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NFL Offseason Review: Chicago Bears

By Peter Brooks in Sports
| May 11, 2017 12:00 am PDT
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The 2016/17 NFL season has come and gone, coming far too soon for some teams and going far too quickly for others.

What we mean by this is that for some teams in the NFL, fans find their team in a position of being so young and in need of so much development before the team can compete for a championship that a longer offseason would be a blessing. Take for instance the Minnesota Vikings, who will likely need an entire year for their franchise quarterback to recover from injury, even after he missed all of last season.

On the other hand, other teams in the league find themselves in the position of being so old, or with a key player so close to retirement, that a new opportunity to compete for a championship can’t come soon enough, as the clock slowly ticks off the time before the end of an era. Take for instance the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is starting to flirt with retirement.

The Chicago Bears are one team that somehow seems to straddle both of these lines.

In the first place, the Bears had endured the controversial era of quarterback Jay Cutler for over half a decade, tying them to the fate of a 33-year old team leader. On the other hand, that same Bears team had transitioned over the course of two seasons from the third-oldest team in the league to the tenth-youngest, indicating a rapid shift to a new era of football in Chicago.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this change, it must also be noted that at the start of the 2016/17 season the Bears were less than a decade removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and less than five seasons removed from an NFC Championship appearance.

And while of course we know the end of the story – the Bears ended up with only 3 wins over the course of the 2016/17 season – this simple number doesn’t do justice to the situation that the Chicago Bears franchise finds themselves in, nor the interesting position of a team that finds itself straddling between the line between eras.

But for true fans of the NFL, it’s important to go beyond the numbers and take a good look at the state of the Chicago Bears’ organization itself. Despite being a team that was circling the bottom of the barrel last year, you can’t keep the Bears down for long, and we want to be there when they come back up.

In this edition, we cruise on over to the heart of the Midwest United States, to Illinois and the shores of Lake Michigan, and take on the Chicago Bears.

Last Season: In Review

Before we look back at the season that the Bears had in 2016/17, it’s first important for us to take a step back and look at the long and storied history of the franchise, in order to provide some context on why last season was meaningful for the fan base.

The Bears are one of the most prolific professional sports franchises in history, closing in on a century of consistent play, and one of the most eminent in the long history of professional football in America.

The team has won a total of ten championships (though only one has come during the Super Bowl era), and holds the NFL record for the number of players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, the team has recorded the most wins of any team, primarily due to the fact that they have been playing games since Woodrow Wilson was in office.

The Bears are one of only two teams remaining who were present at the foundation of the National Football League in 1919, and started play as the “Decatur Staleys,” named after a local food manufacturer in a small town in middle Illinois called Decatur.

After moving to Chicago the following year, the Bears won the inaugural championship of the NFL, which at that time still went under the name of the American Professional Football Association. In short order, both the league and the team changed their names to those that we are familiar with today: The Chicago Bears, of the National Football League.

The Bears would continue their dominant play over the next two decades, winning 8 NFL Championships between 1932 and 1946. Following this period, their next championship wouldn’t come until 1963, a mere four years before negotiations began to merge the NFL with the upstart AFL, an event that would usher in the modern Super Bowl era after the full integration of the two leagues in 1970.

During this great period in the history of the league itself, however, the Bears endured a period of mediocrity, failing to make the playoffs after their 1963 NFL Championship for 13 consecutive seasons, with only two winning records during this span.

In a decisive event in the history of the franchise, the Bears drafted Walter Payton with the fourth overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, only to have the prolific running back earn honors as both the NFL’s Most Valuable Player as well as the NFL’s Man of the Year (eventually renamed the “Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award” to honor its inaugural recipient after his untimely death in 1999).

It wouldn’t be until 1985, however, until the prolific contributions of Walter Payton would finally be surrounded by a championship-caliber team.

The first step was the acquisition of the team’s former tight end Mike Ditka to be head coach, in 1982. Subsequently, under the management of Jim Finks and later Jerry Vainisi, the Bears steadily assembled a team that won the Super Bowl in 1985 with one of the most prolific defenses the NFL has ever seen. The ’85 Bears are routinely included in the conversation for the single best team to ever play an NFL season.

After winning the Super Bowl, the Bears remained highly competitive, making the playoffs in six of the next nine seasons and winning three playoff games, but they would not reach past the divisional round.

