It’s not easy being a fan of a losing team. And it doesn’t help when the national media has ordained the Chicago Bears as the punching bag of the off-season. You may find yourself mocked by your friends or constantly discouraged by snarky dismissive comments disrespecting your proud franchise that litter airwaves and twitter feeds across the sports universe.
Most fans will cope with this barrage of blows to the ursine extension of our ego in one of two ways. One is to become critical. To maintain your love for the franchise, but criticize the front office, coaches, and players even more harshly than the hot takers and blow-harding pundits. Sure, the Bears are bad, but you know they are bad so hearing it from someone else has no power over you. This is an understandable option, but not the one I follow.
The second way is to dig your heels in and defend your beloved Bears. You focus on the positive—the Howards and Whitehairs and Floyds of hope. You quickly notice any time the Bears are judged unfairly. Naturally, you think about all the reasons that 3 and 13 does not accurately reflect the quality of the Bears or their potential for the upcoming season. This is what I do. And it can also be referred to as making excuses.
I present to you my “power” rankings of excuses for the Bears losingest season since 1969.
4. They lost a lot of close games
The 2016 Bears lost 6 games by less than a touchdown and three of them by a field goal or less. Conversely, they only won one game by less than a touchdown. There is certainly a factor of luck in any game, and when it’s as close as the 16-17 loss to the Jaguars, it can feel like a coin flip.
It’s tempting to look at these close losses as bad luck and conclude that they should have won half of these close games (3.5 out of 7) which would have made them a more respectable 6 or 7 win team.
I rank this excuse last for a few reasons. For one thing, 6 or 7 wins would not elevate the Bears out of loserdom. But more importantly, there is a lot more than luck that factors in to winning close games. The Bears did not perform well when the game was on the line. They also didn’t perform in a way that makes me think one touchdown was a small difference.
The 2016 Bears were exceptional at both not scoring and not stopping the other team from scoring. This may sound like a statement that’s true for any losing team, but the Bears managed to score 120 points less than their opponents despite the fact that they beat league averages in offensive yards and defensive yards allowed. At times, the Bears offense’s ability to push the ball down the field and get nothing for it seemed to challenge Sisyphus for the most emblematic exercise of futility. Saying this offense just needed one more touchdown to win doesn’t mean the game was close. Additionally, the Bears’ break-don’t-bend defense allowed too many points to attribute any of them to bad luck.
3. But the Bears are rebuilding
In theory, any team with three wins should be rebuilding, so this can be a cyclical argument. Did the Bears have three wins because they are rebuilding, or are they rebuilding because they only have a three win roster? The truth is certainly a little of both.
The Bears have made moves to indicate they have been prioritizing the future, including letting go of aging talents like Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett. The 2016 Bears were also in the second year of a switch to a 3-4 system which included a near complete overhaul of defensive personnel and in the first year of adjusting to Dowell Loggains’ offense.
It’s fair to give the Bears some leeway in the rebuilding process. And though nobody likes to say it, a losing record is actually helpful for a rebuilding team because of the draft capital it affords. I personally appreciate the steps Pace has taken in the interest of rebuilding the roster. But for the rebuild sacrifices to be worth it, the Bears will need to have more drafts like 2016 and less like the year prior.
2. But they had soooo many injuries
Matt Barkley. Josh Bellamy. Deonte Thompson. Mitch Unrein. Cornelius Washington. Sam Acho. Jacoby Glenn. Demontre Hurst.
These are all names of players who had significant playing time due to injuries (each of them played at least 20% of snaps last season). I chose this list of names rather than the names of players who were injured because I feel it more clearly demonstrates the effect of their loss.
Football Outsiders has an “Adjusted Games Lost” metric which attempts to quantify the significance of injuries on a team throughout the season, giving extra weight to starters and difference-makers who are injured and awarding partial credit for injured players who play. It sounds like it tells you how many games the team lost because of injured players, but it’s really just a measure of how many games were missed by players who could contribute.
They ranked all teams in this metric and the Bears scored the highest of all teams in 2016. The 2016 Bears actually scored higher than any team for the last 20 years. Bear in mind these are the same Football Outsiders who ranked the 2016 Bears 15th in offense, 22nd in defense, and ranked Markus Wheaton 27th among receivers in 2015.
Nobody will deny the Bears suffered a lot of injuries in 2016. After the incessant onslaught of bad news Bears fans experienced last year, it is hard to move on from the expectation that injuries will keep coming at the same rate. Some injuries are dumb luck, but others may be due to bad training, practice habits or exacerbation of lingering prior injuries. I remain optimistic that the Bears 2017 season won’t be as traumatic as 2016 but I can’t convince myself at least some of the injuries won’t persist or repeat.
The top of the Bears roster certainly looks better than the bottom of it, and Pace has added depth in many areas, so it’s reasonable to expect better performance from the 2017 Bears than the string of replacements that rolled out last season.
Number 1. Somebody has to lose
I don’t know if people realize this, but every time an NFL team wins a game, that means another NFL team loses one. Even if both teams are super good, at least one of them will end up losing (I say at least one because, let’s be honest, when there’s a tie, everyone loses). Over the course of a 16 game season, this adds up to (at least) 256 losses. The rest of the NFL should be grateful that the Bears were gracious enough to bear 13 of these losses for the benefit of others around the league. If any of my friends who are fans of other teams try to make fun of me for rooting for a losing team, I simply point this fact out to them and they quickly see the error of their ways.
The Bears took one for the proverbial team in 2016. Let us hope the NFL remembers this and returns the favor for years to come.