Reflection and Preparation: The Cycle of the Season

Posted by Jay | 9/18/2015 11:48:00 AM

For those of you who don't know me personally (a great number of you, most likely, unless the only readers are my close friends and family, which is a possibility I hadn't considered until just now, and it's depressing) I recently moved to Denver for a job offer. Not this blogging opportunity, though if Matt wanted to throw a few more beers my way I wouldn't object. It's been an interesting experience so far, but a side effect is that I have had to change my sports viewing habits.

The biggest difference, perhaps predictably, is the time zone; NFL games kicking at 11 AM is an interesting twist on the game-watching experience. On one hand, once the game ends, you have more of the day remaining to enjoy; on the other hand a disappointing result has more day to ruin.

Beyond the time difference, I'm not used to watching sports by myself. I've done it before, of course, but I've always preferred watching with a few friends who know sports, preferably friends who share my fandom, allowing for jokes and snark and analysis that really works. Without that shared Bears fandom, for example, I wouldn't have died laughing a few years ago when my uncle Joe, upon seeing a ground level camera angle, said "Hey, the Tommie Harris Cam." And he wouldn't have had an audience for it.

And though I've met some cool people out here, including some cool Bears fans, I still miss having a rapport like that while I'm watching. So, in search of a different viewing experience, I went to Wyman's with Annie and Cat (two of the aforementioned cool people I've met here) to watch opening day.

Wyman's is a Chicago bar here in town, and it proved to be an interesting, though perhaps ultimately unsatisfying environment. I enjoyed the beer, the welcome sight of Bears apparel (one woman sported a "Bear Down For What" shirt, which was awesome), and a few fun moments (the crowd exploding in cheers for the announcement of offsetting penalties, for example. And a guy yelling "Enough with the f****** flags!" after a play, seeing the call was on Green Bay, and yelling "More f****** flags!") I don't think it's the best way for me to absorb the game.

For one, I just couldn't see that well. It's hard to analyze the play when you can't follow the action closely enough. I honestly couldn't tell you how Shea McClellin looked (although this certainly isn't a good sign), for example, or how well Kyle Long protected the edge.

I can give overall impressions, which are that the team is definitely still a work in progress, in all phases; that John Fox demonstrated more emotion, energy, and passion on the sidelines in that one game than Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman combined to show during their entire tenures; that Matt Forte is still really good; that Aaron Rodgers is still really, really good, sadly; that the Bears' passing defense is likely going to struggle; and that, finally, this season is likely to not be the debacle that some pundits predicted.

I'm not saying the Bears can battle for a playoff spot, but as I lay in bed later that afternoon, curled up around a heating pad as my stomach fought a losing battle against the effects of morning beers and early afternoon deep dish pizza, I watched the Lions collapse in Lions fashion.

The next night, I happily watched Minnesota bumble around as though The Monstars had paid a visit to Vikings training camp this summer. 

The Bears' performance was much more encouraging than either of those, and it came against much better competition.

Was I thrilled that they couldn't pull it out? No, I wasn't. 

But I was pretty happy that, when Green Bay scored late following the Cutler interception (a combination of multiple factors, but none indicative of a bad pick; the throw wasn't forced into a nonexistent window, it was just slightly underthrown, which is rarely Jay's problem. Clay Matthews made an incredible play on the ball, and that was that. I hung my head like everyone else, but aside from game situation, it was about as acceptable as interceptions get) to increase the lead to two touchdowns, the Bears didn't fold.

That was probably my biggest takeaway from that game (one more than the Bears defense had): this group wants it. Of course, it's easy to want it on opening day. It's another thing to be resilient midway through the season after a few more disappointing losses (hopefully interspersed with a few uplifting wins). 

But they did not look a cut below the Packers, which hasn't been the case often in recent years. (Not since Week 17 in 2013, at least.) There were enough positive signs, as well as a few obvious spots where improvement needs to and could reasonably be expected occur, that this season will at the very least be interesting to follow.

Which brings us to Week 2.

The Arizona Cardinals are perhaps the most overlooked good team in football. Sharing a division with a budding dynasty in Seattle, as well as the tail-end of the Harbaugh-era 49ers run, as well as an intriguing bunch of talent in St. Louis (argh, Aaron Donald was so close to ours!), Bruce Arians has rescued Carson Palmer's career, building a functioning offense from the bones of a group that for years scared absolutely no one, aside from Larry Fitzgerald fantasy owners. Now, they boast a very good defense and an offense that is likely to pose similar issues as Green Bay.

The Bears' secondary is not a great one, though any secondary is going to get exposed without at least a threat of a pass rush. The Bears couldn't muster much of one last week, though in terms of mobility, pocket presence and feel, and generally annoying unhittability, Carson Palmer is not Aaron Rodgers. I like to think Vic Fangio is only going to get more accustomed to how to best use the talent at his disposal, and as long as Pernell McPhee can go, I expect the Bears to pressure Palmer much more often than they managed against Rodgers. (Which, again, is a low bar.) That in turn helps out the defensive backfield, and the linebackers in coverage, etc.

