It’s really hard to be awful in the NFL. The draft, the salary cap, the compensatory pick system, and the scheduling process all work together to drive teams to at least a state of recurrent mediocrity, if nothing else. In fact, in the modern era of team rebuilding (since the 2011 CBA went into effect, or since the 2010 season), it’s been rare for teams to finish with an under .200 win rate. It’s actually only happened 27 times in 13 years. What’s remarkable is that five teams contribute more than half of those finishes: the Jacksonville Jaguars (5), the Cleveland Browns (3), the Tennessee Titans (2), the team that has become the Washington Commander (2), and the Chicago Bears (2). That’s bad company to be in.
However, not all bad teams are equally bad. It’s not fair to compare the Chicago Bears to only the worst teams in the NFL by record. Instead, they should only be compared to the worst teams in the NFL by point differential, as well. Only seventeen of those “awful” teams by record were also 31st or 32nd in the NFL in terms of total point differential rank (the 2022 Bears were #31). These seventeen teams were, without a doubt, the worst teams in the NFL in the current era.
Even among these teams, however, improvement happened. These teams saw an average change from a .14 to .37 win rate. Only twice in this time (both with the Browns) did a team move backwards in win rate. The next worst margin of improvement is with the Tennessee Titans, who went from .13 to .19, and then would be the 2022 Bears, currently on track to move from .18 to .25. Comparing rotten apples to rotten apples, disappointment to disappointment, the Bears are still on track to be among the worst of the bad teams in terms of improvement (in the bottom quartile of bottom-dwelling).
It’s notable that of those 16 other awful teams, the majority of them improved their relative rank in terms of point differential by at least 10 spots, but the Bears are on track for only improving their position by 6 spots. They are seeing less improvement than average for historically bad teams, as they are on track for the 6th-lowest degree of improvement, beating out only two Jaguars teams that moved backwards and two Browns teams that did the same, plus one version of the Titans.
Maybe apologists are right and Pace did leave Poles with nothing to work with, so 2022 was not his fault. However, he entered 2023 with a far better basis for improvement than at least some. Most importantly, even when comparing his work to the efforts made to improve other teams that could be called the worst in the league by almost any measure, he has done far less than typical.
When rebuilds are successful in the NFL, they tend to have immediate improvement. At this basic task, Ryan Poles is failing, and he should be out of excuses as to why.
The defense that Chicago has put on the field this season was built by Ryan Poles. More than 90% of the total snaps taken on offense have been taken by players who Ryan Poles drafted, brought in during free agency, or extended. The two major exceptions are Eddie Jackson and Jaylon Johnson—and it is possible that by the time this article is published, Johnson will have been traded. If the rejoinder is that he depleted the defense in order to build the offense, then it’s worth noting that the offense that Chicago has put in the field was not built by Ryan Poles.
Less than two-thirds of the offensive snaps have been taken by players Ryan Poles drafted, brought in during free agency, or extended. The big chunks that weren’t Poles? The starting quarterback, three members of the offensive line (Jenkins, Borom, and Whitehair), the #2 wide receiver by snap count (Mooney), and the #1 running back by snap count (Herbert). Two of those offensive linemen have taken 75% or more of the available offensive snaps, and the third is arguably the best offensive lineman on the team. In other words, if the offense was prioritized over the defense, there is little sign of it on the field. The key areas of the offense that needed to be improved when Ryan Poles took over are still problems for Chicago, and the spots in question are still being filled by players Poles has not replaced.
The NFL does not allow slow rebuilds. It does not take years to cycle a roster. Ryan Poles has made his decisions on how to build this team, and what he has chosen to build is failing at levels seldom seen in the modern NFL.