Let's not beat around the bush here; the Chicago Bears are going to be bad this year, and you don't need a lot of numbers to tell you that. Lovie Smith bailed on the team just as his defense got old, and the Phil Emery/Marc Trestman regime was a disaster.
It's not overstating things to say that Emery and Trestman were operating one of the biggest debacles in the NFL. Between offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer throwing his quarterback under the bus, some truly terrible drafting, instituting an offense unsuited to his personnel (especially Jay Cutler), never taking any real steps to address the precipitous decline of the defense and instead drafting poor fits like Shea McClellin, the Emery era was all about acquiring as many square pegs as possible for Trestman's round hole schemes. And most of the time they weren't even quality pegs, they were all bent and covered in lead paint. What the Bears needed more than anything coming into this season was for the new regime to institute some sort of order to the team. Someone needed to make a plan and stick to it.
Unfortunately, the only thing that may be more of a disaster than the last regime is the first offseason of the Ryan Pace/John Fox regime. Between Ray McDonald's extremely brief tenure and first round pick Kevin White's likely season-ending injury, the Bears whiffed on their two biggest potential roster upgrades. With Brandon Marshall having left town for a bag of properly inflated balls, the Bears offense may see its worst season in years, and the team is still fully engulfed in the ridiculous chaos that has left it completely inept since Lovie left town.
Defensively, the Bears have been an unmitigated disaster for two years. In 2013 they put out one of the worst defenses in the history of the league* while in 2014 they were a more pedestrian "worst in the NFL for just that that season." McDonald's crimes didn't just deprive them of McDonald's considerable talents, it also likely impacted how they conducted the draft. The Bears selected only two defensive players, and only second round nose tackle Eddie Goldman in the upper half. There is little reason to think they can improve at all, especially this season.
*Seriously, in 2013 the aggregate defensive Pro Football Focus score for the Bears defense was (-205.7). The second worst San Diego Chargers graded out at (-133.1). It was really something to behold.
We know they'll be bad, but just how bad? Let's jump in.
When I wrote this post last year I referred to Jay Cutler as "an uncoachable dumbass"; but while you can't teach Jay Cutler much of anything, you can occasionally trick him. Usually it's the defense baiting him into a bad throw, but the Bears' front office did at least one nifty thing this offseason when they signed Eddie Royal.
2008 was the best season Jay Cutler ever had, due partially to a career low 2.9% interception rate. He threw for almost 700 more yards than he has in any other season. It also happened to be Royal's rookie season. Royal had an exceptional first year for a slot receiver, making 91 catches in 129 targets, and is still a productive player coming off a 62-reception, 7-TD effort for the Chargers. Back in 2008, Brandon Marshall had 12 more catches than Royal, but it took 52 additional targets. In 2009 Cutler joined the Bears and his INT% spiked to 4.7%. He led the league interceptions and the Bears went a disappointing 7-9. Since joining the Bears, Cutler hasn't had an INT% under 3.2% in any full season and he's led the league in the category twice. Royal is a safe, attractive target for Cutler, and that is worth something.
But while Royal is a quality player, I'm not sure he'll be enough to overcome the loss of Kevin White. I used to think Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were ideal WRs for a quarterback like Cutler. They're both big, physical receivers who can out-work a corner in the case of a bad ball, but I've since changed my mind. Receivers like Marshall and Jeffery invite interceptions from a quarterback like Cutler. Both rely on physical play over real separation and, consequently, corners are always close to the receivers where errant throws are likely to find them.
With a quarterback like Cutler I think having a player like White is almost imperative. Even if his INT% gets a little better this year it's still likely to be bad, and while a player like Royal may, possibly, slightly increase Cutler's efficiency in terms of throwing interceptions, Royal isn't a big play guy, which means that it will take the Bears more plays per drive to score and thus provide more opportunities for interceptions. Cutler is a low-OBP slugger--the Mark Trumbo of quarterbacks, if you're into baseball analogies--and if you're employing Cutler, you need to hit big plays, and hit them often.
White was supposed to be the deep threat, hitting those big plays and keeping safeties honest to provide room for the underneath guys to do their damage. With White on the field, maybe Cutler hits enough bombs to overcome the inevitable picks and and has a productive season. As it stands, the Bears are going to need to move methodically down the field, and that's a recipe for disaster. One solution frequently used by John Fox is to run the ball more, limit possessions, keep the game close, and control tempo. The Bears' offensive line was basically a travesty in pass-blocking last year (with the exception of Kyle Long, who was excellent as a rookie), but they were a decent run-blocking team, and ranked 11th in rushing offense last year according to DVOA. The problems are that the line is only OK at best, a lot of that efficiency was born of defenses expecting the Marc Trestman pass-happy offense, and the guys behind the line are an aging Matt Forte and a bunch of question marks.
Forte is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and will turn 30 before the season ends. Forte has been a good, if not great back for his career and he does everything fairly well, but he's coming off a season where he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and while he caught a ton of balls, DVOA says he was only the 19th most efficient RB in the receiving game. Just 18th in DVOA last season and only the 20th rated back per PFF, Forte is hardly a sure thing to lead an efficient, and increasingly important ground attack. Since Forte isn't reliant on any single skill for his value he probably will not fall off a cliff in terms of production, but he's also not a good bet to become more efficient with an increased workload. Ideally you'd like a few backup RBs who at the very least have experience in your system, but believe it or not, the only other Bear RB to get a carry last year was second year player Ka'Deem Carey. That is absolutely insane.
