The Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have both lost three of their last four games, with the one difference that the Bears have lost their last three and spiraled down to their worst defeat since the loss at Seattle, where at least they had the Jimmy Clausen excuse. Now the matchup of Bears (5-9) and Bucs (6-8) has the vague feel of two teams moving slowly in opposite directions, for the balance of 2015 anyhow. Beyond that… .
The Buccaneers under Lovie Smith are moving toward firming up an offensive core around quarterback Jameis Winston and running back Doug Martin, and a defensive core around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, both from the 2012 draft and both already both achieving All-Pro status.
The Bears are playing out a season that has seen them repeatedly lose pivotal games, face an uncertain future at running back with Matt Forte’s status, and no defensive players earning even Pro Bowl status.
The Bucs have pieces in place. The Bears are still trying to find pieces.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]
“Performance is performance,” said coach John Fox, “so we’re trying to get better, trying to evaluate guys, see who’s improving and blow ‘em up to win.”
Smith has had the good fortune of having a potentially elite quarterback available when his team held a top pick in a first round. And he came to a team that had in place one of the linchpins of his football philosophy: a dominating disruptor of a defensive tackle.
John Fox had his own top-10 pick, Ryan Pace provided the team with a potentially elite wide receiver – Kevin White at No. 7 overall – only to have White go down with a stress fracture in his leg without ever playing a snap in his rookie year.
The Bears have a franchise decision to make with tackle Kyle Long and questions about the workability of rookie third-rounder Hroniss Grasu at center. The Buccaneers landed a starting left tackle (Donovan Smith) and right guard (Ali Marpet) in the second round of the 2015 draft.
“Both of those guys showed us that they belong right away,” Smith said, “and we got them in there.”
Sunday against the Buccaneers and next Sunday against the Detroit Lions are de facto auditions, as players have acknowledged. And the job descriptions contain certain constants, regardless of position.
“What we look for is guys executing, guys that come to work every day, prepare,” Fox said. “My experience is that if you’re not exactly where you want to be as a football team, structure, talent, all those things, how you execute, the culture of preparation and being best you can be.”
And the winner is…
The 2015 Bears have been more than capable of surprises. At Green Bay. At Kansas City. At St. Louis. They have unfortunately been all too capable of the other kind of surprises. At Minnesota. At home against San Francisco, Washington.
The sense at this point, however, is of a team truly playing out the string of a season that a month ago held serious promise. The sense also is that Jameis Winston has been and is able to grab his team and lift it, while Jay Cutler has played better but not enough to elevate enough of his teammates.
Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Bears 14