Weren't we supposed to be waiting for the draft picks?
Only three months have passed since the USA Today's 3-13 prediction for the Chicago Bears 2015 campaign. In Chicago, where Bears fans are often irrationally excited about their men in navy blue, most fans had relegated the team to a six or seven win season. This scribe, a self-proclaimed 'Bears realist', had them going 5-11.
Nine games into the season, we're all confused. The 'We Need the Highest Draft Pick' fan is really confused. The 'Trade All of Our Veteran Talent' guy is confused. And now, the 'I'm Not Wasting My Time on the Bears This Season' guy is confused.
Who are these guys? Why are they 4-5? Is it safe to root for them as I would for any other Bears playoff contender? Are they a playoff contender? Are we still trading Matt Forte? When can I go back to complaining about Jay Cutler? Who brought the bean dip? Can somebody hold me?
For me, enjoying games as a fan has a lot to do with expectations. If I want my viewing experience to be somewhat joyful, I need to create reasonable expectations. For the 2015 Chicago Bears, viewing the roster was a challenge for the eyes. The Bears returned capable offensive players like Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, Matt Slauson, Kyle Long, and Martellus Bennett. There was also the possible emergence of young players like Jeremy Langford and Kevin White. Yet, these hopes were tempered by some key deficits: another new offensive coordinator for Jay Cutler, the constant injury worries of Jeffery, how would Jermon Bushrod develop, and could Kyle Long make a transition to tackle?
The problems on offense didn't end there.
Before training camp, Kevin White was hurt. Jay Cutler was hurt after Week 1. Will Montgomery sustained a major injury.
Defensively, the Bears had been the laughing stock of the NFL for the previous two seasons. The pass rush was non-existent. Throwing the ball against the Bears was like playing Madden '98 on 'rookie' level with Drew Bledsoe popping shots to Ben Coates over the middle. You could beat the Bears down the field, over the middle, and on the ground...hell, you could just beat the Bears any way you pleased.
The Bears had a maladjusted suspended defensive lineman in Jeremiah Ratliff who was already suspended to start the year. Shea McClellin was being thought of as a possible interior linebacker. Kyle Fuller, who was rated as one of the worst defensive backs in the NFL in 2015, was coming back as the Bears top defender in the backfield...unless you believed that a 107 year-old Antrel Rolle was possibly better.
With no defensive hopes for 2015, new Bears general manager Ryan Pace hired former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fangio's goal was to take the worst defense in the NFL and make it, well, not a helpless barrage of feces.
Fast forward to Week 10.
The Bears are 4-5. We thought we were in the middle of a massive rebuilding plan, but...maybe we're not? As a fan, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to react. Looking at the Bears schedule, it looks impossible for the Bears to lose the remainder of their games. There are too many bad teams in the NFL to hope for a high draft pick (Seriously, have you watched some of these teams recently? Holy Lord!). With the hopes for a high draft pick gone, we have no reason but to throw our hats into the ring and go 'full-throttle Bears meatball.'
There are genuine reasons to be excited. There are also genuine reasons to keep our undergarments in place; which we'll go over later.
REASONS TO BE EXCITED:
1) Actual Coaching
John Fox coached two different teams to Super Bowl appearances, which is very tough to do in today's NFL. For some reason, some fans must've been hearing the name 'Wade Phillips' or 'Norv Turner' when his name was announced. Which men have led two different teams to Super Bowl appearances? Here's a couple: Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Dick Vermeil, Mike Holmgren, and Don Shula. Are those guys bad? No. They are good. Some of the best ever.
Vic Fangio is one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL. Adam Gase is one of the top offensive minds in the NFL. I could throw out all of the numbers, but getting players to play over their heads has been amazing to watch. The Bears have gone from the 30th best pass defense in the NFL to the 4th.
With Tracy Porter
2) Development of Key Players
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Bears have pro bowl caliber players in 2014 like Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, and Martellus Bennett. What wasn't noticeable is if certain players had any chance to return to pro bowl form (Jay Cutler) or even improve at all (Shea McClellin).
Jay Cutler has looked more comfortable in a scheme that highlights his ability to get out of the pocket, make quick reads, give him just enough freedom at the line of scrimmage (but, not too much), and seemingly a set-up that usually tags him with at least one deep threat on each play (exhale). This isn't rocket science (as you can see, I'm a big fan of rocket science). For years, we've known Jay plays better getting out of the pocket. An offensive coordinator has finally been able to utilize this, and the results have been big. Cutler's QBR is the highest of his career. He has his best TD to INT ratio for his career, as well. Huzzah.
Shea McClellin? Let's start with the fact that he hasn't been a big heaping pile of feces on the field. Honestly, that's what most fans in Chicago were hoping for at the start of the season. The public's perception of Shea has evolved as such over the past 10 weeks:
- Can he not be a big pile of feces? Answer: Phew! It looks like it.
- Can he not be so out of position that it's impossible for his teammates to make plays? Answer: Shit! It looks like he's where he's supposed to be!
