It’s odd how defiant NFL teams who haven’t have experienced any success of late such as the Chicago Bears appear during exit interviews following a season’s end.
“There’s always next year” is predicated on confidence, hard work - all of your sports cliches. While it’s sometimes based on little, no one will blame guys for not giving up on a common goal. Without that hope - whether manufactured or not - what’s there to play for? A widely mocked comment in the past few days from pending unrestricted free agent receiver, Alshon Jeffery, is nothing surprising.
“I guarantee you we are going to win the Super Bowl next year,” quipped the positive, star-crossed receiver in Jeffery, who had just one reception for 10 yards in maybe the final game of his Chicago career.
Put on a smile for the cameras and profess of a great journey to come.
It’s a facet John Fox and Ryan Pace’s Bears have mastered. Win nine games total in two seasons, only one more than the maligned Marc Trestman’s inaugural year - you have to sell something, anything. Go 0-8 on the road for the first time in your charter franchise’s history and 3-13 - your worst 16-game season, ever - you’d be best served preparing a detailed sales presentation. An auction where those with the energy for the endeavor, become all the more apathetic to bidding on an item.
Hey, the grass is always greener on the other side, right?
There’s credit where credit’s due for this Bears regime: prepared statements and holding plans close to the vest isn’t an easy skill to hone. Yet, Trestman and his “good” practices had a similar ring.
But the teams of action in the NFL do more than talking. They produce results, progression, etc. There’s no need to dream of accomplishment like Kyle Long on Monday, because it just happens.
“I want to go to the playoffs. A playoff game in Chicago, could you imagine that?,” said Long.
For stable teams, the playoffs are the minimum expectation, not imagination.
That’s why it’s always perplexing when the Bears are this “close.” “If’s” are the general assumption to understanding the how close Bears’ mantra. But they can’t get out of their own way. They never do.
There’s a common denominator to sustained failure in professional sports. Any time success is prolonged - as it has been for the Bears who haven’t made the postseason in six years and have just once in the last 10 - it falls on those on pulling the strings in ownership.
But there are inherent fallacies attached to that sentiment.
Contrary to popular belief, no, Bears President Ted Phillips is not involved in football operations anymore. And yes, the McCaskey family led by chairman, George, isn’t cheap. They do spend on players on free agency. In fact, according to the NFL Player’s Association, the Bears were the eight highest spending team in 2016. This isn’t a new occurrence for a franchise that hasn’t drafted well in the past decade, either. The Bears of late have routinely broken the bank on free agents, setting a flimsy foundation leading to their current dilemma.
But people need a rationalization. A Chicago Cubs type “curse”, if you will. And the falsehoods of Phillips’ supposed over-involvement and the Bears’ penny-pinching is easy to use. A three-decade plus championship drought will do that to an exasperated fan-base. Say something enough to yourself, and eventually you’ll believe it.
On the other hand, I’m sure the McCaskey’s are a nice family. I’m sure they care enough about making this “big-league” franchise pounded into irrelevance to resemble a force again.
What isn’t up for debate is that it’s likely they don’t know how to do that. George, who was ready to spur movement after taking over for his brother in 2011, is now on his third head coach and general manager. It’s fair to wonder just how much control the current incumbent head man in Pace has with McCaskey’s consulting input. Yet again, the results speak for themselves. How else can you explain the dysfunction at Halas Hall?
Why does a franchise in the league’s third largest market need that consulting firm to evaluate their situation? Why does Pace, who as reported, will jointly speak with his (likely forced) partner-in-crime in Fox (who is expected to be retained until further notice) on Wednesday, need to be side-by-side with someone who shouldn’t be equal in power to him?
Does Pace not have enough pull as the Bears general manager to prepare and address a melancholy fan gathering on his own?
These are questions to ponder that may never receive a concrete answer.
In said press conference, expect Pace and Fox to be prepared with an outline of everything that went wrong in 2016, what to look forward to, and expectations of the future. Nothing too out of the ordinary. A mouthpiece of an open session where you expect not to see many surprises.