After the end of the 1994/95 season, it would be over a decade before the Bears would win another playoff game, when the team went a surprise 13–3 in 2006 after having gone 5–11 only two seasons before. The 2006 Bears made it all the way to the Super Bowl, once again relying on their core identity as a stout defensive team with defensive-minded head coach Lovie Smith and bruising middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who had won honors as the Defensive Player of the Year the prior season.

This brings us to the modern era of Bears football. After the team failed to make the playoffs for three consecutive seasons following their Super Bowl loss in 2006/07, the Bears made it all the way to the NFC Championship game in 2010, the heyday of head coach Lovie Smith, quarterback Jay Cutler, and newly-acquired defensive pass rush specialist Julius Peppers.

Subsequently, however, things started to fall apart in Chicago. Since making it to the NFC Championship game in 2010, going into the 2016/17 season the team had averaged a season win percentage under .500 and missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, had fired two head coaches and two general managers, and had seen an aging roster slowly start to calcify.

After the first season under new general manager Ryan Pace in 2015/16 during which the Bears had become substantially younger seemingly overnight (but had nonetheless seen the team finish 4th in the division for the second consecutive season), Bears fans were glad to find the 2016/17 season start off with some continuity in the front office, with head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace both returning for their second seasons with the team.

Though the more realistic fans were probably not expecting a return to the playoffs or any comparable heights for the 2016/17 Bears, it seemed nonetheless that the team was poised to take a step forward, and attempt to return to the winning ways and tough defenses of the bygone days in Bears football.

It was in this hopeful mindset that the Bears kicked off their 2016/17 campaign.

FootballFrom Jay Cutler to Brian Hoyer

The Bears started out the season on the road against the Houston Texans, in the venue that would eventually house Super Bowl 52 five months later. After an early interception of the Texans’ $72 million quarterback Brock Osweiler by Bears’ cornerback Tracy Porter gave the ball back to Chicago, the team capitalized with a 1-yard touchdown run to take a 7–0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

A quick 75-yard drive in the last 31 seconds of the first half gave the Bears a 14–10 lead at the break, but after an interception on the second play of the third quarter, the Bears gave up the lead and were stymied by the Houston defense for the rest of the game: Jay Cutler was sacked 5 times.

The following week, in their home opener on Monday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears once again floundered on offense, managing only 284 yards of total offense and turning the ball over three times. Jay Cutler finished with only 174 yards and an interception before leaving the game with an injured thumb after a strip sack by Eagles’ rookie defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao.

After losing seven players to injury in the prior game including franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears went on the road the following week to play the Dallas Cowboys, starting backup QB Brian Hoyer. Going down 17–0 in the opening 20 minutes of game time, the Bears would never lead in the game, ultimately losing by a score of 31–17 despite getting 317 yards and 2 touchdowns from Hoyer.

After enduring a tough three-game losing streak, the Bears finally bounced back at home in Week 4 against their division rival the Detroit Lions. Holding the prolific Matthew Stafford to only 213 yards and 2 interceptions, the Bears’ defense kept the Lions from scoring an offensive touchdown in the game and broke a streak of 6 consecutive losses to the Lions.

In the third consecutive game without Jay Cutler, the Bears went back on the road to take on the Indianapolis Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium. In a game that would turn out to be the team’s best offensive outings of the season, Brian Hoyer ended up with 397 yards and 2 touchdowns, and rookie running back Jordan Howard scored his first NFL touchdown on a 21-yard touchdown reception, as well as his second 100-yard rush game of the season, with 118 yards on 16 carries (7.4 yards per carry).

But even with Howard’s touchdown giving Chicago a 4-point lead with just over 7 minutes remaining, the Colts came back with guns blazing and scored 10 unanswered points to win the game 29–23.

In the following week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with franchise quarterback Jay Cutler still recovering from his thumb injury, the Bears started out at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a dominant defensive performance, holding the Jags scoreless through the first three quarters of play and taking a 13–0 lead at the start of the fourth.

However, despite turning the ball over 0 times on offense and generating 2 defensive takeaways over the course of the game, the Bears were victimized by a stunning comeback put on by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars, with the Jags scoring two touchdowns on two 75-yard drives during the fourth quarter and tacking on a field goal to take the lead 17–16.

When quarterback Brian Hoyer attempted to bring the Bears within range for a game-winning Connor Barth field goal on the team’s final drive of the game, a crushing holding penalty drove the team out of Jaguars territory and forced a fourth-down conversion attempt that was broken up, giving the Jaguars the ability to run the clock out for a stunning upset victory.

