quarterback in Bears history. He leads the franchise in almost every relevant passing statistic. He’s been blessed with talent that makes difficult plays seem special while the simple easy reads become frustrating. In all actuality, he might be the most polarizing NFL player of this generation.
With a better team surrounding him during his career in Chicago, maybe he would’ve or still could possess the opportunity to be this city’s new football hero, while in the middle of the pack in the NFL as a passer. But maybe not.
The ideal would be to finally draft a legitimate developmental quarterback prospect - easier said than done - in later rounds of the 2017 draft, and to let Cutler play out the string while mentoring the young guy. Maybe by the time the future is ready, Cutler and a revitalized Bears team are thriving, while whoever that future entails, is inherently prepared to step in at a moment’s notice and work a newly fine-tuned machine.
That’s a purely hypothetical scenario though.
Instead, the Bears will just have that new quarterback develop with a young team as soon as possible for an identity away from the perceived constraints of Cutler.
Certainly, either of these decisions are in the cards, and how Cutler and the Bears offense plays down the stretch just may decide which wish comes true.
Until then, if you’re invested, it’s advised you enjoy these high point moments while you can.
Alshon Jeffery’s future:
Chicago’s Rod Tidwell and his situation sticks out like a sore thumb.
How the Bears would move forward with Jeffery seemed much more in doubt in the offseason. He had only played nine games in 2015, and while producing at a very high level if translated over a 16 game span, they had durability concerns as to whether he was worth a long term investment.
This is a guy that’s every bit a top 10 talent when applied against any defense consistently. He has tremendous skills on the ball in the air, has refined his route running, and posts up and boxes out defenders better than most while using his length.
(Nothing more need be said)
Note the veteran savvy and growth Jeffery has shown too, while developing as a bona fide number one target. It’s been heartening and is a commitment to his talent and work ethic. This year - albeit while on notice - he’s only had injury concerns leading into a game once, that against the Dallas Cowboys when his knee was bothering him. He’s been available in every game - grinding through - whether Hoyer knew he actually existed or not.
And with Kevin White’s injury against the Lions earlier this season, it’s not like they can afford to let a player of Jeffery’s abilities - that they developed - simply walk away. The emergence of Cameron Meredith certainly helps, but he’s not proven enough yet. You let Jeffery go, you’re setting your receiving core back, again, making another hole. That’s not how you build a contender in the NFL. You do have to keep assets unless something’s coming back in return.
But does Jeffery want to stay?
Just a few weeks ago he was among the least targeted receivers in the NFL relative to his talent level and wasn’t being maximized. And while the Bears are theoretically building a promising and quality roster, they’re not necessarily close to contention right now either.
That will undoubtedly play into Jeffery’s mindset come the offseason.
He’s a fifth year player that has never played in the postseason. The Bears performance as a team down the stretch as well as how often he gets the ball will be the primary factors. Chicago can franchise tag Jeffery for a 20 percent increase of his current tagged salary, sign him to a contract extension, or let him walk away. In the end, the Bears “showing him the money”, is what realistically keeps Jeffery here.
While the former outcomes are more plausible with Jeffery, never doubt the unpredictable process when it comes to free agency in the NFL.
In any case, a complicated microcosm of potential chaos awaits the Bears on these decisions and more. We’ll just have to patiently wait and see how Pace and company choose to burst that bubble.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.