Against The Grain: Why the Bears are not quite as bad as many may think
The Jay Cutler era has been disappointing—to say the least—in Chicago, but for some Bears fans, a 0–3 start provides hope that the team will finally have a low enough draft pick land a true franchise quarterback. After a 26–0 shutout in Seattle in Week 4, rumors that Bears scouts were seen in the Cal press box watching QB Jared Goff flew spread like wildfire. Could this be the terrible season the Bears so desperately need to land a top quarterback prospect and truly rebuild?
Not quite. Once again, Cutler may come up short in delivering Bears fans exactly what they want. The Bears are not going to be good this season, don't get me wrong—they're just not bad enough to land a coveted top draft pick. And as terrible as last week was—10 punts in 10 possessions—the Bears have enough things going for them to endanger their chances of picking a quarterback in the top 10 for the first time since they landed Jim McMahon at No. 5 in 1982.
Before you pencil in a 2–14 record like the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted QB Jameis Winston with the first pick in the '15 NFL draft, or the '11 Indianapolis Colts, who drafted Andrew Luck first in the draft, let’s examine the evidence.
Cutler may play too much. The embattled quarterback is currently day-to-day with a hamstring injury; Cutler went down in Week 2 trying to tackle Arizona safety Tony Jefferson after an interception. Before the injury, Cutler was playing well, going 8-for-9 for 120 yards with a touchdown and an interception against a stingy defense
A healthy Cutler is perhaps the most over-criticized quarterback in NFL history. But ultimately his legacy will be losing the big game, not losing a large quantity of games, and right now, the quarterback needs to get healthy. Bears' backup QB Jimmy Clausen is tied with Tyler Thigpen, Stan Gelbaugh, Tom Hogson for the second worst record as a starter, 1–11, since the merger. Only Brody Croyle was worse as 0–10.
Too many encouraging signs in first three games. There's no good way to spin a loss in which your offense punted on 10 straight possessions. Fox summed up the offensive issues: "We need to generate more than zero points to win games, there's no doubt." Thanks, Coach!
However, it's important to note that the Bears outgained both the Packers (402 total net yards to 322) and Cardinals (335 to 300) in their first two games. That's impressive against the two best teams in the NFC. Special teams and mental mistakes have killed them and those are the kind of things that can be fixed.
Too much veteran talent on offense. The Bears' offense is led by wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (who's also currently battling a hamstring injury), running back Matt Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett and Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Long. That kind of offensive skill can sabotage a chance at a top draft pick.
Coaching staff cannot handle a total meltdown. The 60-year-old John Fox may not be the right fit for a rebuilding job, but he’s the wrong guy to totally tank a season. He’s conservative and player-friendly ... not the kind of guy a team will give up on. When you add in offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, this staff is going to figure some things out.
Overblown reactions to trades. This wasn’t an MLB-style fire sale. Jared Allen, a potential Hall of Famer, didn’t fit in the Bears’ 4–3 defense. They threw big money at Allen when they had a different coach, but systems change and moving on was best for both parties. Inside linebacker Jon Bostin, the other player they traded, also didn’t fit in the new scheme. He led the team in tackles last season, but isn’t an integral part of their current 4–3 system.
Defense will get better. The days of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Peanut Tillman feel like decades ago. The young guys on defense will go through growing pains, but they’re playing for jobs and won’t give up late in the season. My bet is that they mesh as a unit and could actually be pretty salty once the weather turns ugly in the Midwest.
Schedule lightens up. Opening the season against Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle is no easy task. They have the benefit of facing Oakland in the 1 p.m. ET slot (west-coast teams never perform well that early), and then eight of the Bears’ final 12 opponents currently have losing records.
The currently winless Bears aren’t challenging for the playoffs—in reality, they'll probably finish somewhere around 5–11. But right now, the best thing for the franchise would be a top-three draft pick. They’re not built to win right now. Unfortunately, they’re not quite built to lose badly enough to #TakeTheSeasonOffForGoff.