It was the team’s second consecutive week giving up a fourth-quarter comeback, truly demoralizing for the mental toughness of the players.

In this way, getting only two games out of their franchise quarterback and sliding to a quick 1–5 record, the Bears were rapidly headed to their worst start to a season in the 21st century, and struggled to find answers for how they could right the ship.

FootballFrom Brian Hoyer Back to Jay Cutler

After starting off the season 1–5, the Bears traveled to Lambeau Field in Week 7 to take on their hated division rival the Green Bay Packers on Thursday Night Football. Still without Jay Cutler for the fifth consecutive game, the Bears would also lose backup Bryan Hoyer only 20 minutes into the game after a crushing hit from Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews broke the 31-year old QB’s arm.

Down to their third-string quarterback, third-year player Matt Barkley, the Bears would be stymied on offense for the rest of the game, with Barkley ending the game with only 6 completions on 15 attempts (for a 40% completion rate) and two interceptions. Though the team would score its first defensive touchdown since 2014 on a strip sack fumble recovery, the Bears’ defense was overwhelmed, and the team lost its sixth game of seven by a score of 10–26.

Luckily, rather than be required to prepare third-stringer Matt Barkley to take the helm, the injury to Brian Hoyer was instead followed by the return of Jay Cutler from his thumb injury, giving fans some degree of hope that the team could potentially turn things around and climb back into the race for the NFC North, up for grabs after a weak start from the Green Bay Packers and a serious midseason drop-off from the Minnesota Vikings.

The Bears did manage to bounce back against the plummeting Vikings in Week 8, at home on Monday Night Football. Allowing the floundering Vikings’ offense just three points in the first three quarters, the Bears ended up winning the game by a score of 20–10, with Jay Cutler posting a 64.5% completion rating and a passer rating of 100.5 while running back Jordan Howard recorded an astonishing 202 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown, earning him recognition as the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

The win over the Vikings helped the Bears go into their Week 9 bye on a high note, and with some degree of confidence that the season could be salvaged despite the slow start.

However, the success against the Vikings was not to last, as the Bears went back on the road in Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and were held scoreless in the second half, with Jay Cutler throwing two interceptions despite the team getting another 100-yard rushing performance from Jordan Howard. The Bears’ struggles with injuries on the offensive line were also highlighted when the team gave up a safety in the final minute of play.

The subsequent week, on the road against the New York Giants, the Bears were once again held scoreless in the second half, with the Giants taking the game from a score of 16–6 in favor of the Bears with 7 minutes left in the second quarter to a score of 16–22 with 7 minutes left in the third quarter, a score that would hold until the end of regulation, giving the Bears their eighth loss of the year.

But above and beyond the pain of losing, the game against the Giants had also given fans the distinct displeasure of watching numerous players go down with injury.

After going into the game with an injury report that was already among the longest in the league, including starters Kevin White, Kyle Fuller, Mitch Unrein, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie, and Eddie Goldman (as well as Alshon Jeffery’s absence due to suspension), the Bears also lost 6 more players either during or immediately after the game: most importantly, quarterback Jay Cutler was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury; tight end Zach Miller broke his foot, ending his season; outside linebacker and rookie first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd was hospitalized with a neck injury; veteran offensive guard Josh Sitton and rookie cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc both left the game with injury, and linebacker Jerrell Freeman was suspended for four games the following day.

In summary, while the middle of the season had held promise that the Bears could get healthy, shrug off their slow start, and begin playing competitive football again, the exact opposite is what happened, and with a record of 2–8 and an ever-lengthening injury report, the season was rapidly slipping away.

FootballFrom Jay Cutler to Matt Barkley

With backup quarterback Brian Hoyer out for the season with a broken arm and long-time franchise QB Jay Cutler both out for the season with a shoulder injury and increasingly talked about as having his time in Chicago draw to a close, the fan base turned its attention to third-stringer Matt Barkley, looking to see whether or not the young man could potentially be a competent starter in the league.

Barkley had seen action in Week 7 against the Packers immediately following the injury to Hoyer, but made his first start in Week 12 at home against the Tennessee Titans. Facing off against a Titans quarterback in Marcus Mariota who had appeared in 22 more NFL games than Barkley despite being three years his junior, the backup for the Bears fared surprisingly well.

