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The Cupboard Wasn’t Bare

People seeking to explain the length of the Bears’ struggle for identity claim that Phil Emery left behind a uniquely depleted roster. This just isn’t true.

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When Ryan Pace took over the Chicago Bears after the 2014 season, the Bears were at what some have called an all-time low. And, being honest, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, in 2017, I wrote this summary of the task he faced:

“Contrary to some opinions, Pace also needed no motivation to purge the roster beyond on-field performance. According to Sporting Charts, the 2014 Chicago Bears were 29th in the NFL in scoring efficiency (earning points on fewer than 28% of their drives) while being 32nd in the NFL in terms of the scoring efficiency allowed by their opponents (allowing points on nearly 45% of opponents’ drives). Given their “dominance” in both of these categories, a reasonable argument could be made that they were the worst team in football.”

However, no team roster is completely without merit. There are oftentimes diamonds to be found in the rough. The goal of this piece is to compare the challenge facing Ryan Pace with the challenges faced by another new GM. Only the three years following the change in leadership will be considered. This is for two key reasons. First, three years is about the average length of an NFL career, so a player lasting three years is “about right.” Second, rebuilds traditionally take about three years, and three years is a pretty typical amount of time for a new GM or head coach to have to leave a mark.

In order to be considered “in the cupboard,” a player must have been on the roster at the end of the prior season, not the beginning. This means that players like Rashad Ross (who was with the Bears at the start of 2014 but not the end) do not count as an asset Pace might have been able to work with.

In terms of raw numbers, from 2015 to 2017, the players Ryan Pace inherited were able to combine for 1,204 games played over the next three years. They earned 641 starts, and they managed two Pro Bowl nods (the 3-year undervalues talent, here, because Kyle Fuller’s lost year costs 16 games that might have otherwise counted, and it also excludes his Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods from 2018). The offensive weapons on on the team went on to account for 11,580 yards from scrimmage and 69 touchdowns.

The quarterbacks on the roster would later pass for 8123 yards and 12 net touchdowns (I’m subtracting interceptions from touchdown totals, here, because we’re talking about Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen). The defensive players available would go on to force 27 interceptions or forced fumbles, they recorded 52 sacks, and they managed 122 quarterback hits.

All told, the earned average career value over this same time was 356, or about 119 per year. To give an idea of how low that is (because AV can be an unfamiliar metric),the 8-8 Chicago Bears’ roster had an AV of 195. Only 15 of these players would earn one full season of starts or more in the next year, and only 22 would play in at least 32 games.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers came under new management in 2017. By 2019, they played in the Super Bowl. But what was their roster like when John Lynch took over? The players on the 2016 roster would go on to play in 1130 games (-74) and manage 583 starts (-58). The offensive weapons would manage 8002 yards from scrimmage (-3578) and record 56 touchdowns (-13). The quarterbacks on the roster were Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, meaning that those players contributed only 1712 passing yards (-6411) and 0 net touchdowns (-12) over the next three seasons (because we’re talking about Blaine Gabbert).

It gets better on defense, largely because of DeForest Buckner. The defensive players would contribute 30 interceptions and forced fumbles (+3), 77 sacks (+25), and 175 quarterback hits (+53). This imbalance might explain why Bears fans, who traditionally favor defense, think that the 49ers were in better shape. They weren’t, really.

This roster consisted of players who would go on and earn 312 AV over the next three years, or 104 AV per year (-15). How big of a difference is 15 AV per year? It’s 2019 Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd. It’s 2019 George Kittle and Kwon Alexander. So, it’s a lot. It’s basically a pair of starters who aren’t standouts or a standout and a place-holder. The total 44 AV difference is greater than the 4-year career of DeForest Buckner.

In terms of counting bodies, only 14 of the players on the 2016 49ers would go on to start at least 16 games, and only 19 of them would play in at least 32 games. Both of those totals are lower than their counterpart numbers for Chicago. All told the San Francisco 49ers ended 2016 with a weaker roster than the 2014 Bears. They had substantially less talent on offense, and the advantage they had on defense was not enough to compensate. The two rosters had essentially the same number of “starter” caliber players, and while the Bears had a bit more in the way of contributors (players like Sherrick McManis come to mind, in that he added value without being a starter), the difference is probably not a major one, and it’s the kind of difference easily overcome through undrafted free agency, for example. Meanwhile, the edge the 49ers had was the difference between three Pro Bowl nods and two.

Some people would say that the Bears had a less-stable locker room situation. However, those people might need a refresher on the state of the 49ers. Their starting quarterback was mired in political controversy, and the franchise was far from stable. They burned through Harbaugh, Tomsula, and Kelly in rapid order. They were the 32nd team in DVOA in 2015, and they “climbed” to 2016. ESPN called them the worst organization in professional sports. Still, by the end of a three-year period, with a worse roster, John Lynch rebuilt them into a team that made it to the Super Bowl, going 23-25 (48%) and with a pair of playoff wins.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s first three years saw them go 14-34. Even with an additional two years, they have yet to record their first playoff win, and their composite record is 34-46 (43%). Chicago deserves better than excuses, especially hollow ones.

As a personal aside, this will likely be my last regular article for Windy City Gridiron. Since I began writing here (September of 2015), I have had one consistent goal—to provide a rational context for arguments made about football and the Chicago Bears. I have sought to set aside my opinions and to try to use information whenever possible. I have occasionally branched out into humor, because we are writing about sports, and I think it’s important that sports are never taken too seriously compared to other issues.

I began as a guest in the threads, and I will likely still stop in sometimes in that manner. There are regular readers I would love to meet or chat football with. There are fellow contributors I am honored to have worked with and who I consider to be artists at their craft(s). However, the effort to put together weekly articles with the level of research I feel is necessary for an informed argument makes it necessary for me to take a step back. The extent to which I continue and contribute after this will be dependent on my own schedule and on the patience of the editors.

Thank you for reading for the last 412 years.