There’s no discounting the fact that there’s been a significant overhaul in talent in the past two years for the Chicago Bears. Even with unfortunate injuries to players such as Hroniss Grasu and Kevin White, general manager Ryan Pace has done well in accumulating contributors and potential long-term foundational pieces.
From draft picks in Eddie Goldman and Jordan Howard to Leonard Floyd and Cody Whitehair along with other un-drafted guys like Cameron Meredith or the oft-injured but promising Bryce Callahan, the picture of a brighter future has begun to take shape for the Bears.
There’s enough new young faces to consider a rhyme and reason for this individual talent acquired to come together on some level, even if the overall results aren’t there yet.
Save for players such as Kyle Long and Alshon Jeffery, the overwhelming majority of this roster has been taken in during Pace’s tenure according to his vision.
Of course, Pace’s tenure has coincided with his first chosen head coach in John Fox, and those mentioned results, while they may well still take time, haven’t come to fruition.
The Bears of 2015 had a bare bones roster that for the most part, teetered on the brink throughout most of their schedule. Fans saw spoiling Brett Favre’s jersey retirement ceremony at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, as a sign of better things to come, given how the Packers had objectively dominated the Bears through season’s previous. But the Bears faded down the stretch, winning just one of their last five games.
And yet, how the team played in general, offered signs of hope, especially considering a less than ideal negative 62-point differential. Chicago was 19th overall in the standard deviate, DVOA, as well, suggesting a move towards more cohesiveness very soon, despite the lack of impact players.
For example, Pernell McPhee, the one truly dynamic pass rusher the Bears possessed in 2015, was hampered by a significant knee injury he eventually required surgery on. While Alshon Jeffery played in just nine games, reflecting a receiving core that was decimated at intermittent points during the entirety of the year.
Save for blowouts such as to the Arizona Cardinals early, or Minnesota Vikings late, the Bears were right there in every game with an opportunity to win. Fox had seemingly stabilized the locker room as a whole even while the team had an empty cupboard to start.
A 6-10 season would normally be viewed as mediocre, but instead became a promise of clear marked steps, with the proper ideal in mind.
After the objectively disastrous 2014 season under Marc Trestman, a move back towards physicality and disciplined play even while lacking talent was welcomed.
In fact, it was desperately needed. It even drove Virginia McCaskey - the principal owner of the Bears - to anger and push forward changes, as her son and chairman, George, famously noted at 2014’s conclusion.
“She’s been pissed off. I can’t think of a 91-year-old woman that that description would apply, but in this case, I can’t think of a more accurate description.”
The plucky Bears benefitted from simply not being the mess Trestman’s Bears eventually morphed into. You could think of occasions where that team did quit, such as the defense that allowed back-to-back 50 point games against the New England Patriots and Packers.
Fox’s team didn’t do that, at least yet, so they received the benefit of the doubt. This team was a fresh opportunity to morph into a consistent contender it hasn’t been in two-plus decades.
But with Chicago currently floundering around as dead weight at 2-7 in 2016, much of that goodwill has been lost, as has the opinion of this coaching regime in a general sense.
Injuries have again no doubt played a significant role in sinking chances, but the opportunities to win have been there. Close defeats to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts in consecutive weeks display that notion.
It was always difficult to see Chicago actually following through on the mythical Fox second season playoff run that he had enjoyed in Denver and Carolina previously, but with the NFC North currently mired in mediocrity, you can’t help but lament what could have been.
A bounce here or there, or a penalty or turnover not committed with the worst possible timing, and the Bears are sitting pretty in the thick of a contentious race.
But they’re not. Far from it.
Jay Cutler, even if you believe in the conspiracy theories that he was healthier much earlier from his thumb injury suffered way back in week two, has completely dissipated as a passer from the stability he offered in 2015.
Theoretically, the talent around him - like the offensive line and receiving core - has grown and improved. But his play has taken a step back in the games he’s actually appeared in, save for a blip defiant performance against the similarly struggling Minnesota Vikings on “Monday Night Football.” One wonders whether he would’ve continued to thrive under the now departed Adam Gase, but it’s too late to dwell.
You can only focus on the present Cutler, who is increasingly on his last legs with the Bears, especially if he plays how he did against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday - a horrific performance. In conjunction with Hoyer’s time, Chicago has the 31st ranked scoring offense in the NFL, and is the only team to have not scored 24 points in a contest to this point.
That’s a startling lack of results that speaks to how Dowell Loggains’ unit can’t seem to find it’s groove, even while bright young players like Jordan Howard excel when actually given the ball.
Where the Bears have improved, is defensively.
A pass rush with Floyd, McPhee, and Willie Young, as well as better inside linebackers with Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, has Chicago currently slated as a top-10 defense in yardage. They’re also 17th in DVOA. That’s, well, a step-up to say the least, from last year’s unit that was 14th overall in yardage and 31st in DVOA.
But this defense, for all of it’s success, can’t hold up if the offense doesn’t hold it’s end of the bargain. Morale and fatigue eventually play a factor.
It’s nowhere better exemplified as it was in Raymond James Stadium, where the Bears were only behind seven points at halftime, but eventually lost by 26, in a 36-10 blowout loss. The Buccaneers hadn’t won a home game all season. That early deficit was only so close because of a desperate Hail Mary to Cameron Meredith.
The Bears spoke of confidence with players returning from injury to go in mostly healthy, had an extra week of rest and preparation coming out of their bye week, and then laid an egg - allowing all of those words to ring hollow.
McPhee’s comments about their chances in the second half of the season during the lead-up to Tampa Bay say it all.
“Why not?” asked McPhee. “I told the guys to stay pissed off and know where we’re at and where we can go.”
With a relatively soft schedule, McPhee still isn’t necessarily wrong. But the more the losses pile up and effort dwindles as it did late against the Buccaneers, the more there will be no reason to trust in this public raving. Preaching patience is key, but it can run thin. How this team finishes each game on the remaining schedule will be the greatest indicator of how far or little they’ve come.
Trestman used to be in outright denial in remarking how the Bears prepared extremely well going into games where they were blown off the field. He didn’t tell the whole story.
It was true that the underlying script to Trestman’s stint wasn’t as glowing as we saw at first glance, just as it isn’t flattering now with Fox.
With Fox commenting how the game in Tampa “wasn’t all bad”, you get the sense this organization is experiencing a bit of deja-vu. We’ve seen this movie before, and the Bears would do well to not allow it to have the same ending.
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.