Against a Dick LeBeau-led defense, Barkley got on the board early, throwing his first career touchdown on the Bears’ second drive. Two interceptions later, the Bears found themselves down by 20 points, but Barkley kept his composure and led the team on two long scoring drives to narrow the gap to only 6 points. Despite bringing the Bears all the way down the field in the two-minute drill and throwing four passes on the goal line, 2 of the Bears’ 10 drops (8 of which came in the fourth quarter) kept Barkley from completing the comeback, and the Bears lost the game 27–21.

In the subsequent game in Week 13, Barkley got his second start against one of the only teams in the league that would finish with a worse record than the Bears, the San Francisco 49ers. With the Bears’ defense allowing the ‘niners only 6 points on two second-quarter touchdowns, Barkley took a back seat to an incredible 117-yard, 3-touchdown performance from Jordan Howard, giving the Bears their third win of the season to the tune of a 26–6 victory.

In Week 14, against the Detroit Lions, Barkley and the Bears took on their division rival the Detroit Lions on the road. Despite the defense picking off Matthew Stafford twice including a 24-yard interception return touchdown from undrafted rookie cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc which gave the Bears a 17–13 lead with 7 minutes remaining in regulation, the Bears ended up the victims of yet another Lions fourth-quarter comeback, with Matthew Stafford leading his team to a 76-yard touchdown drive for the win.

With the loss against the Vikings, the Bears were officially eliminated from playoff contention, meaning that with three games left to play the team had only practice reps for Barkley to compete for.

The following week against their division rival the Green Bay Packers, the Bears nearly crawled back into the game with their third consecutive failed fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 17 unanswered points in the start of the 4th quarter to tie the game 27–27. A last-second Packers’ field goal would give the Bears their 11th loss of the season.

In Week 16, the Bears faced off against the Washington Redskins for their last home game of the season, and lost by a gut-wrenching 20 points. After turning the ball over 4 times against the Packers, the Bears had an astonishing 5 giveaways against the Redskins, each of them a Matt Barkley interception.

Incredibly, the Bears would manage to turn the ball over 5 times the following week as well, on the road against the Detroit Lions, though this time only 2 of these 5 came from Matt Barkley interceptions. The team would lose its final game of 2016/17 by 28 points, ending the season with a 3–13 record that ranked as the worst in the history of the franchise during the Super Bowl era.

Despite going into the season with high hopes that the franchise would be able to turn things around in 2016/17, the opposite occurred, and the Bears slunk into a much-needed offseason to recover.

Chicago’s Strengths and Weaknesses

When we looked back at the season the Chicago Bears had in 2016/17, it was obvious that with only three wins the team had some serious deficiencies. However, we also saw bright spots, such as the emergence of rookie running back Jordan Howard and undrafted rookie cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc.

But before we jump to conclusions about where the difficulties resided in the 2016/17 Chicago Bears roster, it’s important for us to take a deeper look at the team, unit by unit. With an understanding of just what areas are weakness the Bears need to address, we will then be able to more accurately evaluate the offseason roster moves that the team has made thus far.

FootballOffense

The Chicago Bears ended the 2016/17 season ranked 28th in the league in scoring, with 279 points scored over the course of the season (17.4 per game). The team’s production in terms of yards was well beyond this mark, with the team gaining 5704 yards over the course of the season (356.5 per game), ranking them slightly above league average at #15.

When a team generates more yards than it does points, generally this is an indication that the offense turned the ball over a large amount, producing drives with yards but no points. As we mentioned frequently above, the Bears were plagued by turnovers throughout the season, and ended the year with the 3rd-most in the league.

Astonishingly, of their 31 turnovers on the season, 14 came in the final three games of the season; put another way, 45% of the total turnovers on the year came in 19% of the games.

The team was equally productive in the run game and the pass game, ending the season ranked 14th in passing yards and 17th in rushing yards. The Bears were ranked 24th in passing touchdowns and 22nd in rushing touchdowns, and finished the season with the #10 ranking in terms of net yards per pass attempt and the #6 ranking in terms of average amount of yards per rushing attempt.

It’s impressive that the Bears were able to remain this efficient on offense given that their quarterback situation was in such a state of flux throughout the season. With 6 starts for Jay Cutler, 5 starts for Brian Hoyer, and 5 starts for Matt Barkley, the Bears had essentially three different quarterbacks in equal portions scattered throughout the season, though the three did not compete at an equal level.

Specifically, Brian Hoyer was significantly better than the other two, completing 67% of his passes to an average of 59.4% for Cutler and Barkley, throwing 0 interceptions to their combined 19, notching an average of 7.8 yards per attempt to their 6.0, and ending with an average passer rating of 98.0 to their 73.4.

