Chicago’s ‘Bad News Bears’: The Monsters of the Mediocre
Total Pro Sports – As a child, growing up in the Midwest, there was one NFL franchise that was followed—that was worshiped by kids and their parents throughout the weathered winter plains. Not far from the Illinois border, I believed with all my heart that if you listened carefully enough, on so many Sundays, you could hear the distant cheers, carried swiftly by the gusting wind, resonating from old Soldier Field itself. On game days, Bear pride was evident in my neighborhood, as people wore their colors proudly and flew their banners high. I remember vividly wearing a certain shirt to school, one that was given to me as a Christmas gift by my father just a few weeks before. It boasted the number 34 on both sides, and bore the name “Payton”, larger than life, on the back. Though I couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall, I felt like a giant wearing that jersey. I did for years, even after the three and the four began peeling off the front, and the majestic letters that spelled greatness faded from the back. Those were the days of the Super Bowl shuffle, the “punky QB”, “the Fridge”, “Iron Mike”, and a man known simply as “Sweetness”.
Since then, the legends have faded, and the gods have returned to Olympus leaving behind the hollow footprints of victories past. Gone is the famed 4-6 defense, anchored by so many current and future NFL immortals. The incredible 15-1 record and the dominant World Championship team that forged it have become the subjects of myth; of stories passed down from father to son. I was there. I was a witness to an indescribably magical time in NFL history, yet I often wonder if I could have imagined some, or all of it. I know it happened, obviously; the record books reflect the numbers. Why then, do I doubt? The answer is not complicated: There is nothing left to remind us of a once dominant franchise.
While I am certain that Papa Bear Halas, the late great founder of the Chicago Bears, still watches his beloved team play, I have to suspect that he does so with one eye closed, simply enduring the current state of mediocrity that we all must behold from week to week. Despite falling into that pit, some twenty plus years ago, no one should weep for the Bears. They’ve had plenty of opportunities, and fell one game short of a Super Bowl title just two short years back.
There are far worse franchises in the NFL, such as the Lions or the Bengals, for example. Those fans are in a far greater state of despair, right? I don’t think so, actually. I know it seems ridiculous, at first glance, but once you look closely at where the Bears are in their progression toward a title, you’ll understand why Detroit has a better chance to win a Super Bowl in the next five years than the Bears. To fully understand where they are, we need to examine the entire organization, from the front office to the water boy…okay, not the water boy. This is an entity with many flaws, and like all problematic organizations, the issues start at the top.
Today, the Bears are owned by the daughter of George Halas, Virginia McCaskey, who is the sweetest woman on the planet, and has lived around the game her entire life. While I’m sure there are things she does extremely well within the organization, there are others that she needs help with—lots of help. No one expects Virginia to get out and scout players, for example, but the fact remains that the personnel department is lacking, lacking, LACKING! A change is needed to head that department, and I question her willingness to pull the trigger. “Sweetest woman in the world” is not a flattering description of a shrewd NFL franchise owner, especially when it comes to accountability for results.
I would expect the “Bears” to have more “teeth” than what they’ve recently displayed. Since current General Manager, and former Tampa Bay Director of Player Personnel, Jerry Angelo took position in 2001 the Bears have been consistently in the hunt for playoff spots in most seasons. They’ve won division titles, and made a few playoff appearances. Angelo has been successful, just as he was in Tampa, at stabilizing a losing organization, and bringing it back to respectability. He and his staff have been very good at scouting and selecting excellent defensive players via the draft. There is no question that both the Bears of this decade and the Buccaneers of the 1990’s, under Angelo, have had great defenses. Great, the Bears have been respectable since he took position, they are now “stable” (an overused Angelo word), and they’ve had several dominant defensive units. Now what? Where is the offense? Where is the progress? Where is the ring? Those questions aren’t being asked by McCaskey. THAT’S the first problem.
The truth is that the Bears’ offensive draft woes since the beginning of Angelo’s reign are exceeded by no team, including the Lions, in that same span. The Bears have not drafted one Pro Bowl offensive player since Angelo took office! If that isn’t the model of inefficiency, I don’t know what is. Why don’t the Bears get those key offensive players? When they have an opportunity to draft one, why does that player bust? Angelo may be explaining to his boss that it’s “bad luck”, or that the draft is an “inexact science”, if he even has to explain at all. The man doesn’t get it, plain and simple. The fact is that anyone who knew Angelo’s resume in detail could have seen this coming. In fourteen seasons as the Bucs Director of Player Personnel, he saw only two skill position players make the Pro Bowl under his watch (Mike Alstott and Trent Dilfer)—that’s more than one hundred drafted players! TWO FOR ONE HUNDRED? Those are numbers that get you sent back to the minors, by most teams’ standards—not that get you promoted. He’s off to another record setting start in Chicago, where he has drafted zero Pro Bowlers at the skill positions in seven drafts—more than fifty players total! Even the Lions drafted a couple of Pro Bowl skill position players since 2001 (Kevin Jones—alternate 2005, Roy Williams 2007). They simply can’t evaluate offensive talent. THAT’s the second problem.
