November 20th, 2011. That was the last time that—as a Bears fan—I can honestly say that I felt good about the team’s chances on any sort of long-term basis. Chicago was sitting at 7-3 after an appearance in the conference championship game the year before. Mike Martz was getting Cutler killed, Johnny Knox was the team’s leading receiver, and the defense was an infuriating blend of flexible and fierce. Still, somehow, the Bears were winning.
Then Jay broke his thumb.
For the rest of the season, I held out hope that the team might sneak into the playoffs on the record they already had, but it quickly became obvious how much of the offense was essentially Cutler’s will and athletic talent covering up for Martz’s outdated scheme. I had suspected it, but I didn’t know it. After November 20th, 2011, I knew it.
In 2012, the writing was on the wall for Lovie Smith. We all knew it. I was okay with it, and maybe even a little excited about what might happen if things clicked just right with a new coach. The team finished 10-6 and it somehow felt like a worse finish than the 8-8 of the year before. 8-8 with the starting quarterback going down was tough, but it didn’t seem like the team was out of contention for the future. The next year, missing the playoffs for a second time with an aging team and a coach who never seemed to get ahead of things (defensive schemes, challenges, finding an offensive coordinator, whatever) was much tougher to handle.
How much of a turning point was that game?
From when Cutler arrived in Chicago to the game against San Diego, the Bears won 60% of their games. From the Oakland game through last weekend, the Bears have lost 59% of their games. If the Bears land at 5 wins for the season, continuing the trend, then the team will have spent 6 years not only out of the playoffs but functionally out of the discussion. That is the length of an NFL career.
The Bears of 2011 were not a strong, well-built team. They were a team that depending on the talent of the starters (Cutler, Hester, Urlacher, Tillman) to compensate for a lack of depth and flaws in coaching. This is why they played so well when Urlacher and Cutler could both take the field and why they suffered when either their offensive or defensive ‘star’ was missing (or playing injured).
Let’s assume for the moment that Pace is fired alongside Fox, Fangio, Loggains, Cutler, and the guy who restocks the vending machines. What then? Even in a total rebuild, some pieces have to be kept while players are cycled and replaced. Teams need depth. The recent slate of injuries offers one silver lining, and it’s a chance to evaluate what depth the Bears have (or, rather, what depth they can develop).
Roughly one year ago [link], I looked at how long it took NFL teams to rebuild from a season with double-digit losses to the point where they could appear in a conference championship game. If you don’t feel like clicking on the link and reading, the average was around 3 to 3½ years to make the turnaround—at least for the teams that did, in fact, make the turnaround.
An NFL career is short enough that a longer rebuild is not, in fact, a sign of good planning. After five years, the chances that the “foundational” players of any rebuild project are both under contract and still playing are pretty slim. Burning it all down doesn’t work.
Even if this season is a lost cause with respect to playoffs, it is not a lost cause when it comes to developing the players who will have to serve as the foundation of the next version of the Chicago Bears. I think this is the year the Bears start to really build their depth—even if it is only because they have no choice.
Hopefully, this will be another turning point.