2016 Preview: Chicago Bears – A Rebuild To Mirror A City

Chicago Is A Good City And You Should Go There

I went to Chicago for the first time last year, as part of a wider trip to the States. As a city, it’s got a lot to recommend it. If you like architecture and city design, Chicago has vibrant, dazzling skyscrapers, sensitively designed waterside walks along the Chicago River, and if you go up the Sears Tower, you see the miles of ersatz sprawl that so invoke the image of America. The food’s great too, even beyond its signature food of hot dogs and ridiculous deep-dish pizza (both, by the way, are better than the equivalent you get in New York).

That’s what I was there for, rather than the opening-day rivalry game Packers-Bears, though I still found time to nod admiringly at the array of NFL jerseys on display in the city on a Sunday (not just the Bears, but Packers, Vikings, Chiefs and Colts jerseys were all noted). And I found some time to watch Packers-Bears in a sports bar, while my soon-to-be-fiancée did stuff she wanted to do that I didn’t.

I watched the game in a cavernous, half-empty sports bar. It wasn’t cheap, but the beer was fine and the burgers were good. I’d been primed to expect merciless booing of Jay Cutler any time there was even an incompletion. Cutler did ok, and wasn’t the reason the Bears lost (that was the sheer difference in quality between the two rosters), but Green Bay pulled clear in the second half easily enough. And yet, there was no booing. A resigned atmosphere, sure – as a symptom of a half-empty, overpriced sports bar in a city basically drowning in them. But maybe Chicagoans just aren’t that down on Jay Cutler. Or maybe, like the man himself, they doooon’t caaaaaaare.

Chicago Is Rebuilding. Did I Mention That The City Itself Has Lots Of Good Buildings?

Team rebuilds are, if you be dispassionate, interesting. You have some teams, like Green Bay, who have next to no roster change year on year. That’s fine, but you don’t get the unpredictability, the excitement of the unknown, and it makes it more difficult as a neutral to have strong feelings about them.

Chicago now, they’ve burned the team down and are rebuilding from the ground up. Look at the 2013 starters, and compare them to who’s expected to start this year. Jay Cutler’s still there, and so’s Kyle Long, that year’s 1st round pick. Alshon Jeffrey also caught 5 passes in that game, for what that’s worth, and kicker Robbie Gould is still around. Elsewhere, nada. That’s pretty incredible!

So, how do you do a rebuild? Well, you draft well. In addition to Jeffrey in 2012 and Long in 2013, 2014 produced Kyle Fuller, Pat O’Donnell and Charles Leno. 2015 gave the Bears Kevin White, Eddie Goldman, Jeremy Langford and Adrian Amos, and would’ve added Hroniss Grasu to that list but for his season ending injury. This year’s draft looks set to add Cody Whitehair to that list at present, but don’t be surprised to see Jonathan Bullard there too by game 1.

You also need your free agency signings to bear fruit. Pernell McPhee is the man with the record here, but Zach Miller’s been a good pickup too. This season, they’ve added Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at linebacker, plus Bobby Massie, Akiem Hicks and Ted Larsen, who are all pencilled in to start.

Chicago Has An Offense, Probably

So, what will the Bears be hoping for this season? Well, last year they went 6-10, and frankly people were pleased with that, such are the vagaries of a rebuild. This season, if I were them I wouldn’t live and die by a playoff place, and I’d be more interested in seeing younger players kick on and gel. If that sounds like cowardice, so be it, but the goal of all sports teams is to build a repeatedly competitive team.

Let’s start on offense. I’m not overly worried by Jay Cutler, as I don’t believe he’s going to be a quarterback that takes Chicago to the top. At this point he’s a stopgap, capable of winning and losing games (for reference, I think Matt Stafford will come to be seen as this in the next few years too). But it’s still important for Chicago that he performs well, and the early signs in Adam Gase’s offense last year were that at least he’s more level-headed these days, throwing just 11 interceptions last year, and managing a respectable 64.4% pass completion rate. But it’s as much for his receivers’ development (specifically Kevin White and seventh-round pick Daniel Braverman) that he needs to be producing at a decent level.

Speaking of White especially, Chicago will be hoping that in this, essentially his rookie season after injury forced him to redshirt last year, he can display the dynamism and competitiveness that saw him break out at West Virginia. He was raw, not exactly being a nuanced route-runner, but he’s chock full of athletic talent and the right attitude. Braverman is interesting, a slot receiver who went later than expected, but is the sort of ‘gritty’ receiver that NFL fans go mad over. In any case, if he develops as some draftniks expect him to, he should become a reliable short-to-intermediate target, the sort of comfort blanket and emergency option all good offenses need.

Speaking of short-to-intermediate targets, Chicago will have to adjust to life without Matt Forte. Forte has been an excellent – possibly the best – player in Chicago’s offense for years, as a reliable runner and an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield. Bears fans would like to see a similar ilk of running back succeed him, and so they’ve got high hopes for Jeremy Langford, who was converted from wide receiver to running back in college. It was a surprise, therefore, that Langford had 22 catches on 42 targets last year. More surprising was his 7 drops, giving him a 16.7% drop rate, the highest for any player with 10 or more targets. Ka’Deem Carey is an alternative, if Chicago fancy putting a bruiser in there. Elsewhere, the depth chart includes the perenially underwhelming Jacquizz Rodgers, and little-known rookie Jordan Howard. Realistically, Chicago need Langford to become a three-down back if they’re to succeed.