Evaluating players is the draft is not the only problem the Bears have had with talent assessments. It’s not always what teams do that kills them; it’s often what they don’t do that hurts most of all. The Bears are extremely and notoriously slow to react to player development issues. I’m the first to admit that I’ve been wrong about a FEW players over the years, in my own pre draft analysis, and I know that every team misses at least once in a while. When they do miss, they typically give the guy a reduced role, sit him on the bench, trade him, or cut him loose. Not the Bears. This organization “hopes” too much and acts too little.
In Rex Grossman, for example, they had a situation where their third year starter was making rookie mistakes every week, and was obviously regressing as a quarterback. They continued to play him for the remainder of the season then decided to retain him as their starting quarterback for the next season without drafting another one. He started about half of the games that year, splitting time with two other back-up types, Kyle Orton and Brian Griese, until the team missed the playoffs. The following year, Grossman was back again, and was competing for the starting job with Kyle Orton—AGAIN! Needless to say, the Bears missed the post season once more. I suppose they were hoping that one day they’d wake up and Grossman would magically know how to read a defense or would stop staring down receivers, out of the blue.
Let’s take this a step further and look at Cedric Benson, another first round bust who, despite being the fourth overall pick of the 2005 draft, could not take the starting job from veteran Thomas Jones in either of his first two years in the league. What did the Bears do before Benson’s third season, knowing that his coaches and teammates thought he lacked work ethic and heart? They released Jones and gave Benson the starting job, of course. Benson was never effective, as a starter, and was released before the 2008 season—not for performance, but for partying too hard and getting arrested. At least the Bears have a strict moral code. Benson since signed with the Bengals, where he posted three 100 yard rushing performances in just ten starts during the 2008 season, more than he posted during his entire three year stint in Chicago. To reiterate, the Bears are too slow to react to performance issues—THAT’S the third problem.
The biggest reason that the Bears have little hope of winning a Super Bowl within the next five years is that they are too mediocre. That’s right. They aren’t bad enough. They aren’t good enough to be a championship team, and aren’t bad enough to begin building one via the draft. The Lions, on the other hand, have hit rock bottom at 0-16. They have an excellent young tailback, one of the best young receivers in football, and hold the first pick in the 2009 draft. Combine that with the fact that they have two first round picks and five of the first 90 overall this April, and you have a team that can enjoy some hope. The Bears, no matter who is available, or what needs they may have, never move up in the draft—THAT’S the fourth problem.
Titles won’t come to you, Mr. Angelo. You’re going to have to be aggressive and trade for one via the draft. You said it yourself, in your post-season press conference. “It’s a quarterback’s league”, remember? You stated, yet again, that you were going to “stabilize” the quarterback position. I’m not sure what you mean by stabilize, but journeymen quarterbacks like Brian Griese or Byron Leftwich will only stabilize the course of mediocrity that you’re on, and make sure the boat stays floating safely at or near 8-8. If you take a look at your own franchise history there are some excellent lessons to be learned.
Why not start with the only Super Bowl winning quarterback in Chicago Bears history, Jim McMahon. The lesson is simple: He was a first round draft choice, and a Pro Bowler. The writing is on the wall, and it has been for years: You need a great quarterback, and you’re going to have to trade up to get one, perhaps sacrificing the winning seasons of today for the championship seasons of tomorrow. Stop sitting on your hands. Stop wasting time. Stop hoping for miracles. Your great defense is getting older and less great by the hour. By the time a rookie quarterback is fully developed, Brian Urlacher and the other anchors on that once dominant defense may be out of football completely. Without a natural rock bottom to aid your level of urgency, you may have to manufacture one. Clean the cupboards. Trade some of the veterans that still have value and who are unlikely to be there in four years. Use those picks to move up to the top of the draft, take your quarterback, and develop him with a coaching staff experienced at SUCCESSFULLY developing a young signal caller. At that point, you can rebuild your franchise. If you can’t get it done this year, trade what you can now to stockpile picks for next year.
It’s time to make a move, Mr. Angelo. Begin writing your fans a new tale; one that my son may tell his son, about a storied franchise that rose from mediocrity to reclaim its misplaced glory. The expectations are high, Mr. Angelo. Preserving mediocrity will no longer suffice. Olympus is watching, and the clock is ticking.