Learning to Win

What a season.

I don’t want you to read that sentence in your head in the voice of a person who has just eaten a satisfying meal, patting their belly contentedly while leaning back in a creaking chair.

I don’t want you to read that sentence in your head in the voice of a person so angry that they barely spit out the words, so dripping with venom and anger that it can barely be clearly enunciated.

want you to read that sentence in a way that Charlie Brown would have said it while staring up at the sky after missing the football again.  Shoulders slumped, a sigh of exhaustion whistles through your lips as part of you is glad it’s over, but mostly it’s discomfiting to realize that this isn’t the first nor will it be the last time this has happened.

We’re all used to this to an extent – some of those who have been fans since the 70s or even early 90s have even more vivid recollections of lousy Bears teams, sure, but there’s no real way to accept it.  The Bears hovering around/just below .500 is generally their modus operandi, and it’s not a bad place to be.  Teams can be close when you have a record around 8-8, no matter how frustrating; like there’s just one more piece to put your team over the top.

When your team is 3-13, though…well, that’s obviously a different story.  Normally after a 3-13 season franchises make drastic changes – coaches fired, players shipped out, perhaps even a general manager change.  Many, MANY fans wouldn’t mind this being the case with the Chicago Bears, but I’m not there yet at all.  Let’s look at the 2016 3-13 Bears season and see what we can glean from this unpleasant year.


KEY INJURIES

It’s inescapable.  The 2016 season was utterly and completely defined by lack of availability from a nasty salad of starters and key depth.  The Bears finished with 19 players on injured reserve – 19.  While I’m not going to go over every one, let’s work our way along the timeline and laugh/weep together over the major booboos that crushed the hopes of fans.

Hroniss Grasu, starting C – Injured his knee in an August practice and was lost for the season. Oddly enough this worked out for the Bears, as they moved Whitehair to C (where he flourished) and gave them all the reason needed to sign Josh Sitton (who had a quality season).

Kyle Fuller, starting CB – After a good finish to the 2015 season, the arrow was pointing up for Kyle (you can read MUCH more about him in my previous article).  Bears brass and coaches were uninspired by his failure to return on multiple instances, and once placed on IR in September never was activated back to the roster, crippling a position that was already lacking depth.

Connor Shaw, backup QB – This is one of those injuries that may not jump off the page, but it turns out this season would’ve been the perfect platform for Shaw to showcase his ability.  After an exciting preseason, an arguably dirty hit in the final game ended his season before it even began.  If Shaw had been healthy in the latter stages of the year, maybe the Bears wouldn’t be so drunk on acquiring a QB with the no.3 overall pick.

Lamarr Houston, rotation LB – Lamarr had a very impressive comeback season in 2015, leading the team in sacks and showing why he was considered a quality acquisition.  The stars didn’t align for him almost immediately, as he played in only 2 games before another knee injury ended his 2016 campaign.

Jay Cutler, starting QB – Cutler injured his thumb two games into the season, missing 5 contests and nearly losing his starting job to Brian Hoyer (who apparently Bears coaches preferred).  With Hoyer suffering a broken arm, Cutler returned triumphantly over the Vikings.  After the win Cutler told the press that Fox “has no choice” but to support Jay as the starter, something that I’m guessing went over well among the coaching staff.  In a disastrous loss to the Bucs, rumors were rampant that Cutler didn’t prepare for the game.  The following week Cutler’s shoulder was injured and he was placed on injured reserve not long after.  He played only 5 games in 2016, throwing 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  Fittingly enough his final throw (perhaps in a Bears uniform) was an interception.

Brian Hoyer, backup QB – The aforementioned Hoyer, despite going 1-5 in his relief duty of the injured Cutler, kept the Bears in close games, throwing 6 touchdowns and never turning the ball over.  Criticism is merited – he often left a lot of points on the board – but Hoyer’s poise and sound handling of the offense was the steady hand the team needed.  Suffering a broken arm against the Packers in late October ended Hoyer’s season, putting the Bears in a precarious situation that as we all know led to Matt Barkley being the only option the team had left.

Eddie Goldman, starting NT – In what was supposed to be a breakout year for the 2nd year tackle, Goldman couldn’t shake a nagging ankle injury that plagued him from the outset.  Injuring the ankle in week 2, the second-year lineman missed 6 straight games.  Briefly returning in a spurt of late-season contests, Goldman re-aggravated the injury and the team moved him to IR.  His impact on the field is obvious – Goldman is the engine that makes every player around him better, opening up avenues for the pass rush and stifling the opposing run game – and with 91 not active, there wasn’t much, if any, depth behind him to even remotely equal his contributions.

Kyle Long, starting RG – Long celebrated an offseason return to his decorated Right Guard position, but things never came together with his body how he would like.  Nagging injuries are routine in the NFL, and a shoulder injury through 8 games made Long’s season a grueling task, but ultimately injuring his ankle in a rollup ended his year.  Surgery on both areas has forced Kyle to drop weight & rebuild his strength, but if there’s anyone on the roster who can come back better and stronger than ever by sheer will alone, it’s Kyle Long.

