The Chicago Bears and their fans came into the 2016 season with an air of optimism, and why shouldn't they have? The 2015 squad, finishing a deceptive 6-10, left the field as feisty competitors on the upswing, showcasing in full the efforts of the front office to rebuild from the ground up a respectable franchise. The Bears were, at least relative to a regrettable 2014 campaign, headed in the right direction.
Fast forward to the first day of this new year (2017), and the Chicago Bears end the season in a much different air, one of utter disappointment. Their 3-13 record, a .188 winning percentage, goes down as the franchise's worst season record since the NFL expanded the length of the regular season from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, and their worst record by winning percentage since the 1969 Bears went 1-13.
How did this happen? As the Bears hope to answer that question now and correct it in the off-season, we fans, to console ourselves in the face of frustration, can focus on who is at fault. For many, and in this fanpost, the search will start at (or near?) the top with head coach John Fox and the staff he assembled.
As I said earlier, the Chicago Bears were expected to fair relatively well this season. WCG predicted as much in early September. As easily as those forecasts could be taken as a hopeful fandom drinking the proverbial kool-aid, or as excitement after enduring a long off-season, reasons for optimism were readily available. Jay Cutler was coming off one of the best seasons of his career. Kevin White was meant to take the league by storm after missing his entire rookie season. The front seven was shiny and new with all the money thrown it's way. Most importantly for some fans, a capable staff was finally at the helm, leading the charge.
That wasn't changing. John Fox was the guy that has taken 2 different teams to the Superbowl. Dowell Loggains was to run the same system as his predicessor. Vic Fangio had gotten the most out of a young defense.
What did change, though, as you remember with agony, was the talent that was at the staff's disposable. The Bears suffered through an uptick in injuries, losing quarterback Jay Cutler for most of the season, and his replacement Brian Hoyer shortly after, forcing them to start Matt Barkely, the staff's 4th choice (behind 24 year old Connor Shaw, who broke his leg in the preseason) for the last 6 games of the season.
It was that way across the board for the Bears. Young guys expected to contribute got knocked out early. Kyle Fuller never saw the field. Hroniss Grasu tore his ACL before the season, though the emergence of Cody Whitehair negated the potential loss here. Kevin White got hurt yet again.The Bears starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman only started 5 games this year after a rookie season where he started 15+ games (interestingly enough, neither NFL.com or Pro Football Reference has stats for Goldman in Week 17 of 2015 against the Lions. I'm not sure if he played 16 games or not.)
Established starters like Kyle Long and Pernell McPhee couldn't stay healthy. Big name players in Alshon Jeffery and Jerrell Freeman both had to sit out 4 for games for violating the leagues substance abuse policies. Dozens of others missed time in some capacity. In a lot of ways, the promising team John Fox and his staff presided over in 2015 slipped out from under him.
Given all of that, there is something to be said about the job this coaching staff has done, developing young talents like Leonard Floyd, Whitehair, Cameron Meridith and Jordan Howard, the strides these three alone have made in their first seasons should reflect well upon their coaches.
That they've been competitive at all (6 of 13 losses by 7 points or less, only 3 of the remaining 7 losses by more than 2 scores) with a roster as depleted as this roster has been speaks well for the coaches, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
Injuries can only explain so much, and excuses only go so far. I think the opinion of most Bears fans is that 13 losses on the year is just outside the reach of those excuses. With such promise from a young team before the season, such optimism among the fans, there has to be something more behind what went wrong, and for me, it's starts with Fox.
The team that never said die, the team that fought till the end, that stood proud among their own flaws, swinging up at giants, screaming "You just wait!", taking the God damn Packers to the end, the team I was proud to root for? They're gone, or so it looked like it against the Redskins at home, and again against on Vikings on New Years Day. They came out less than themselves, they came out listlessly moping toward the worst season in franchise history.
With all that said, I think you have to stick with Fox for one more year. Though he's gone 9-23 as the Bears head coach, he's proven that he can lead talented teams to the Superbowl. With the countless injuries the Bears had this season, it's hard to call this year's bunch talented. I'd find it hard to keep him beyond that if the Bears repeat this level of bad.
Maybe next season, the injury bug won't bite quite so hard, and we can all get an accurate account of whether or not John Fox is the man for the job. For now, to me, he gets a pass.