Behind Carey on the depth chart you will find Falcon castoff Jaquizz Rodgers and former Michigan State speedster and fourth round draft pick Jeremy Langford. Carey is a holdover from the last regime and it's entirely possible that Langford will emerge as the true backup and possible heir apparent, but no one outside of Forte has any kind of track record for success, and Forte's best days are behind him. On the line, Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills have all seen huge PFF "red" grades, and no one save Long is a standout.
John Fox is a good coach and simply bringing some kind of normalcy to the game plan may help, but it's also important to remember that overall, this was actually an average offense last year. They may have been occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious, but they were also occasionally effective. Fox isn't exactly an offensive guru, and given the personnel losses and the move to a conservative approach, I expect the Bears to take a step back in terms of efficiency, pace, and points, while turnovers remain roughly the same. If Alshon Jeffery's recent injury is in any way serious, this could be extremely ugly.
There was one team, the Oakland Raiders, that allowed more points than the Bears' 442 last season, but for pure entertainment value no team was the Bears' equal. They allowed over 30 points seven times and gave up 50+ in back-to-back weeks against the Pats and Packers. They were a horrible 32nd in Adjusted Defense and put up a poor aggregate -18.9 grade from Pro Football Focus. And perhaps most amazingly, this was a vast improvement from their 478-point 2013 effort. It wasn't entirely the fault of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, but his lack of vision was clear in his decision to essentially keep running a version of Lovie Smith's defense even as the personnel aged into dust. While stalwarts like Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman offered occasionally solid performances, there simply was not enough depth or youth to stop the dynamic offenses of the NFC North. Rarely has a total teardown been more justified, and rarely has a patch-job gone so poorly.
Enter former 49er defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and the teardown that should have happened ages ago. Fangio is an excellent defensive coach who did a great job with the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh. He typically runs a 3-4 base defense that is completely different from the Lovie "Tampa 2" 4-3 base the Bears have run seemingly forever. This will probably cause some growing pains, but honestly, the guys on the team were incapable of running the defense they were supposed to be running anyway, and, due to some ridiculous drafting and questionable work in free agency, the Bears even have a few guys who are suited to the 3-4 already on the roster.
Shea McClellin, believe it or not, actually wasn't that bad last year, and was a force on run defense (a very good +10.1 grade from PFF). He's been playing out of position since the Bears wasted a first rounder on him in 2012 and his play has been roundly criticized, but it's hardly his fault. When called upon to do what everyone else in the NFL thought he was capable of, he's actually been OK and is likely to take a big step forward under Fangio. Jay Ratliff, perhaps the most impressive Bear defender from last season (with a +20.5 grade to lead the team), has played and dominated as a 3-4 nose in the past. While he is undersized for the position and famously feuded with his former team (the Cowboys) over the competence of their medical staff, he should fit right in to the new scheme. He is also a good candidate to slide to defensive end in passing downs, especially if 2nd round draft pick Eddie Goldman can hold down the middle. That said, Ratliff is now 34 and a huge injury risk. Veteran Tim Jennings should provide competent work in the secondary while one young safety or another develops.
Fangio recently moved rookie safety Adrian Amos ahead of Brock Vereen on the official depth chart, and while safety remains a huge weakness for the team, it's good to see the coaching staff giving their young players a shot and not simply being slaves to a player's former draft position. The Amos promotion is the action of a team that understands that it's bad, and that an additional win is actually harmful compared to assessing the talent on the roster and improving draft position.
Other players will probably appear comically out of position. The McDonald incident creates all sorts of issues for the Bears, especially in terms of depth. Jared Allen is an extremely poor fit for Fangio's defense, but he was already in decline and he doesn't have much of a long-term future with the team anyway. Jarvis Jenkis, formerly in Washington, has had an injury/PED-plagued career, but he was a big prospect coming out of Clemson and it's probably worth taking a shot on him. The team is especially weak at inside linebacker, where undrafted free agent Christian Jones and former Buccaneer Mason Foster are expected to see time. On the outside, I have no idea how Lamarr Houston or Willie Young will take to linebacker. Pernell McPhee has allegedly had a good camp, so that's something. Last year's first rounder, cornerback Kyle Fuller, had a disastrous rookie season (-18.4, per PFF), but it's hard to imagine a worse environment for development.
The single best thing the Bears have going for them on defense is Fangio himself. Tucker's defenses were such a disaster that, while a further decline wouldn't seem that surprising while they transition, it seems almost impossible. I suspect having an actually competent coordinator will push them into the mid-20s in terms of defensive rank, which is still bad, but a quantum leap from what they were. It's actually hard to evaluate the returning players just because the schemes they were running were so dysfunctional. For all anyone knows, both Shea McClellin and Kyle Fuller are All-Pros waiting to develop under the proper tutelage.
While the Ray McDonald fiasco was completely their own fault, Fox and Fangio should bring some professional competence, and that simply can't be understated. As bad as the roster is, the organization itself had a real and true impact on the product on the field and while the team is going to be some kind of awful this season, I suspect you'll see glimpses of what is to come from time to time.
The best case scenario for the Bears is probably to fail miserably while Pace and Fox get things under control, draft a franchise quarterback with a high pick in the 2016 draft, and build back to respectability over the next 3 years. While Kevin White is a lost opportunity this year, I liked Pace's approach to the draft as I feel he went for ceiling and not for need. In truth, if White can come back healthy for next year it may be a blessing in disguise that he misses this one. Cutler can be cut after the 2016 season, and 2017 is probably the target for project rebuild.
The Bears will be bad again, but not comically so, and over the next five years I think I'd rather be a Bear fan than a Lions fan - you'll see why when I preview Detroit in the coming days.