In fairness to Jay Cutler, it should be noted that somehow, despite the fact that Cutler only threw 137 passes to the other two quarterbacks combined 416 attempts, he was also sacked 17 times, whereas Barkley and Hoyer only sustained 6 and 4 sacks, respectively. This means that Cutler sustained 62% of the team’s sacks despite taking less than 25% of the snaps.

In the end, despite the veteran Hoyer ending up with by far the best numbers, it was Barkley who received all of the buzz at the end of the season, with a number of teams in the league who are in need of quarterbacks looking on excitedly to see whether or not the fourth-year player could cut it as a competent starter in the league.

Teams trying to talk themselves into Barkley will be likely to point out that despite his large number of interceptions, several of the picks were not his fault, instead being the result of the atrocious play from the Bears receiving corps. As we mentioned above, the 12 drops against the Tennessee Titans was among the highest single-game totals in the history of the league, not to mention that one of them came on the goal line for the would-be last-second game-winning touchdown.

Despite getting very little help in the passing game, however, the Bears’ quarterbacks (and Barkley in particular) were helped out greatly by the emergence of rookie 5th-round draft pick Jordan Howard, who had a two-part coming out party with 200+ yards from scrimmage against the Vikings in Week 7 and then a three-touchdown performance against the 49ers in Week 11 (these two games being not coincidentally two of the Bears’ three wins).

And Howard’s performance, particularly in outside runs, was made all the more impressive by the fact that the Bears got extremely poor play from their tackles throughout the entire season. While the recent additions of Kyle Long and Josh Sitton had certainly improved the interior of the line, and rookie second-round draft pick Cody Whitehair was also an improvement at center, the combination of Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. – even when healthy – was horrendous, giving up 73 QB pressures and committing 14 penalties over the course of the year.

In summary, to say nothing or their difficult quarterback situation, even when the Bears had most of their starters healthy, the offense struggled due to poor play from the offensive tackles and an astonishing amount of dropped balls in the receiving corps.

FootballDefense

The Bears’ defense was slightly better than its offense in 2016/17, ending the season ranked 24th in scoring with 399 points allowed on the season (24.9 per game). The team’s production in terms of yards allowed matched exactly with the offense, with their 5548 yards given up on the season (346.8 per game) giving them the #15 ranking in the league.

The Bears were completely unable to generate turnovers over the course of the season, ending up with only 3 forced fumbles on the year and only 11 total turnovers, the fewest in the entire league.

In addition, the team was much better at defending the pass than they were at defending the run, as Chicago was ranked 7th in the league in passing yards allowed and 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed. However, a large part of this had to do with the fact that the Bears were run on much more often than they were passed against, and so their average rankings in terms of defensive efficiency were comparable (17th in net yards allowed per pass attempt and 21st in average number of yards allowed per rushing attempt).

One of the primary reasons why the Bears were so bad on defense was the play of their front seven, which had really only one bright spot on the entire year. Undrafted 30-year old linebacker Jerrell Freeman managed to make 40 tackles in coverage in his first season with the Bears and missed only one tackle attempt, demonstrating astonishing coverage ability for a linebacker in today’s NFL.

Outside of the great play from Freeman, however, there wasn’t much to recommend the front seven of the Bears.

And the secondary managed to be even worse than this, grading out among the bottom five in the league for most of the season. Safety Adrian Amos was the highest graded player on the unit, and undrafted rookie Cre’Von LeBlanc showed flashes of potential at times, but other than these two players there was no real spark in the secondary and no consistently strong play from anyone.

In summary, the Bears showed precious few pieces of the defense in 2016/17 whom the team can build around in seasons to come: They have a lot of rebuilding to do in Chicago.

Next Season: A Preview

To review, when we took a unit-by-unit look at the Chicago Bears in order to establish the strengths and weaknesses of their 2016/17 team, we found a much more specific picture than the simply fly-by look over the course of the season.

Specifically, we found that the Bears may have their running back of the future on the roster with rookie Jordan Howard, and also lay claim to one of the best interior offensive lines in the game. However, the receiving corps, offensive tackles, and most of the defense was very thin last season.

In addition, of course, the Bears are in a complete state of flux at the quarterback position, with long-time starter Jay Cutler not only losing the confidence of both fans and teammates over the course of the season, but also appearing in only 5 games as a result of two separate injuries.

In a league dominated by quarterback play, with the Bears currently at a choice point at QB perhaps it’s little surprise that the team’s Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, are among the lowest in the league at this point in the offseason.

