“So, what now?” my buddy Brian asked at work Monday morning. The Cubs were champions and we had to shift our attention.
“Bears,” I said. “I think we’ve got some pieces.”
“I like Jordan Howard.”
“I do too. Just not sure if he’s a Super Bowl running back.”
“Whoa!” Brian said. “The Cubs have you dreaming.”
“Hey man, if you’re not in it to win the whole thing, what’s the point?”
I stand by that. In my ongoing series looking at the 2006 Bears, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at the games strictly from 2006. But the 2006 Bears did not crop up suddenly in training camp. In fact, they got their start in the 2nd quarter of an otherwise forgettable game against the Giants in 2004.
Trailing 14-0 with about five and a half minutes left in the first half, the Bears ripped off a 20-0 run by forcing three turnovers. They opened the scoring with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Craig Krenzel to fellow rookie Bernard Berrian.
Three plays later, safety Michael Green forced and recovered an Ike Hilliard fumble.
Three plays later, Anthony Thomas punched in a four-yard TD run.
On the first play of New York’s next possession, Nate Vasher picked off Kurt Warner, running it back 41 yards to set up a Bears field goal.
Jerry Azumah intercepted Warner on New York’s first play after the field goal, leading to a five-play, 32-yard drive that ended in a Paul Edinger field goal of 21 yards.
That kick ended the half, with the Bears up 20-14. They went on to win 28-21.
This was a breakout game for several players, including just about everyone mentioned above. Krenzel had his second straight win; Berrian had his second straight week with a long TD; Thomas had 110 yards and two scores; Azumah forced two turnovers and sacked Warner; Tommie Harris and Adewale Ogunleye each nabbed one sack as well; Vasher had two takeaways; Green had one; defensive tackle Ian Scott recovered a fumble; and Alex Brown was the game’s MVP with four sacks and a forced fumble.
This was a vision game: the Bears and their fans were given a glimpse into the future to see which players could anchor a Super Bowl champion. We always figured Krenzel would not be there. And our guy the A-Train was already a backup, subbing that game for the injured Thomas Jones.
But 28 months later, when the Bears suited up for Super Bowl XLI, several of the key players from that Giants game were contributing, most notably Berrian, Vasher, Ogunleye, and Brown, while Ian Scott started in place of the injured Harris.
Only Azumah and Green left the team before the Super Bowl season, and Azumah more or less reincarnated into Devin Hester, so he was kind of there too.
How does this correspond to this year’s team?
Well, no one would have confused the 2004 Bears for a Super Bowl contender. Not then, anyhow. But the pieces were developing.
Likewise, at 2-6 and in last place in the NFC North, the current Bears seem unlikely to make a run to the postseason this year. As a fan, I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for a glimpse of the future, to see which players might help us win a Super Bowl.
Despite our struggles, I don’t see any reason that this team cannot compete for Super Bowl LIII.
A few weeks ago, my WCG colleague Robert Zeglinski wrote his most recent “stock report,” analyzing Bears players as you would stocks. Similarly, the following is a look at our key players and whether or not I think they could be a starter on a Super Bowl Bears team in 2018.
By my count, we have four of our offensive starters, possibly five, plus six of our defensive starters. I’m grading them on a binary scale: either I look at them and say, “Yes, that’s our guy,” or I look at them and say, “Nope, gotta find someone else.”
Age in 2018: 35
SB LIII starter? No (but damn, I want to be wrong)
I wrote this summer about the historic anomaly of Jay leading the Bears to his first Super Bowl at age 33 so far removed from a Pro Bowl season. Only one player in NFL history has done so: Jim Plunkett with the 1980 Raiders. This is the biggest problem holding the Bears back from a Super Bowl in two years — it’s likely that the quarterback who will take us there is not yet on the roster.
Age in 2018: 24
SB LIII starter? Yes
Here’s a question: When you look at Jordan Howard, what do you see? Is he another Anthony Thomas, someone we love rooting for whom we will nonetheless supplant with a greater talent as soon as possible? Is he Raymont Harris, someone who in the right system on the right team could be the featured back on a title team? Can he have the durability of Matt Forte?
I think he’s an A-Train type, and if the 2001 Bears had found their way to the Super Bowl, Thomas would have been the starter. But I don’t think Thomas would have ever dragged that team TO the Super Bowl. That’s how I feel about Howard. If all other pieces are in place around him, he could be the featured back on a champ. But we’d need another guy to split the workload.