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Adrian Amos (Getty Images)

He’ll need help from the O-Line if he’s to do that, mind. Looking at the depth chart, that’s a concern. Kyle Long at right guard is a very good player, but elsewhere there are worries. I mentioned that Ted Larsen’s to start at center, but he’s a poor blocker and the loss to an ACL tear of starting center Hroniss Grasu (who was only ok last year, but he was a rookie so that’s actually a positive outcome) will hit them hard. Cody Whitehair looks like a good second round pick at guard, but again, rookie, first season generally not great. Bobby Massie may be okay at right tackle, and they’ll be hoping Charles Leno develops into a starting calibre player at left tackle.

Plenty of maybes, eh? There’s a lot of projection here, but if we assume Chicago aren’t going to the playoffs and are just looking for players to develop, then they’ve certainly got a lot of prospects. But here’s another maybe for you: Alshon Jeffrey, the current no.1 receiver, might just end up getting traded midseason. I’ve not heard rumours on this, but it makes too much sense: he’s a franchise-tagged player who’s not overly enamoured with Bears management, so they know it may be hard to re-sign him. He’s young, so they can probably get a good pick for him, especially from a playoff-hunting team, and if Kevin White develops at all over the course of the season, they have a ready-made replacement.

Did You Know Chicago’s Defense Was Really Good In 1985?

Before Denver’s win in last year’s Super Bowl, Chicago were owners of possibly the most famous Super-Bowl-winning defense in history. In 1985, Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan (Rex and Rob’s Dad) as head coach and defensive coordinator masterminded the most ferocious defense in history. Go on, have a look at their regular season results and gasp, then double-gasp at their playoff results that year.

That sort of legacy means that all Bears defenses will be judged by those impossible standards. And so when they’re bad, as they have been these last few years, they’ll be very bad. In 2013 and 2014, they ranked 30th in the league in yards allowed per game. A strange thing happened last year though, that they ranked 14th in the league. And notice what I said earlier – there are no defensive starters from 2013 left in this squad. The defense taking a few noticeable steps forward was probably what saw Chicago finish with a better record last year than most projected.

They certainly luck good in the front seven this year. The defensive line will have a rotation including Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Ego Ferguson and rookie Jonathan Bullard, who either are or look like becoming good quality players. The inside linebackers they signed this offseason, you’d hope should turn around that unit. Danny Trevathan was an underrated reliable part of that Super Bowl winning Denver defence, an every-down linebacker good against the run, in coverage, and when blitzing. Jerrell Freeman is a hard-working veteran who, again, is a well-rounded linebacker with a knack for forcing fumbles. Last year’s big-money signing Pernell McPhee picked up six sacks and was unexpectedly strong against the run. This is a front seven that looks, all of a sudden, good. And more importantly, balanced.

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Pernell McPhee (Mike DiNovo/ USA Today SPORTS)

The secondary remains an issue. Adrian Amos had an excellent debut season at free safety, leading the team in tackles, and while he made some rookie mistakes in coverage, shows enough raw material to work with that he could become a very good player. Cornerback Kyle Fuller continues to develop, though again, that’s towards becoming a good player rather than a superstar – he still doesn’t quite have it in him to stay with elite receivers, but that’s fine, very few players do. Elsewhere, that secondary will be the concern. I guess that Chicago aren’t a million miles from what Carolina have done – stressed the front seven and you can make life easier for the secondary.

Preseason Hasn’t Gone Well

I don’t normally focus on the preseason – I don’t even normally watch it. If someone can tell me of a sport where watching uncompetitive, exhibition-style matches is actually useful for predicting how well a team or player’ll do in competitive games, I’ll be impressed. My favourite stat about the preseason is that the 2008 Detroit Lions, who lost all 16 regular season games, won all 4 of their preseason games.

That said, the way the offense has been comprehensively misfiring in preseason will be giving Bears fans the heebie-jeebies. Cutler is working with a new offensive co-ordinator, Dowell Loggains, and the early signs aren’t so good. Ignoring the fact they’ve lost all three games, they failed to score a point against Denver and managed only 7 against Kansas City. It’s the Kansas City game that’ll give everyone the greatest worries – the third preseason game is generally the ‘dress rehersal’, and in this the starters stumbled. Cutler completed 6 of 15 attempts for 45 yards; Langford rushed 6 times for 17 yards. Jeffrey caught 2 passes for 18 yards. None of this bodes terribly well for an offense lacking Adam Gase at co-ordinator – Gase was considered to be a major reason that Cutler had such a pleasantly even season, and without a high standard of game-planning and playcalling, you wonder if he’ll go back to the flaky stereotypical Jay Cutler, which won’t be good for anyone

The defense did better, at least holding Kansas City pointless in the first quarter, but they were on the field 11 of the first 15 minutes and it only carried on in that vein – no defense can perform at a high level if they’re on the field that much, as fatigue really becomes a factor.

Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone’s predicting a successful season results-wise for the Bears. The success will be in progress on the field, young players developing into solid starters and into genuinely very good players. If they can master that, then maybe they can look towards getting a more reliable quarterback and making that push towards the deep playoffs. Come and check back with me in 2 years time and we’ll see where they are.

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Just in case you thought I was kidding about the pizza (Wikipedia)

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