Danny Trevathan, starting LB – The prize acquisition of the ’16 offseason, Trevathan required thumb surgery in mid-September, causing him to miss a few games.  Returning, albeit with a huge cast on his injured hand, Trevathan gave it a go before a ruptured tendon took him off the field for good.  He gave the Bears a very limited 9 weeks of playing and never was healthy enough to make the big-time plays that made him a star in Denver.

Pernell McPhee, starting LB – Ryan Pace’s first big free agent and captain/keystone of the defense, McPhee once again showed why many teams were dubious to pay him in the 2015 offseason.  Re-injuring his knee last season, McPhee had a scope done that was projected to be healed well in time for the start of the 2016 season.  Yet the season started and…no Pernell.  In what’s become something of a routine for the team, the Bears kept insisting his return was imminent, but with every passing week the star linebacker didn’t practice.  Finally in late October, McPhee was back in practice and only capable of limited reps in games.  His lack of athleticism was obvious from the outset, but he steadily increased his presence in games from then on.  Regardless, it was clear to everyone that the hulking linebacker was a shade of himself.  In week 16 McPhee injured his shoulder, and didn’t play in the season finale.

Eddie Royal, rotation WR – Since coming to the Bears last season, Royal’s major issue has been availability.  A nagging knee injury in 2015 essentially rendered the veteran wideout invisible, and after an incredible early season showing in 2016, Royal’s injuries once again came to the forefront.  This time a toe injury set him back, and after sporadically being used as a returner and in limited roles as a receiver, the team put him on IR and his future with the team is in major doubt.  Considering how much the team invested in Royal to be an impact player for the offense, his lack of availability has defined his Bears tenure.

Zach Miller, starting TE – Re-signed to the Bears after a quality 2015, Miller looked to be having another solid year, putting up 47 catches, 486 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 10 games before a late-November foot injury ended his year.  With virtually no depth behind him, Miller’s injury put the Bears in a woeful position.  The primary benefactor of Miller’s injury was Daniel Brown, who may return in 2017 as quality depth.


THE TURNING POINT

The season came to a crashing end across two days in mid-November.  After a quality victory over the Minnesota Vikings the previous week, fans saw Jay Cutler showing tremendous poise while the defense, although battered, played a doughty game.  Things appeared to be on the up-and-up, as the 3-5 Buccaneers presented an opportunity to make a statement about the team’s grit and character.

It was a complete disaster.  In a complete embarrassment, the Bears couldn’t get off the field fast enough, burning the tape in a 36-10 blowout loss.  Former Bears safety Chris Conte had a pick-six to cement the humiliation.  Kyle Long was carted off the field and his season was over.  Starting right tackle Bobby Massie was concussed in the 2nd quarter and missed the rest of the game.  Cutler was downright terrible, his only highlight being a desperation bomb to Cameron Meredith.  If not for that single play, Cutler would’ve posted a passer rating of 34.3.

After the game was over, rumors poured from the locker room over teammates questioning Cutler’s preparation for the contest.

The following day dealt the team another blow:  Star receiver Alshon Jeffery was suspended for 4 games for violating the substance abuse policy of the NFL.

Nothing was the same after that.

Momentum to make noise in the division was crushed, injuries mounted up week after week, and ultimately the team could never climb back out of the pit once this loss smashed their energy into the rocks.


STANDOUTS

WR Cameron Meredith – 66 receptions, 888 yards, 4 touchdowns

DE Akiem Hicks – 53 tackles (36 solo, 17 ast), 7 sacks, 16 games started

RB Jordan Howard – 1313 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns, 87.5 ypg


Earlier today the Bears held a season-summary press conference where in unconventional fashion both GM Ryan Pace and Coach John Fox both were present and fielded questions after issuing joint statements.

Amid the usual remarks about this being a big offseason and the team not hiding behind excuses, one thing that John Fox said stood out:

When you’re young you learn how to compete.  Now we need to learn how to win.

– John Fox

The Bears have the 3rd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and are among the top-5 teams with the most cap space available to spend in Free Agency.  Ryan Pace is well aware of the weight this offseason holds and how critical it is for the 2017 Bears to be a competitive playoff-bound team with a quality record reflective of the quality of the roster.

As of today all coordinators – offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers – will return.  The team has fired offensive line coach Dave Magazu (whom the players apparently disliked), assistant secondary coach Sam Garnes, and running backs coach Stan Drayton has moved back to the college ranks.

Pace and Fox said all the right things.  They mean well.  They have strong belief in the future of this team under their watch, and if this offseason bodes well, the future will include them beyond 2017.  Until they prove anything at all, skeptical eyes are going to scrutinize every move they make, all the way down to the atomic level.

The clock is ticking, and now action will speak infinitely louder than words.

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