It’s almost over.
Another long season for the Chicago Bears come to a close this Sunday afternoon. What will follow is another enduring winter of discontent, questions, and patience - it’s about a chosen perspective. Yes, the 3-12 Bears haven’t enjoyed much success in 2016 as questions of the incumbent regime of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox have come into the forefront repeatedly. A trying debate among pundits and fans alike.
If we’re being completely truthful, the Bears haven’t been playing for anything of meaning since their second straight 0-3 start to a season. Only five teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3 since 1980, and an immediately depleted Bears team wasn’t about to be the sixth such fortunate contender.
But, a rebuild is a rebuild. Progression is in the eye of the beholder.
And with a new year comes a new shining light of optimism and opportunity for a franchise attempting to finally get a consistent long-term footing as a contender as Chicago is.
Draft debates, backing up the truck of cash for free agents, and filling out blank checks for them will now follow.
Will Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery return? Is Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry about to make a home in Halas Hall? What’s John Fox, Vic Fangio, and Dowell Loggains’ future in Chicago?
These are all questions that will be decided very soon, that no doubt will bring about more endlessly exhausting debates among every circle.
What shouldn’t be debated and should actually be a huge stepping stone towards solidifying the Bears’ contending foundation is losing the final game of the season to the Minnesota Vikings. With defeat tomorrow afternoon, the Bears guarantee themselves the number three overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. With a victory, there’s potential for falling all the way back to sixth overall, should other squads as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angles Rams fall.
Hindsight is an endless circle of contrition for fans, especially when looking at failed draft picks. And two to three slots in the top five of the draft is a monumental difference in adding to future frustration. Chances are that Pace and company pick out an immediately impactful player anyway, sure. After all, it’s the general manager’s job to make out with someone talented wherever his team slots in.
But the higher up positioning-wise, the less inherent risk is on hand in general - especially at the top. You want the pick of the litter every occasion possible.
Players on Chicago’s roster - whoever is still left - along with coaches, aren’t going to outright tank for this pick though, and they shouldn’t.
NFL teams don’t tank. The life cycle of careers and a results driven business prevents that ideal. These are professionals being paid to win and perform. To fight through attrition and prove something to those evaluating them and themselves. They’re battling for a future in a league that could let them flutter away in the wind with the snap of a finger. It’s cliche, but the thing about cliches and why they are constantly relevant, is because they happen all the time. They’re tired, but true.
Fox is echoing the same sentiment to his team about these games played in irrelevancy.
“They understand that every one of these is a resume,” said Fox of the Bears going into Sunday.
This is all the more apparent, considering many on this current playing roster are cast-offs and un-drafted free agents with the 19 players on injured reserve. A bunch of less-heralded names attempting to stake their claim.
Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, a star acquisition this past offseason, understands that point when discussing his first losing season in the NFL.
“You still have to be a professional,” quipped Freeman.
And, there are records for this organization to avoid. Blemishes to not want to become a part of.
If Chicago falls to Minnesota, it will cap their first 0-8 record on the road ever. The previous high was of course in a 14-game season in 1974 when Chicago went 0-7. In humiliating conjunction, a loss would also cement the Bears’ first 13-loss in a 16-game season in their history.
Also, the team and offense is likely motivated to attain an individual Bears rookie rushing record for Jordan Howard - who only needs 61 yards to top Matt Forte’s inaugural 2008 season. Howard has debatably been the Bears’ top bright spot this year and a milestone such as this is a reflection of steps this offense has made even with other struggles in the red zone and play-calling.
The thing is though: Howard can still have his record along with the Bears locking in at third overall. Novel concept, I know.
Regardless, all these reasons pale in comparison to slotting yourself as high as possible in the draft. The ghosts of the Rams’ Aaron Donald, and the New York Jets’ Leonard Williams in the recent 2014 and 2015 drafts respectively, along with countless others, hauntingly standing as stark painful reminders of just missing on generational players because the record wasn’t bad enough.
There’s something mind-numbing to be said for sticking around in “No Man’s Land”, seemingly just missing on franchise-transforming opportunities again and again and again.
Remember too that Chicago isn’t playing spoiler for Minnesota - who was eliminated from the postseason after falling to Green Bay at Lambeau Field. There’s no satisfying feeling of ruining a rival’s season here. The Vikings season fell on the trash heap when they lost eight of 10 after last week and started a supposed mutiny among their secondary. The Bears aren’t about to dig into the Vikings sorrows any more than they’ve already done themselves.
Both squads just want to bury the 2016 season and throw away the key forever.
There also’s no such thing as “momentum” to build on for 2017 by capturing this game. There’s no tangible way to measure “momentum” and that takes away from the validity of using it as a crutch to delude what is actually a meaningless game through and through. Bill Barnwell of ESPN once wrote about this flawed concept of finishing strong to create success for the following season that many convince themselves of. The basis is that it doesn’t mean anything. There’s just not enough meaningful historical evidence to say these kinds of games act as a springboard.
If the Bears do experience happier results next season, it’s because they’ll have had a more talented and cohesive roster, not because of good feelings from a Week 17 glorified exhibition game. They’ll forget this contest by March’s mini-camp. In all likelihood, so will most fans.
Losing tomorrow means a greater chance at a potential superstar. It means losing a chance at guys such as franchise defenders in Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen? Or a developmental franchise quarterback in North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky? There’s something to be said about losing now to win later even if it’s not intentional. Incremental pieces for the next supposed Bears championship team.
Every subsequent slot Chicago falls with a victory tomorrow only opens up more questions of future regret.
Quite honestly, given the rash of injuries Chicago has experienced with prized rookie, Leonard Floyd sitting out now among others: they in all likelihood fall anyway in a competitive, hard-fought, defeat. The best picture a fan could hope for.
A Bears victory against the Vikings odds-on turns into a game most won’t remember five years down the line - let alone a few months from now. A loss offers an improved chance at a prospective player you will forever remember and gloss about in a shining light among Chicago’s franchise annals.
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 @Robert Zeglinski.