The Chicago Bears have cap space to spare in 2012—potentially more than $20 million bucks. But the NFL’s salary floor (the minimum amount teams must spend under the new CBA) does not go into effect until 2013.
Meaning, if the Bears chose to do so, they can stay as far below the 2012 salary cap (projected at $124 million, although not yet set) as they like. And while a thrifty approach might not go far in endearing fans to new GM Phil Emery, it may make sense.
But before I get into that, let me throw out a few key whispers that have been floating around the “halls” of Halas since Angelo was let go back in early January . . .
It was rumored that Jerry Angelo had wanted to hit free agency hard in 2012. It’s also been rumored that team President Ted Phillips does not. One still has a job, the other doesn't.
So, if that’s the case, what gives? Why would Phillips want to handcuff his new GM by limiting the moves he can make in free agency, and by forcing a head coach on him? He doesn't. What Bears fans are seeing is a move toward the execution of philosophy and a strategic approach to the team’s future.
The philosophy has not changed. The Bears' organization, from the top down, would like to build through the draft as much as possible, while supplementing whenever feasible through free agency and/or trade.
Jerry shared that philosophy once upon a time; he simply did not have success at it.
When Angelo’s draft classes failed to consistently put impact players on the field, he was forced to resort to free agency and trade to bring in the team’s two heaviest hitters on offense and defense—Jay Cutler and Julius Peppers.
While those were great moves to make, running a franchise that way is simply not sustainable, and what you end up with is a general lack of up-and-coming players in your own pipeline. The Bears are in that situation now.
I can tell you that the upcoming draft means more for the future of this team that anything they will do in free agency.
The other thing to consider is the strategic approach I mentioned. It’s something I have been talking about since Angelo was fired, and something I’ll reiterate here. The goal of that approach is to make a run at a championship in 2012. Should they fall short of that goal, the approach will change, and Bears fans may see the start of a true rebuilding.
Sidenote: Yes, winning a championship is every team’s goal, every season. But the Bears truly believe they have a chance to make that goal a reality in 2012.
It’s why Lovie Smith was retained, it’s why Jerry Angelo was fired, and it’s why this team will not go on a shopping spree this offseason. The biggest factor for the Bears in making that run is to limit the immediate turnover and bring in a playmaking wide receiver.
By asking the team to go on a spending spree, you’re essentially asking for a rebuild now. And why start the rebuild if you’re making a run in 2012?
For a reference point, take a look at what the Eagles did last year. They went on a veritable shopping spree in free agency, acquiring Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, earning themselves “Dream Team” status, only to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs.
That’s not to say that what they did in Philadelphia won’t eventually pay off. But it takes time for a team to develop. If the Bears are, again, looking to make a run in 2012, why would they run the table in free agency? Far more importantly, why would they commit those dollars now, as opposed to saving them for the eventual rebuild?
When Phil Emery first took to the podium and touted how the Bears have a great core of playmakers in place, many fans cringed. But think about the statement for a minute. Jay Cutler, Devin Hester, Matt Forte, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs . . . all playmakers.
Tillman is best ball-hawk in the game by the numbers. Devin Hester is still the most electrifying returner in the game. Matt Forte is toying with elite status. Jay Cutler is becoming the leader on offense, and he’s backing it up on the field. Peppers is one of the most feared d-lineman in the game . . . and so on.
What’s missing? You have impact players on offense, defense and special teams, but you still don’t have a wide receiver. Phil Emery knows that, and the Bears know that. And I suspect they will head into free agency looking to get one. But don’t be surprised if that’s the extent of the moves they make.
2012 is not a rebuild year for this team—it’s a final chance for this core to make a run at a championship.