Specifically, the betting starts with the New England Patriots at +400, the best odds in the league to win it all next season. The field then opens up at +1000 with perennial offseason favorites such as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks. The farthest fringe of playoff contention is ultimately set at +6600, with teams such as the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions.

In this context, the Bears appear alongside the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars at +10000, one of the next levels just outside the fringe of playoff contenders. After the Bears, the Rams and Jets have worse odds at +15000, and the 49ers and Browns close out the field at +20000.

But even though the odds-makers at Bovada feel the need to incentivize gamblers this much to put money on the Bears, we wonder whether or not the team could be poised to take more of an immediate step forward, and become one of the surprises of 2017/18.

In order to assess the team’s future prospects, we’ll first begin with an overview of the roster moves that the Bears have made so far this offseason to improve. Subsequently, using a combination of advanced statistics and scheduling factors, we’ll make our final prediction for what we expect to see out of Chicago next season.

FootballRoster Moves

Before we look at the offseason roster moves made by the Bears so far this offseason, it’s first important to take a look at the general offseason position that the Bears find themselves in, in terms of front office composition, in order to give ourselves a frame of reference for what we can expect out of the team in the offseason.

The Bears made a change at both head coach and general manager after the 2014/15 season, firing coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery and bringing on John Fox, long-time NFL coach that had been the head coach in Carolina from 2002-2010 and subsequently in Denver from 2011-2014, as well as Ryan Pace, who had cut his teeth moving up the personnel department ladder for 13 years in the New Orleans Saints organization.

At the time of his hiring, at 37 years of age, Pace was the youngest general manager in the NFL, had never before held a GM position, and was 22 years the junior to head coach John Fox. In this context, perhaps unsurprisingly, Pace began to immediately make the team younger, as the Bears went from the 3rd-oldest team in the league in 2014/15 to the 10th-youngest team in the league in 2016/17.

When the 2016/17 team described above is re-viewed in light of this startling movement towards youth, it’s perhaps more understandable why the team committed such a large number of penalties, why there were so many dropped balls among the receiving corps, and why there was a general lack of discipline and gap-soundness in the defense.

The Bears are quite simply a very young team (despite being an old franchise), with a very young general manager (despite having an old coach), who have spent very little time with their current front office leadership team. Add to the mix the fact that the team’s quarterback situation was in a complete state of flux in 2016/17, and it’s little surprise why the team fared as poorly as it did.

But while this may explain why the Bears have been bad for the past two seasons, the grace period for Ryan Pace has a very short, quick-burning wick, and if the results of Pace’s last few drafts don’t start showing up on the field in short order, the candle might just burn out before the young GM has even had five seasons on the job.

So far, all indications are positive for both the 2015 and 2016 draft classes: defensive lineman Eddie Goldman was one of the best players on the defense last season, safety Adrian Amos became an immediate impact player, Bryce Callahan and Cameron Meredith were both undrafted gems, and rookies Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard both became two of the top players on the offense last year.

And so while Bears fans may be rapidly growing patient for the time in which they will once again be competitive on the field, their young GM has at least earned another year or two to turn things around.

In this context, the Chicago Bears kicked off the start of the 2017 league year with the 8th-most cap space in the league, with roughly $51 million to use for re-signing pending free agents and making additional acquisitions. With 25 players set to become free agents – one of the higher totals in the league – the team was likely going to need to spend a lot of that capital on re-signings.

As of the time of this writing, the Chicago Bears have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.

The first and most important move that the Bears made in the opening 48 hours of free agency was to release long-time quarterback Jay Cutler, who joined the team in 2009 and started over 100 games for the Bears, though only managed to play a full season in his first of eight seasons with the team. After his first season with the team, Cutler averaged just over 12 starts in each of his next 7 seasons in Chicago.

In addition to the release of Cutler, the Bears also made re-signing decisions on several of their pending free agents, deciding to bring back the following players: cornerback Johnthan banks, edge defender Sam Acho, kicker Connor Barth, defensive lineman C. J. Wilson, safety Chris Prosinski, center Eric Kush, and wide receiver Deonte Thompson.

Of the remaining free agents for the Bears, probably the most important decision the team will need to make is on whether or not to bring back wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who after his rookie season suffered season-ending injuries in each of the subsequent three seasons, with a broken clavicle in 2014/15, a broken is foot in 2015/16, and a re-broken foot in 2016/17.

