Bears leave little reason for continued optimism

Bears leave little reason for continued optimism
Brian Urlacher kneels with his head lowered in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers. — John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2012

The goal of every NFL team, every season, is to win a Super Bowl. As players and coaches get set to begin training camp activities in the preseason, expectations are always high. For most teams, those expectations will gradually descend back down to a reasonable level by Week-1.

So, for a team to say, “our goal is to win a championship this year,” is not really a big deal. Most of the time, fans are smart enough to realize that it’s rhetoric, as opposed to realistic. But when that same team openly identifies a window of opportunity to actually achieve that goal through its own actions, they can set themselves up for a colossal failure.

It’s the difference between optimism about, say, making the playoffs, but losing in the early rounds, and being incredibly disappointed by the same result.

When the Bears fired former general manager Jerry Angelo this offseason, they didn’t simultaneously clean house. They didn’t allow their subsequent hire, Phil Emery, to make sweeping changes to his staff. Lovie Smith was retained as head football coach for the 2012 season as a part of Emery’s contract.

It made sense. Just one season removed from a division title and an NFC title game, in which the Bears had every opportunity to win and advance to the Super Bowl prior to losing their starting quarterback, it made sense to think a couple of key moves could get you back there.

And after doing that (we’re speaking in hypotheticals now), Super Bowl title in hand, Emery could do as he pleased. After all, this team enjoyed the glory of that title for more than 25 years before. If the Bears won a Super Bowl after this season, the rebuild could begin at the right time, in the right way.

Sounds perfect. Almost too perfect.

This season, the Bears’ defense has made them look like a Super Bowl contender at times. The connection between Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall came back so quickly, it made fans’ heads spin. So why now, at a respectable 7-3, is the Bears’ identity being questioned? Is it really because they lost one game, on the road, without their starting quarterback, against a playoff-caliber team in the San Francisco 49ers?

I don’t think so. It’s because they not only lost that game, they were humiliated in it. It’s because against the only three playoff-caliber teams they’ve faced this season (Packers, Texans, and 49ers) they lost by a combined score of 23-68. It’s because pounding a 4-6 Titans team or a 1-9 Jaguars team doesn’t make you who you thought you were.

Prior to the 2012 season, two key moves were made: Mike Tice was made offensive coordinator, and Phil Emery pulled off a stunning trade to bring wide receiver Brandon Marshall to Chicago. Depth moves were made in free agency; the biggest probably being the signings of Jason Campbell and Michael Bush—moves that were reactive more than they were proactive.

Marshall has shined, but Tice has struggled. Campbell, while by little fault of his own, struggled to be the player you paid him $3.5 million dollars to be in the very moment he was supposed to be it.

In the Draft, Phil Emery made moves in the early rounds for Shea McClellin and Alshon Jeffery; moves that looked to be really solid to start the season. And now, 12 weeks into the season and all four of Emery’s top picks have missed time due to injury—not insignificant injuries either.

McClellin’s status remains up in the air after suffering a concussion against the Texans in Week-10. Jeffery is on his second injury. After missing four weeks with a fractured hand, Jeffery’s now expected to miss another two to four weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. Third-round pick Brandon Hardin will miss the entire season on injured reserve, and Evan Rodriguez missed four games with a knee injury.

Hardin and Rodriguez were both flagged as potential injury risks by analysts heading into the Draft. You can’t put the injuries solely on Emery, but you can’t give him high marks for a Draft class that isn’t available to play 50% of the games in your season either.

The one thing you can give fans high marks for is understanding that, even in the excitement of the Brandon Marshall acquisition, the offensive line was still a major issue. The Bears essentially ignored it. Given the fact that your starting quarterback is now concussed and your backup was sacked six times while filling in for him, it deserves to be talked about—no matter how sick of talking about it we all are.

But even with that concern, fans still bought into the hype. Expectations rose to the level set by the Bears’ organization. This thing was Super Bowl or bust from day one.

I’ve heard folks—whom I respect—suggesting expectations should not be lowered because, quite frankly, what did we learn about the Bears that we already didn’t know? While that may be a valid point, it doesn’t speak to lowered expectations.

What it really speaks to is whether or not we should be surprised by the way the Bears recently got trounced against the 49ers, or against the other winning teams they’ve faced. I say no, we shouldn’t be surprised. As for expectations, by all means, lower away.

Bears fans knew what the issues were, but there also existed tangible reasons to believe their team could overcome those issues against good teams and win football games. The Bears have struggled to do that. We didn’t know what Mike Tice was going to be as a play-caller, and now we do.

I believe this about the Chicago Bears wholeheartedly: they are a good football team. They are not as bad as they looked—on either side of the ball—against the 49ers. They’re not out of the playoff race. But if you want to start questioning their ability to win a Super Bowl as currently constructed, you have the ammunition to back that up.

If the Bears don’t turn things around in a hurry, this season could turn out to be their biggest disappointment since making, and losing, the Super Bowl in 2007 (2006 season). The glimmer of hope still remaining is this: if you can find a way to make the playoffs, anything can happen.

Filed under: Interest

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