The release of the Bears’ schedule is something of secondary news, since the opponents for every team are set no later than the final game of the final Sunday. For that matter, 14 of every team’s 16 games are known years in advance simply because of the divisional rotation the NFL uses.
No, the overarching question for the Bears after their 6-10 and 3-13 seasons under John Fox is what kind of results from that schedule are needed for Fox to see year four as a head coach in Chicago. The schedule coming out didn’t really change that situation; the Bears were always going to play Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Green Bay sometime.
The same macro-question might be said of GM Ryan Pace’s fate. But nothing has indicated that Pace is standing at the brink of the abyss; the organization believes Pace has drafted well, in addition to making a real effort at trying to make a go of it with Jay Cutler as quarterback while there were millions in guaranteed money.
For that matter, so have Fox and his staff, who inherited Cutler and a talent cupboard with some very empty shelves.
But none of this is really about Cutler, who got his expected release earlier this offseason. It’s about whether senior team management likes what it is seeing, and while the records have been disasters, positives were seen “because we’re developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys,” Chairman George McCaskey said during the recent owners meetings. And frankly, isn’t that what most of BearNation wants, too?
So as far as McCaskey is concerned – and he specifically referred to the rookie impacts of Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard – Fox and his staff are getting Pace’s draft picks up and running, or at least the healthy ones.
If the Bears win seven or eight games this season, the win total by itself will represent some sort of progress over seasons of six and three wins. And folding the schedule into this: The early season with its Atlanta-Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh-Green Bay start is a crucible. But of the Bears’ final six opponents, only one (Detroit 9-7) had a winning record in 2016.
Meaning: Even with an anticipated rough start, with a still-jelling roster against some of the NFL’s best, the Bears could propel Fox into a clear year four with a finishing kick.
The reality is that no one really has a fix on what the mindset of McCaskey (and the Board) will be as the season plays out. Recent history has defined chaos and impulsiveness at more than one level.
The Bears opened 7-3 in 2011, Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the season unraveled behind Caleb Hanie. The result was McCaskey firing GM Jerry Angelo for an 8-8 season that came the year after falling a touchdown short of an NFC championship and trip to a Super Bowl.
Lovie Smith started 7-1 the year after the Angelo firing, limped to a 10-6 playoff miss and was fired by then-GM Phil Emery, who brought in Marc Trestman. Trestman started his second season 2-1 on the strength of two road wins, only to see the season and the entire football operation blow apart in a year many predicted would see a Bears next-step after Trestman’s 8-8 first season.
But McCaskey and the organization want their coach and GM to succeed, and obviously want an end to the kind of turnover that both results from and perpetuates failure. The Bears' First Family does worry about fan apathy and anger, but senior management also knows that fan loyalty reignites quickly; rebounds from abysmal times under Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron didn’t take long, just some wins, baby.
Anyone who’s observed the Bears for any length of time knows that a modest recovery in ’17 would do it. If the Bears win, say, seven games, one or two of those would likely have been “good” wins. It does happen; one of the Bears’ three ’16 wins was over playoff-bound Detroit; in ’15 they beat Kansas City and Green Bay, both playoff teams. What if the ’17 Bears stumble in at 6-10 but beat the Packers in Green Bay, the Lions in Soldier Field and one of the first three opponents on the schedule?
All of which is hypothetical/speculative/theoretical/all of the above. But the ’17 season will contain its own internal intrigue, beyond the schedule.