One of the Bears’ objectives going into Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions was to avoid the personal ignominy of a 10-loss season, along with the embarrassment of going a franchise-low 1-7 at home in one season. Those didn’t happen as the Bears couldn’t make fourth-quarter plays on offense or defense in a 24-20 final fall-down.
“I’m very disappointed in our record,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, summing up the mood of an organization. “What I gave this year wasn’t enough so I’ve got to work harder to get guys to be with each other, play with each other and make more plays.”
The final score of Sunday’s wrap-up was only marginally more important that that of a fourth preseason game “Today was pretty much a microcosm of our season,” said coach John Fox.
The Bears were playing to win but with virtually nothing on the line and therefore relegating the game to also-ran status and not really a worthwhile measuring standard for much of anything. Usually the point is to assess what the course and outcome of a game means. But it is time instead to pull the camera back and see broader perspectives on the season as a whole.
The 2015 season overall was very much one of note, for multiple reasons, and in this order:
Ryan Pace: Pace kept a very low profile throughout the season and his hiring may not have registered on many analysts’ meters because of his youth and first-timer status. But the linchpin of what the Bears need to become lies in the draft and Pace directed a draft that netted starters Eddie Goldman, Jeremy Langford and Adrian Amos already, plus Hroniss Grasu when he adds NFL strength, and Kevin White for next year.
Pace points to the preferred philosophy of placing personnel heads from the pro-scouting side at the GM level with their precise knowledge of what an NFL player needs to be. Additionally, whether or not Fox was Pace’s first choice to replace Marc Trestman is less important than Pace accomplishing the task of bringing in the first Bears head coach with prior NFL head-coaching experience since George Halas, and Papa Bear was just re-hiring himself.
John Fox: The Bears needed a radical overhaul of the entire coaching staff and Fox accomplished that by securing a stellar stable of assistants with quality NFL experience.
More important, Fox re-established the necessary primacy of the head-coaching position and reshaped the persona of the entire locker room. Injuries and mistakes bordering at times on the flukish (Robbie Gould’s missed field goal vs. San Francisco, Antrel Rolle’s missed interception in Minnesota). But the change within the team and organization was palpable. And desperately needed. And it happened.
“Being a starter on both teams - last year and this year - I can tell you that it's a different team this time around,” said tackle Kyle Long. “Although the record doesn't reflect that, I've said that a million times. I'd go to fight with this group any day of the week. I know they'll continue to bring in guys that you want to play next to and for. We played teams tough. We're not going to lay down. We're going to run the ball. You're going to feel us and by the end of the day, you're going to know that you played the Chicago Bears. We're not where we want to be, but I'm not going to be finished here until we're a very, very good football team. And I intend to be a part of it and I intend to try to be at the forefront of it."
Jay Cutler: Much of the late-season attention around the Chicago offense has centered on the coaching fate of coordinator Adam Gase. But the bigger story began in training camp, even before that, really, when Cutler quietly went practice after practice after practice after practice without throwing an interception even in a drill.
He threw three on Sunday but ultimately Cutler went 12 straight games (14 overall) without throwing two interceptions in a game, the only NFL quarterback who’d started 10 games without a two-pick game. For sake of perspective, the longest stretch of sub-2-INT games in Cutler’s Bears career before this season was six games, for his entire career, seven games (2008).
Cutler’s emergence as a stabilizing factor in the offense, eliminating turnovers and mastering ball-control concepts, was the single biggest positive from the Bears’ 2015 season on offense. The inconsistencies and lack of big-play effectiveness from the receiver group made Cutler’s season even more impressive, needing to adjust to myriad receiver combinations and talents and rarely having his full firepower available.
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And he did the adjusting with a certain equanimity that was seldom part of his game or persona earlier in his career when he had substandard receivers with which to work.
The reservations expressed about Cutler by Pace and the coaching staff may have motivated Cutler in basically a show-us season. And he showed them, posting passer ratings of 88.4 or better in 12 of his 15 games, contributing to a career-best 92.3 passer rating.
“I think he had a good season,” Fox said. “I’m excited about working with him moving forward.”
Matt Forte: Forte represents nothing short of a fork in the Bears’ road. Are they massively rebuilding, or are they in fact a win-now team? This is about more than just the second-greatest running back in franchise history.
Because if they are thinking win-now – which they should be, with Jay Cutler in his true prime and John Fox absolutely not interested in a long makeover job when he took this one – then finding a way to keep Matt Forte is both a statement and good football. Forte finished Sunday with 20 touches for 110 yards (76 rushing, 34 receiving, one touchdown), the kind of numbers that would interest a Bill Belichick or Bruce Arians or Pete Carroll, someone with a team on the brink of and thinking championships.
That should include the Bears, at the least for the “thinking” part. While the refrain, “Yeah, I knew they’d be a six-win team” is easy and popular, it’s also laughable. Because this was a six-win team that was finishing the season with, among other things, all three of its projected starting wide receivers down (Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White all the way on IR) and a defensive line that played the final game with exactly one player (Will Sutton) who was with the team in training camp. One. All those defensive guys that didn’t fit a 3-4? Like Willie Young (6.5 sacks) and like Lamarr Houston (7 sacks) playing basically the second half of the season? You saw this as a 6-10 team? Really? Then I want you picking my stocks and bonds for me.
“Hang with us,” Fox said among his closing remarks. “We’re going to get there. There will be way better days to come.”