I think every team in the NFC North improved this offseason, including the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately for the Bears, I think that improvement was pretty small, and there’s a good chance they’ve fallen well behind everyone else in the division. This isn’t entirely the fault of the current regime, as Phil Emery left the team in shambles with one of the worst defenses in history and an offense still anchored by Jay Cutler. Cutler is one of the greatest quarterbacks in franchise history and yet gives his team almost no chance to win a title.
Cutler has occasionally approached competence during his career, but I think there’s a story that we should all keep in mind when evaluating the Bears. Last season, Aaron Rodgers had what is generally considered to be his worst season as a starter. Many considered it an outright disaster. Rodgers completed 60.7% of his passes for 3821 yards, 31 TDs and 8 picks. Last season Jay Cutler completed 64.4% of his passes for 3659 yards, 21 TDs and 11 picks. It was a fine season by Cutler standards, but hardly impressive. But if you’re wondering what the league thinks of Cutler, his performance was good enough to get offensive coordinator Adam Gase a promotion to head coach of the Dolphins. The league has spoken, it believes Cutler performed quite well, and it stands to reason that he takes a step back this season.
The Bear offense is a mess of injuries and new faces, new coordinators, and a head coach with a history of defensive excellence and offensive mediocrity. Let’s return quickly to the Packers for the sake of comparison: in their offensive down year in which the passing game never got untracked and Eddie Lacy was out of shape and ineffective, the Packers led the NFC North in scoring with 368 points, just nipping the Vikings at 365, and the Lions with 358. No one in the division was particularly impressive, but the Bears’ 335 was the worst of a bad bunch. How messed up were the Bears? Despite only playing in 9 games, Alshon Jeffrey led the team in receptions with 54, and led the team in targets by a huge margin with 94. Of the three leading Bear receivers, one was 9 games of Jeffrey, the second was the now-departed Martellus Bennett (80 targets, 53 receptions, 439 yards), and the third was the also-now-departed Matt Forte (58 targets, 44 receptions, 389 yards).
Replacing Bennett and especially Forte is no easy task, but the Bears found a surprising contributor in tight end Zachary Scott Miller, who last suited up for the Jags in 2011 and had 45 receptions to his name. (Editor’s note: that is not the same Zach Miller who made a Pro Bowl in Oakland and spent 2011-2014 in Seattle.) Miller was Bennett’s equal, at least in the passing game, and the fairly inexperienced 32-year-old will play a larger role this year. Forte will probably be replaced by some amount of committee play as Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and Jordan Howard will all see some carries. Langford is the potential standout in his second year our of Michigan State, but some suspect hands could open the door to any of the others.
Also returning is Kevin White, the first round wideout who was lost for the season during training camp last season with a stress fracture. White has yet to impress in camp, but he is still basically a rookie, and still possesses first-round talent. The problem for the Bears is the first-round talent does not always show itself right away. Eddie Royal and a bunch of forgettable waiver wire fodder round out the skill positions in front of an almost unrecognizable offensive line save for Kyle Long and Charles Leno. (Oh, and that Josh Sitton fellow, too).
The biggest problem with the Bear offense is that the questions overwhelm the answers. It’s not hard to imagine all of the proper pieces falling into place. Maybe Adam Gase’s tutelage of Cutler holds for another year, Jeffery is healthy, White lives up to his potential, the line improves, and Langford and company impress. But it’s supremely unlikely that all of those things go right, and much more likely that a lot goes wrong. This is especially bad for this particular Bear offense, now under someone named Dowell Loggains. Alshon Jeffery is playing under the franchise tag and while Cutler is signed through 2020, this is the final year in which cutting him is cap-prohibitive. If this version of the Bear offense performs poorly in 2016, it is very likely that it will never get to perform again, and that becomes a problem for the franchise as a whole.
John Fox and Vic Fangio
I’m not going to label Adam Gase an offensive genius, but his loss may be the biggest one for the franchise. The one thing we know about Fox is that he can put together a defense, and with Vic Fangio, the Bears have made slow progress on that front. Also, in true John Fox style, the Bears spent a lot of draft capital on the defense this year. The Bears made nine picks in the 2016 draft, and five of their first 6 picks were on the defensive side of the ball. The lone exception was Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, selected in the 2nd round, and a likely starter at guard.
Ryan Pace is the GM of the Bears and he has been an upgrade over Emery, but this draft has Fox stink all over it. There’s nothing wrong with building a strong defense, but in the short term it means that the offense must thrive on what it has; it’s entirely possible, and I would say likely, that the bottom falls out and the Bear rebuild is forced to go on at least one more season. And while the defense has seen an infusion of talent, that talent has yet to pay dividends. Fox’s teams are rarely great at fielding dominant offenses. The best way to use Fox is to shore up a defense for an existing, competent offense. By the time this defense is at the level they desire, the offense will have to be rebuilt, and this regime may end up looking more like Lovie Smith’s than Chicago would like.
The Bears defense was pretty terrible last season, but at least it made strides against the pass. By DVOA they were 23rd, which, while bad, is a drastic improvement from 2014 when they were 29th. Unfortunately, their run defense completely collapsed. You may recall that in the Packers’ loss to the Bears on Thanksgiving night, Eddie Lacy actually turned in a 107 yard performance on only 17 carries. If out-of-shape Lacy is butchering your defense, you have a problem, and it’s a problem that won’t be solved by underweight first-round pick Leonard Floyd, the linebacker out of Georgia. No pick was Foxier than this one, as underweight speed rushers have made his defenses go as long as they have existed, but everyone describes him as a project.
Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, signed in free agency to end the Shea McLellin experiment, should be big upgrades in the middle at linebacker. There is also some pass-rushing talent outside and on the line, in particular with Pernell McPhee, and buttressed by Willie Young and Lamarr Houston. The secondary remains a bit of a mess, although the team really focused on this in the draft. It’s not hard to imagine this defense turning into an above-average group against the pass. They’ve come a long way and if they can get a few leads they may even shock some people, but they’re a long way from good, and stopping the run will still be a major issue.
The Bears are following a typical Fox plan, and I expect the defense will come along eventually, but it won’t be this year, and the offense faces so many major changes in the near future that there’s no way to predict a successful rebuild will be achieved. Fangio and Fox may give Chicagoans something to “Grrrr” and “Argh” over in the not-too-distant future, but another decade of offensive ineptitude wouldn’t be that surprising when it’s all said and done. The more things change, the more the Bears stay the same.