The duo will point to 19 players on injured reserve - tied with the San Diego Chargers for the NFL lead - as a crutch assisting their historic piled-on defeat. They’ll talk of a plan to keep players healthy in their control. But the thing is, injuries happen, you know, in a dangerous and physically demanding game.
It’s certainly Fox’s best excuse for his lack of results with the Bears.
It might be his only excuse now.
What had many believing in Fox despite the ravaged roster destruction is the fight Chicago displayed throughout the season in close losses. But that doesn’t mean anything for un-drafted cast-offs looking to make their mark. There’s no logic in assuming loyalty they have to Fox - someone they’ve enjoyed no success with - instead of securing their own livelihood.
All of that moral victory conversation went out the window when the Bears were outscored 79-31 in their final two games against the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins. A Bears team who took the Packers, Lions, Titans, and Giants to the wire, instead looked like it wanted to finally pack it in.
So a coach with pedigree in Super Bowl appearances with Carolina and Denver, has nothing to hang his hat on and relies on coach speak you can only help but roll your eyes at.
A potential third season return had Fox saying, “Yeah ... when you start something, you want to finish it.”
But how long will it take to finish this specific job? To be clear: this job is a championship. I know, crazy for this organization to even utter in a sentence. So is it two years? Three years? Longer?
NFL rebuilds don’t take this long. In fact, 24 of the 31 head coaches who have won the Super Bowl had at least a .500 within their first two seasons with the team. 21, made the playoffs in that time frame.
And anyone in this city comparing the Bears to the Cubs or Blackhawks, is using a flawed recency bias of comparison. Comparing apples to oranges. Each sport has contrasting developmental cycles. More patience attributed to the champion Cubs was fine, because successful baseball rebuilds usually take four to five years. That patience was also fine for the Bears but on a shorter bend.
In the NFL, a turnaround can and more often than not - should happen within two to three years.
A league who turns over almost half of it’s playoff field every season (new participants in the Lions, Raiders, Dolphins, Falcons, Cowboys, and Giants this year), shows off that fact as much. But somehow these Pace-Fox Bears, are taking steps back instead of breaking in the confetti.
Back to Pace, the man who earned goodwill with his 2016 draft class and in particular, Jordan Howard, Leonard Floyd, and Cody Whitehair - with now as big of a hurdle and pressure to stock the cupboard for Fox than ever. Another offseason such as this past one will do the Bears wonders, but who’s to figure that it all goes according to plan. Remember those “if’s” the Bears had to fall back on of a big rebound in 2017?
Let’s take stock of roster needs:
- A young franchise quarterback who needs to be the answer.
- An overhaul of the entire secondary, with not many proven players at cornerback, and especially at safety.
- A dynamic edge rusher with the health of Pace’s famed big money free agent acquisition in Pernell McPhee constantly in flux, Floyd still being raw, and an aging Willie Young who recorded just 1.5 sacks in the second half of this season.
- A potential upgrade at either offensive tackle position with the merely serviceable Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie.
- A wide receiver with the possible departure of Jeffery.
- A young tight end to compliment Zach Miller.
So yes, if the Bears do this and that in the draft and free agency (a projected $70 million in salary cap space) - they’re right there. If they acquire eight to nine true impact players and somehow develop them all, they’re right there.
But, so is every other non-factor NFL team. It’s easier said than done. Just this far away should every instance fall miraculously into place. That’s a lot of luck for a general manager who needs a team on the field to soon play better together than individually as it has. Jobs on the line are not defined by acquired talent but the win column.
To be fair, the Bears should have some excitement over what’s building, but extremely tempered. Saying this team is on the cusp of contending any time soon is misguided until proven otherwise. I’ve always been an advocate of needing to see it materialize versus gloss about the future. The story of exciting potential NFL also-rans is an extensive list.
The joint head of leadership for Chicago will attempt to again sell promises soon, and they better remember that their words can’t eventually ring hollow. For an organization that fancies itself as special and is always on the cusp in their own mind - it’s time for the Bears to prove it.
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.