- Can he maybe even...no...that's too much, I don't wanna...okay...can he...(starts to crawl under table)...make a play occasionally? Answer: OH MY GOD! LOOK AT THAT! HE'S TACKLING PEOPLE!
3) Getting Veterans with Talent to Play Within Their Abilities
This is what the best coaches are able to do. You see it with Antrel Rolle. He knows it's not 2008. We know it's not 2008. So, he doesn't try to pretend his body is still in 2008. (Except for that play in the Minnesota game, wtf was that????)
4) Understanding What Today's NFL is...
This is a big one for fan's to understand. It doesn't take a lot to turn things around in this league. There are so many different elements that can turn a bad team into a contender. For instance, injuries. Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. How is the rest of the division doing with injuries?
Another is finding one or two talents that can turn a franchise around. Sometimes, especially if you're the Bears, and you have a serviceable quarterback, just finding surrounding pieces is the biggest challenge.
Lastly, another reason is TURNOVER. People move. All the time: 1) The hot new coach is suddenly a villain (see Green Bay if they lose this weekend). 2) The hot new GM suddenly can't draft. 3) That great defensive coordinator which helped make their team so good left for another job. These things happen all of the time, and this what lends to the constant flipping in the NFL.
The Bears are not completely in the darkness, folks.
5) Remaining Schedule
The next two weeks looked like laughers for the Bears...in the opposite direction. The Broncos have one of the top defenses in the NFL, and they are led at quarterback by one of the all-time greats. The Packers, well, continue to beat the Bears. Especially at Lambeau...and especially with Jay Cutler at quarterback.
Suddenly, Manning is hurt. The offense is sputtering, and an unproven backup is coming in for the Broncos after two straight losses. The Packers, the beloved team of the NFL, has lost three straight. More importanly, Aaron Rodgers looks lost. He has never looked lost. Never. Not at one point in his career...and it's freaking everybody out. It's actually freaking me out...I'm going to give it one more week.
HOWEVER, those Packers are suddenly OUT of first place at 6-3. They play at first place Minnesota this weekend. It's possible that they could be 6-4 playing the Bears on Thanksgiving. Plus, word out of Green Bay is that Aaron Rodgers has a sore shoulder. This means that Aaron Rodgers will be playing the Bears on a short week with a bad shoulder. Wow. Just...how did this all happen?
The remainder of the schedule features Stuttering Tom and his San Francisco 49ers, Lovie's Bucs, the Washington Redskins, and the Lions at home.
Super Bears, Super Bowl?
REASONS TO CALM THE BLEEP DOWN
1) The Bears are 4-5
Seriously...let's just...pipe it down here. I know last year was traumatic, but maybe we should wait a couple weeks before we start printing playoff tickets?
2) This Team has a Long Way to Get to a Super Bowl
While the team may be happy they're competing towards a playoff spot, the fact remains that they are nowhere near getting a Super Bowl. Why? Let's go to #3.
3) Great Coaching Masks Talent Gaps...Only So Much
A part of me wishes the Patriots were on the Bears schedule...for maybe the final game of the season. They Bears could get to 10-5. Everybody would get really excited; hell, maybe we'd have already clinched a playoff berth. Then, we could go to Foxboro and lose by 75 so people could see just how far away we are.
The Bears are going to need Kevin White to get healthy; which is happening. But, they're going to need another slot receiver. They're going to need another interior lineman, and pending on where they draft, they're going to need to pick up another tackle. The Bears have a glut of defensive lineman, but in the 3-4 scheme you can never have too many.
The biggest gap that any Bears fan over the age of 5 can see? The Bears need linebackers. Like...three of them. Christian Jones has the IQ of a grapefruit. Shea McClellin, despite improvements, still has his ceiling. Plus, with Sam Acho and Pernell McPhee playing well, you want to compensate for a possible injury. I'd like to draft an interior linebacker, sign a free agent linebacker, and find a late rounder.
Another big gap is in the defensive backfield, where the Bears have done an AMAZING job. The talent level is putrid. However, you can actually see Kyle Fuller improve on a weekly basis. Tracy Porter, as stated, actually looks like an NFL cornerback. That being said, Rolle is still 73 years old. The Bears will need a DB pick. Fangio likes defensive backs who can be physical. I'd like a cover corner. Cover corners can play single coverage and improve your ability to blitz...and I'm a meatball...I like blitzes.
All of this drafting and FA signings will have an impact on the overall depth of the team. One area where you can see how poorly a team has drafted is in their special teams. If you're using scrap heap players to play on your 22 man starting roster, that means you have nothing left for special teams (this is math; I checked my math). The Bears, noticeably, have been awful at special teams this year...and much of that has to do with depth. Improve overall drafting and scouting of FAs???? Once you do that, your special teams magically improve. It's amazing.
It's okay to get excited. Be excited. It's sports. Sports need excitement. And there's nothing like rooting for a team that genuinely seems like it works hard and gets better every week. Many time in sports, we root for teams that are 'just going to be what they're going to be'.
Not these Bears. Not with John Fox. They're hear to win...and for now, that's enough for me.