Though the former 7th-round draft pick caught only 56 passes on the entire duration of his rookie contract due to these injuries, he nonetheless averaged 17.2 yards per reception in his last two truncated seasons and added two touchdowns. While he is certainly an injury risk, this will also bring down his asking price and likely prevent other teams from making a pass at Wilson.

In addition to the re-signing decisions for their own players, the Bears also went out in free agency and acquired a whopping 10 players, including the following:

  • Quarterback Mike Glennon, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Cornerback Marcus Cooper, from the Arizona Cardinals
  • Quarterback Mark Sanchez, from the Dallas Cowboys
  • Tight end Dion Sims, from the Miami Dolphins
  • Offensive tackle Tom Compton, from the Atlanta Falcons
  • Cornerback Prince Amukamara, from the Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Halfback Benny Cunningham, from the Los Angeles Rams
  • Cornerback B. W. Webb, from the New Orleans Saints
  • Defensive lineman John Jenkins, from the Seattle Seahawks
  • Wide receiver Markus Wheaton, from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Finally, the Bears also saw nine players of their own leave in free agency:

  • Quarterback Brian Hoyer, who went to the San Francisco 49ers
  • Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who went to the Philadelphia Eagles
  • Quarterback Matt Barkley, who went to the San Francisco 49ers
  • Offensive guard Ted Larsen, who went to the Miami Dolphins
  • Safety Demontre Hurst, who went to the Tennessee Titans
  • Defensive lineman Cornelius Hurst, who went to the Detroit Lions
  • Quarterback David Fales, who went to the Miami Dolphins
  • Offensive tackle Matt McCants, who went to the Cleveland Browns
  • Tight end Logan Paulsen, who went to the San Francisco 49ers

With all of these moves having been made, as of the time of this writing the Bears currently sit with the 8th-most cap space remaining in the league, with roughly $22.5 million available. The team also sits right around league average in terms of number of players currently under contract, with 72.

With the high volume of free agent transactions made by the Bears this offseason, it’s difficult to evaluate the moves that the team has made in aggregate. Quite simply, the Bears’ roster will look much, much different next season than it did last season. And for a team that was already one of the youngest in the league, this makes it especially difficult.

In fact, the Bears have already gotten a tiny bit younger simply through their free agent acquisitions: The average age of the Bears’ 10 free agent departures was 28.0, whereas the average of their 9 free agent acquisitions was 27.4. And in a league where there is generally less than 2 years separating the youngest team from the oldest team, that 6-month difference turns out to be more important than you’d think.

Even still, the Bears did address the most important thing, which is the quarterback position. By parting ways with Jay Cutler and shipping off Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley to the 49ers, the Bears have completely wiped the page clean from the 2016/17 imbroglio that fans were forced to suffer through.

And in order to refresh the palate of those fans who had a bad taste in their mouth left from the last 8 seasons of Jay Cutler and a rotating cast of backups, who fans guiltily wanted to replace him, the Bears’ front office offers up Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Mike Glennon, who after 4 seasons as a backup has little starting experience but a very high ceiling, and former New York Jets butt-fumbler Mark Sanchez, who as an established journeyman has plenty of starting experience but a very low ceiling.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a team could build a winning franchise around Mike Glennon; many teams in the league are quite high on him. More likely, however, is that Ryan Pace is using Glennon as a stopgap, appeasing the fans without breaking the bank and still allowing him to go fishing in the draft for the quarterback of the future.

With a new quarterback situation, three new cornerbacks, and an offensive tackle all brought in through free agency, we do believe that the Bears took extraordinarily positive steps towards improving their fortunes. For a team that won only three games, naturally there are more steps to be taken, but this is a good start.

Ultimately, the Bears will need a few years to rebuild the roster and right the ship, but if their roster moves so far this offseason are any indication, then GM Ryan Pace is on the right track.

FootballPredictions for 2017/18

When we looked back at the roster moves that the Chicago Bears have made so far this offseason, we saw unequivocally that the team has improved, if for no other reason than the fact that they have finally decided to move on from Jay Cutler and begun a new era of quarterbacking in Chicago.

In addition to our understanding of the team’s roster movement, there are also several other factors that we can look at to determine whether or not the team is due to improve in 2017/18. The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.

Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.

Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.

But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.

The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.

By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.

In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.

In the case of the 2016/17 Bears, the data are quite clear: When we plug in the number of points the team scored and the number of points they allowed last season, we find that the team “should have” won exactly 4.8 games, which we will round up to 5. Given that the team won only 3 games in reality, we see that the team under-performed by two whole games last season.

