Lessons are to be taken from playoffs even for teams not in them (or maybe especially for teams not in them).
Two prominent ones are staring the Bears and everyone else in the facemask as the 2015 postseason opens this weekend and moves in the divisional round next.
The first is that defense still can wins championships. No AFC playoff team ranks worse than No. 11 (Pittsburgh) in scoring. Only Green Bay (12th) and Washington (17th) are out of the top seven, and one of those two will be gone after Sunday. The obvious shock of the 2016 draft may be if the Bears do not grab defense at No. 11 (or higher via trade).
The second is that the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, nearly half of the 2015 playoff field, are playing 17 or more games and in some measure with or even because of backup quarterbacks – in fact, backup quarterbacks drafted despite having apparent franchise starters in place at the time they were drafted.
Bears GM Ryan Pace is thinking that direction looking ahead to the 2016 draft, irrespective of Jay Cutler being ensconced as the starter.
“It’s always going to be best player available,” Pace said earlier this week about his draft framework. “So if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback. I’ve said before how important that position is and that will continue to be the case.”
Pace is nothing if not a student of history. His is a strategy that has served championship teams well.
Tom Brady. Mark Rypien. Bart Starr. Joe Montana. All drafted to back up incumbent starters. All drafted third round or later or much later. All Super Bowl MVP’s.
Pace’s first Bears draft produced expected starters with the first five picks and the foundations of the future indeed lie in the draft. But free agency comes first, and by the time their turns come on the second and third days of the 2016 draft, the Bears may have given themselves all-important options, including at quarterback.
The Bengals had Andy Dalton in place and with trips to the playoffs, albeit ending in losses, in each of his first four NFL seasons. Yet the Bengals invested a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft on A.J. McCarron and won two of McCarron’s three starts after Dalton went down in Game 13 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals (12-4) finished two games ahead of the Steelers (10-6).
The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manning secure as their starter, used their second-round pick in the 2012 draft on Brock Osweiler. With Manning injured, Osweiler started the final seven games, the Broncos went 5-2 in those starts and finished 12-4 – one game ahead of Kansas City (11-5) for a first-round bye.
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The same offseason (2012) that the Seattle Seahawks lavished $9 million guaranteed as part of a $20.5 million deal on quarterback Matt Flynn, with 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson also returning, the Seahawks also used a third-round pick for Russell Wilson, who promptly beat out the other two. Like Dalton, Wilson has gone to postseasons after every one of his years (three) and to Super Bowls after the last two.
The New England Patriots have made history with a backup, having taken Brady with a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft when they were seemingly fixed with Drew Bledsoe. Bill Belichick and the organization followed that template last year when they, like the Broncos two years earlier, used a second-round pick (Jimmy Garoppolo) to back up a Hall of Fame starter.
Two 2012 rounds after the Broncos were drafting Osweiler, Washington was raising eyebrows with the fourth-round selection of Kirk Cousins, ostensibly as Robert Griffin III’s backup. But Washington squeaked into the 2012 playoffs by one game after Cousins rallied the Redskins for one victory and won the following week while Griffin was laid up. This year has belonged to Cousins.
The Bears know how this can work.
They made the 2005 playoffs with an epic-grade defense but also with a backup quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback, a backup rookie quarterback drafted in the fourth round. More than one member of the Bears’ defense said after the season that the team should’ve stayed with Kyle Orton instead of going back to Rex Grossman and losing to Carolina in the wild-card round.