Age in 2018: 28
SB LIII starter? Yes
The question with Alshon is not whether he’s talented enough to be our lead receiver on our Super Bowl LIII team. It’s whether he’ll still be around. He’ll be looking at a big contract this offseason, and if Kevin White were healthy I would say Jeffery would be out the door.
Now, I’m not so sure. Will Ryan Pace show Alshon the money? He hasn’t had a big money season thus far, but he’s also been playing without a big money quarterback for most of the year. Jeffery’s status will shake out in the season’s final eight games.
Age in 2018: 26
SB LIII starter? No
That one hurt.
But I’m being honest here, and as of today, Kevin White has not shown anything that could suggest his ability to be a starter on a Super Bowl champ. We just haven’t seen the big plays. We’ve barely seen the small plays. He’s gotten lapped by Cameron Meredith. It’s just... not good.
Ages in 2018: Charles Leno, 27; Kyle Long, 30; Bobby Massie, 29; Josh Sitton, 32; Cody Whitehair, 26
SB LIII starters? Long, Sitton, Whitehair
The Bears o-line has been a work in progress since the first week of the season, following the Hroniss Grasu injury, the Sitton signing, and Whitehair’s move to center. As my colleague Lester Wiltfong noted in the most recent “Sack Watch,” Pro Football Focus said Cutler was pressured on 42.4 percent of his passes, the sixth-highest rate among quarterbacks in Week 8.
They did so without their Pro Bowlers Sitton and Long, a signal to Lester and the rest of us that Whitehair might just be pretty good.
All five starters are signed through at least 2018, so contractually they could all be here. I figure we need an upgrade at tackle though, which is fine, because the last time the Bears were in the Super Bowl they completely revamped their o-line through free agency, signing John Tait and Ruben Brown in 2004 and Fred Miller and Roberto Garza in 2005.
Age in 2018: 29
SB LIII starter? Yes
Here’s where this game gets fun. We have a ton of defensive pieces good enough to start on a Super Bowl team, and I think Hicks is one of them. The only question mark is age — defensive line is a high impact position, so durability is always going to be a factor. Hicks has shown good signs in that department, missing only three games thus far in his five-year career.
If he can stay healthy, I think he’s good enough to start.
Age in 2018: 24
SB LIII starter? Yes
Injuries aside, (and really, you can say that about every player), Goldman can absolutely be our nose tackle two years from now. Let’s pencil him in as a starter.
Age in 2018: 31
SB LIII starter? No
Unrein has fulfilled his purpose for the Bears, but he is a placeholder. Fortunately, our pool of pass rushers, particularly at OLB, is overflowing.
Ages in 2018: Sam Acho, 30; Leonard Floyd, 26; Lamarr Houston, 31; Pernell McPhee, 29; Willie Young, 33
SB LIII starters? Floyd & McPhee, yes — the other three, no
Okay fine, “overflowing” might have been a tad much, considering Young, Houston, and Acho will all be in their 30s by the time Super Bowl LIII rolls around. But I’ve been very impressed with Pace’s ability to build a linebacking corps; this group is the best we’ve seen since the Urlacher, Briggs, Hillenmeyer trifecta.
The key here, obviously, is Floyd. We’ve seen great things from Floyd the past two weeks, so if he can continue developing at that pace while adding muscle, he should be a foundational piece for our Super Bowl run.
McPhee on the other side? Yeah, that’ll work too.
Ages in 2018: Jerrell Freeman, 32; Danny Trevathan, 28
SB LIII starters? Trevathan definitely, Freeman probably
I’m not going to bother listing any other linebackers in this slot, because if these guys stay healthy and productive these are their jobs to lose. Freeman is a question mark only because of age, but his game does not rely on speed, so losing a step might not be as big a problem as it would be for someone like Floyd.
Point is, I look at these two guys together and I say, “Yes, these are Super Bowl linebackers.”
Ages in 2018:
SB LIII starters? One, maybe two tops, just based on percentages
On either side of the ball, the secondary has the most question marks. I don't see anyone here who is an obvious “Yes! That's locked up.” I do like Bryce Callahan — he’s reminiscent of Nate Vasher in size and speed. Everyone like Adrian Amos, mostly because he’s exceeding expectations as a 5th-round pick.
The biggest question mark here is Kyle Fuller, and whether or not he can either return to his briefly shown promise at corner or make a new go of it at safety. Based on a pure numbers game of people turning out better than we thought, I suppose there is one, possibly two Super Bowl starters in the secondary currently on the roster. We’ve got a lot of young talent here — along with Callahan and Fuller, my favorites are Harold Jones-Quartey and Deiondre’ Hall.
Like with all things Bears right now, the answer to the secondary question is “Wait and see.”