Mustering up much of any expectations for the running-on-empty Chicago Bears on Sunday was no doubt a difficult prospect.
The Tennessee Titans are by no means a juggernaut, but they had plenty of promising young talent, and more importantly - health. The NFL is a week-to-week league, but it’s also predicated on which team has more quality talent to fall back on.
A decisive advantage held for the Titans in that respect.
From the Bears’ shorthanded perspective, they had a taller task than most would expect from an NFL team on any given Sunday. Chicago started their inexperienced and sometimes erratic, third string quarterback - Matt Barkley. And with injuries and suspensions, half of this season’s original starting lineup wasn’t available. Realistically, a loss was always all but written in the stars, even if Barkley eventually managed to almost rally his team against an atrocious Tennessee defense.
A push back from a 27-7 deficit to failing to punch in a go-ahead touchdown with a minute to go felt miraculous. The kind of magic put together by low expectations from un-drafted free agents and other guys simply fighting for roster spots. Still, attrition adds up and the effort was all for naught. Defeat as well, felt all the more tantalizing given who Chicago fell to.
The Bears would be lying if they said they wouldn’t love to have the beyond bright, second-year quarterback, Marcus Mariota, under center right now. A young face of the franchise gives you a bird’s eye view of the future. You saw what Chicago was missing in his sparkling and deft touch on passes downfield to Titans receivers. You saw it in his smooth pocket presence. And you even saw it in his growing pains to fully take reins of his team with leadership as Tennessee sat on the ball, letting the Bears back into the game.
To this point his poise can even be reflected in statistics like 32 touchdowns to zero interceptions in the red zone to start his career. Or, a potential Pro Bowl season as he currently sits in or around the top five in most relevant passing statistics, while keeping the Titans afloat in the AFC playoff picture.
Mariota gives Tennessee hope, even while he’s still growing up.
These are all luxuries and pains Halas Hall would no doubt love to go through again properly with a reboot. Quarterbacks change franchises and revitalize. Sometimes, they even literally carry teams on their back for years to the postseason to contend. Since the Bears know that Barkley’s not the guy to obtain the keys to the franchise, and that neither Brian Hoyer or Jay Cutler is either, now’s the time to start that process again. A slight inspiration from a head-to-head to matchup was only further evidence needed.
The Titans have a developing sports car, while the Bears have nothing but used parts for trade-in value. A stark contrast for one franchise on the upswing, while another for the moment - in no-man’s land.
Even general manager Ryan Pace, admitted his affinity for Mariota as much in his initial evaluations at the start of his tenure in 2015 in Chicago. That Pace thought so highly of Mariota to trade up to number one overall from the number seven slot and give up a monumental bounty - speaks volumes. It’s on display too when back then, Mariota himself wasn’t sure of the lottery of his landing spot.
“It was quite flattering,” said Mariota of Chicago’s potential power move to the Chicago Sun-Times. “For me and my agent during that process, we weren’t sure where I was going to end up.”
Given how 2016 has morphed into a purely transitional season at 2-9, it’s time for Pace to start drumming up plans for a second opportunity at his own Mariota to flatter a new passer. Pace has missed out on his first opportunities for a franchise savior with the Bears, but he’ll have another chance come draft time in April.
No franchise in the NFL tanks. Any personnel pushing for draft position would be outright mistaken as it puts their own jobs at risk in offseason evaluations each and every time. But with all of these injuries and suspensions, it’s difficult to see the Bears fighting out of their current positioning in the draft’s top five. All final positioning, of course, varying heavily on this final stretch run.
Another chance at hand will be there for Pace to hitch his wagon to someone that can somewhat mask his team’s glaring deficiencies, while he simultaneously continues to build the roster. It’ll be Pace’s job to place this potential young quarterback in better position to succeed as well, from talent surrounding him to coaching. Horror stories of the Bears’ past cannot come to roost if Pace is to ever fulfill on building a tried and true championship contender on the lakefront.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky - most pundits’ consensus top four quarterback prospects - or a flier no one has on their radar in later rounds. There needs to be a new man with the monkey on his back to finally have a football town believe in star quarterback play. To finally put an end to the never-ending quarterback carousel debates and unite under one front.
Whomever Pace picks to be the heir incumbent under center will define his legacy and how many view his tenure on either end of the spectrum. For Pace’s sake, this quarterback needs to succeed above all else.
These are the rigors for decision makers in a results driven business.
Two years ago, the Titans were hapless at 2-14 and had little direction. Now, they have their “Super Mario” in a weak AFC South division to ideally lead them into the eventual promised land.
In a perfect world, the Bears take advantage of their poor record and make their defined step in the same vein this spring. And with luck, they’re in the same position as Tennessee or even better, and soon. NFL turnarounds happen faster than you think when the proper moves are made.
For now, all these listless Bears can do is dream of a vibrant future and leader to arrive.
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.