This makes sense, considering the number of 4th-quarter comebacks that the Bears allowed last year. The only way to allow a 4th-quarter comeback is to be leading in the 4th quarter, a situation that looks much different than simply being walloped throughout the entire game.

And it’s crucially important to put this over-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Bears will play next season, and that is the schedule that Chicago played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.

According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Bears played the 12th-easiest schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, putting their two-game under-performance in a much worse light than it would have been if the team had played a tough schedule.

Knowing how easy the schedule was for the Bears last season and knowing how easy their schedule will be for next season gives us the ability to predict whether or not the team should win more or fewer games due to strength of schedule.

The reason we can make this prediction is that every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.

For the Bears, this means the following:

  • 3 home games against the Packers, the Vikings, and the Lions
  • 3 road games against the Packers, the Vikings, and the Lions
  • 4 games against the NFC South: the Panthers (home), the Falcons (home), the Saints (away), and the Buccaneers (away)
  • 4 games against the AFC North: the Browns (home), the Steelers (home), the Ravens (away), and the Bengals (away)
  • 2 games against other 4th-place finishers in the NFC: the 49ers (home), and the Eagles (away)

In order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, as well as how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.

Specifically, when we tally up the number of wins that the Bears’ 2017/18 opponents won last season and compare this total to the comparable number for the other 31 teams in the league, we find that the Bears have the 12th-easiest schedule in the NFL next season, matching exactly the ranking that they had last season.

So, in summary, now that we’ve taken a good look at the roster movement, advanced statistics, and scheduling factors that clue us in to how well the 2017/18 Bears will perform, we are now prepared to make our final prediction for what we expect to see out of the team next season.

Due to the fact that Chicago should have won five games last season according to Pythagorean Expectation (despite the fact that, in reality, the team only won three games), we’re inclined to start them out at 5 wins next season. With their schedule remaining constant in terms of difficulty, we’ll keep them at 5.

With continuity at head coach and general manager and a new, capable leader at quarterback, we believe that – assuming that Mike Glennon is able to step up and win the job in camp and during the preseason – the Bears could be a much more stable organization next season compared to last, in terms of leadership. Further assuming that Glennon is able to give the team 16 competent starts, we feel that this degree of continuity is worth at least one more win.

Of course, these are some big ifs. A similar story could be said for the rest of the team’s roster: If the team is able to remain even 50% healthier than they were last season, there could be dramatic improvement. If the young core of players continue to develop, the team could win even more games.

By our estimation the Chicago Bears have one of the most tenuous situations in the entire league, owing primarily to their youth and QB turnover, but we’re still inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Chicago Bears: 7–9

Conclusion: The Story of the Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in the history of professional sports, and the team is closing in on a century of professional football in Illinois for the NFL. Throughout this long history the Bears have had several periods of success that were generally predicated on an identity of tough defense, including most notably the ’85 Bears, who are largely credited with the best NFL defense (and perhaps the best single-season NFL team) of all time.

Over the last decade, however, the team has fallen largely into a pattern of mediocrity, with a Super Bowl appearance in 2006 and an NFC Championship appearance in 2010 giving way to five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs. Their 6th consecutive season missing the postseason, in 2016/17, also happened to be their third consecutive year finishing 4th in the NFC North, and with only 3 wins featured their worst overall season record in decades.

The biggest and most frustrating issue that the team faced in 2016/17 was the inconsistent play from three different injury-prone quarterbacks, a problem that the Bears promptly addressed by moving on from all three quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley) in the offseason and bringing in free agency prize Mike Glennon, 4-year backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and journeyman veteran Mark Sanchez, for insurance.

With first-time general manager Ryan Pace impressing in his inaugural two seasons with the Bears and trustworthy head coach John Fox staying on with Pace for the duo’s third season together, there is reason to believe that the Bears are trending in the right direction, and that if Mike Glennon can emerge from the preseason to be a reliable, 16-game starter, the team could be much improved.

Ultimately, for the long-term trajectory of the franchise, it will likely take several more years of able drafting (including fishing for a longer-term franchise quarterback) before the Bears are able to get back to their previous championship-caliber teams. But for now, we believe that 2017/18 should be a return to normalcy in Chicago, and a much-improved season compared to last year’s fiasco.

Rebuilding a franchise is a long-term process, and Bears fans will need to be patient.

But young GM Ryan Pace seems to be doing things the right way, and we foresee a turnaround in Chicago next season.

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