Following their win on Monday Night Football against the San Diego Chargers, the Chicago Bears are a 3-5 team. Your team is what your record is, which has the Bears placed 3rd in the NFC North and 3 games back behind the 6-2 Packers and Vikings. Being 0-3 in the division doesn’t help and the playoffs are the last thing on anybody’s mind, but finding their identity is more encouraging than you would expect.
The Bears are a much better coached team than they were the last 2 seasons. A Matt Forte quote from Week 1 seems to have held true for most of the season.
The benefit of good coaching is most evident in Jay Cutler’s play so far. It’s amazing that it took 7 years for the Bears to hire an offensive coordinator who would scheme to Cutler’s strengths. OC Adam Gase’s offense allows Cutler to get the ball out faster on quick hitting pass plays, roll out and throw on the run, and to also check in and out of play-calls at will. A commitment to the running game sets him up very well in play-action and limits the opportunities to turn the ball over. As of now, Cutler is just 20th in interceptions through Week 9 with 5. That’s half as many as Blake Bortles and Sam Bradford, and 8 less than league-worst Peyton Manning with 13. Andrew Luck is one pick behind Peyton.
Cutler isn’t perfect, of course. He has 4 fumbles on the season, that have come as the result of both poor blocking and an inability to protect the ball. Cutler has also thrown interceptions at costly moments, notably on a comeback drive against the Packers and in the Lions’ end zone. The difference this season, as opposed to those with Marc Trestman, Mike Tice, and Mike Martz calling plays, Cutler and Gase shake off the bad turnovers with a more aggressive attack. Case in point, following a pick-6 by Jason Verett on what appeared to be a misstep with Alshon Jeffery on the outside, Cutler answered with a touchdown in 3 minutes on 7 plays. In the four games prior, we’ve seen very similar drives giving the Bears chances to win at the end of regulation.
The Bears are a project, but one that is improving as the season goes on. After starting 0-3 against a murderers row of Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle, the Bears are 3-2 in their last 5 games. Just a handful of unfortunate plays have resulted in the Bears losing by field goals to Detroit and Minnesota. It’s probably sad to find optimism from that, but it beats the average margin of 15.3 points per loss a season ago. The coaches and GM Ryan Pace are accountable of their players, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Rather than allow Jared Allen to take up snaps and be unproductive as a 3-4 linebacker, Pace moved him to Carolina for a 6th round draft pick and opened a spot on the roster for Sam Acho. While the Bears are paying Alan Ball $3 million to play cornerback, DC Vic Fangio has plugged in 8-year veteran Tracy Porter instead, who has proven to have better coverage and ball instincts. Porter is making $850,000 on a 1-year deal.
The coaching staff’s trust in young players has also been a positive sign for the team’s growth. Rookie safety Adrian Amos has started all 8 games this season and has provided some stability to what’s been a glaring need for years at the position. Amos is always where he needs to be and tackles well. After injuries to Ego Ferguson and the eventual release of Jeremiah Ratliff, 2nd round pick Eddie Goldman looks as good as advertised. 2nd-year defensive lineman Will Sutton has transitioned well from 3-technique to end. Then the inside linebacker position has been manned better with Christian Jones and Jonathan Anderson in place of Shea McClellan. Both Anderson (rookie) and Jones (year 2) were undrafted and spent time on the Bears practice squad.
Jeremy Langford’s performance against the Chargers was another case for optimism as the Bears move forward, possibly without Forte after this season. Not knocking Forte at all, but Langford has a very similar skill set running, receiving and pass blocking. Langford also has fresher legs, less mileage and an exceptional 2nd gear once he breaks the line of scrimmage. It will be interesting to see what Forte’s prospects are after the season. Whether a team closer to contending is willing to pay big or if he’s just more comfortable in Chicago, the Bears appear to be fine at the running back position.
The Bears are not a team with much depth. This comes from years and years of bad drafting and poor offseason signings, but the Bears don’t have much after either of their offensive or defensive starters. You know things are bad when the drop off from Bryce Callahan to Sherrick McManis at the nickel results in a game-tying Stefon Diggs touchdown against the Vikings, before losing to a Blair Walsh field goal in Week 8. A pleasant surprise at tackle has been Charles Leno Jr. filling in for former pro bowler Jermon Bushrod, and apparently keeping his starting spot. But if the Bears lose another interior linemen, they may have to start converting defensive tackles to the position…(sorta kidding).
Outside of the quarterback position, the difference between Jeffery and the rest of the Bears’ healthy wide receivers is probably the vastest. It’s a shame we haven’t had a chance to see Jeffery paired with 1st round pick Kevin White yet, which would have allowed Eddie Royal to be the slot receiver he was intended to be this season. Having to throw to Cameron Meredith, Josh Bellamy, and Marc Mariana isn’t particularly ideal for Cutler on key passing downs and important drives, but he’s had to do it. Marquess Wilson has been a bright spot though as a downfield option with quality speed.
Despite low expectations the rest of the way, the Bears are likable. There’s something to be said about the team’s resiliency when having to deal with so many injuries and adversity. Besides their 48-23 loss in Week 2 to the Cardinals, they’ve always had a chance to win. After going to the pro bowl in each of his two seasons as a guard (the first to do so since 1970), Kyle Long is developing into an excellent right tackle. Also moving over from guard, Matt Slauson has taken on line calls and has had to start as the 3rd string center with injuries to Will Montgomery and Hroniss Grasu. Both Slauson and Long have provided the leadership, along with Cutler, that seemed to be missing from the offense since Olin Kreutz departed from the team 5 years ago.
Big free agent signee Pernell McPhee is doing the same with the defense. When McPhee is pressuring the quarterback, good things tend to happen and he sets the tone for his unit as well. He ranks 6th among DL/OLB pressures on the quarterback with 31 (JJ Watt, 1st with 45) this season. For a fan base that talks a lot about having pride in being all “blue collar”, there’s definitely a workman like personality that the McPhee and the front 7 bring.
The next 3 games for the Bears will be quite a test. They face the two best defenses in the league, St. Louis and Denver, back-to-back and then have the Packers on Thanksgiving night. Realistically, the second half of the season will be for evaluation going into 2016, but the Bears are competitive, entertaining, and a lot less painful to watch than they were a year ago. Stay tuned to see if that keeps up…