As to the other side of the ball, Kyle Long is only going to get better at right tackle, though I'll never understand why they didn't make that move earlier in the offseason. I doubt it was for any sort of strategic advantage, as whatever miniscule gain that may have provided was heavily outweighed by the potential gains of having your starting offensive line work together throughout the preseason. I guess they were really holding out hope for Jordan Mills or Charles Leno? 

In any case, I think the Bears can make some things happen on offense, especially as their receivers (sans Kevin White, whose explosiveness they obviously miss) are all apparently healthy, and Martellus Bennett looked engaged, which is a matchup problem for any opponent.

I'm hoping the Bears can pull off what I (and Vegas) would consider to be consider to be an upset, and as with just about any NFL game, forcing turnovers, not committing turnovers, and playing well on third down are the likely keys. The Bears did one of those things well last week, and it obviously wasn't enough. Given the roster deficiencies, it's likely Jay Cutler is going to have to play a very good game for the Bears to win. I certainly hope he does, as starting out 0-2, and 0-2 at home, would be a difficult hole from which to escape. 

I tend to think the Cardinals are a bit too strong on both offense and defense, though I hope I'm wrong.

However, I'm excited for the game! If you read my season preview post from last week, you know that was a struggle for me. The Bears playing hard for an entire game was apparently a cure for my fan apathy, even if it proves a short-term solution. 

I don't yet know where I'll be watching the game, nor with whom, but I'll definitely be watching it. Hopefully on a bigger television, in a quieter environment, and without Joe Buck. (I just checked, and it's Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, and a roaming Tony Siragusa. I can't believe this, but...may I have Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, FOX? Please? Joe can call the entire second quarter in his stupid Irish accent that he used to promote UFC, and it would still be a better listen than Thom Brennaman.)

What Lies Ahead: Chicago Bears Season Preview

Posted by Jay | 9/11/2015 05:28:00 PM

If you're anything like me, you derive your calendrical sense not from the change from summer to fall or from winter to spring, but rather the change from baseball to football, or basketball to baseball. 

(A quick runthrough: the start of spring is denoted by March Madness, Opening Day, and The Masters, while the beginning of fall is noted by NFL opening week, the baseball playoff chase, and The Rhodes Classic, my family's annual Labor Day golf scramble that debuted in 2005. I've only missed two editions: the inaugural, as I wasn't aware of its existence, and the most recent, as I just moved to Denver for work, and I wasn't able to find a reasonably priced way back. For years the title eluded me, my history there nearly as tortured as Phil Mickelson's at the U.S. Open, but in 2014 I finally won. Feel free to applaud.)

For someone like myself, who is perhaps far too invested in sports, the transition in viewing habits is as cyclical as the leaves changing colors, or the snow melting. I can normally find the exact date of various important events in my life by virtue of remembering which game happened to occur that day, and then researching the box score. By any definition, I'm an involved fan.

Which makes this current fall a bit strange, as for the first time in a long while, the thought of Bears/Packers, Week 1, just isn't doing for me what it might have done in prior years. 

Some of that, of course, can be chalked up to the competitive Cubs; for the past six or seven years, the Bears opening up their season has been a welcome reprieve from a disappointing baseball season. 

This year, it seems the roles have been reversed, as a Cubs rebuild has hit its stride, providing one of the more exciting sports narratives on a national level. You would be forgiven for overlooking the Bears, given the more palatable storyline is drawing near its climax. Even though I love The Royal Tenenbaums, if I saw it was starting up on HBO, I still wouldn't change the channel from Road to Perdition with twenty minutes to go.

That analogy, though, is imperfect; not with regards to my taste in movies, which is obviously infallible, but following teams is not the same as trying to watch two movies simultaneously. Rarely do they come in direct conflict, and I'm obviously capable of consuming quite a bit of information about sports. So if it's not a lack of attention, or a saturation of my own capacity for caring, why the change?

The answer, I think, is twofold, factoring in both the present and the past. 

First of all, this Bears team is not expected to do well. 

Obviously crazy things can happen, and I've written before how the NFL's 16-game schedule leads to some sample size issues, which can benefit lesser teams. If you want a quick and dirty example, consider that the difference in talent between the best and worst NFL team and the best and worst MLB team is probably similar (indeed, it's possible the NFL's gap is inherently smaller), if there were no sample-size randomness, then the best football and baseball teams would have similar winning percentages. 

But as we've seen in recent memory, teams in the NFL can go 16-0, while MLB teams aren't likely to go 162-0 any time soon. Indeed, NFL teams have recorded every possible record within the past eight years. The 2008 Lions went 0-16, a season after the Patriots went 16-0. Meanwhile, the 2003 Detroit Tigers (yikes, sorry Detroit), record-wise the worst baseball team since 1962, still went 43-119, for a .265 winning percentage. That would obviously equate to something like a 4-12 NFL season. 

The NFL is a perfect league for a surprise team, not because of some genius league office machination that secures a level of parity (which is what they would have you believe) but due to the inherently small sample size of the sport. If you want to try to build some hope for a team that appears to have very little, that's as good a place to start as any. 

But still, when I take an objective look at the roster flaws from the past few seasons, and the attempted fixes for this year, and the rash of injuries to key players, I don't see a team likely to make a playoff run. It's hard to get excited for a team that has had very little good news over the past year or so.

The thing is, I've done it before. And not just with the Bears. I love sports, and in recent memory, I've sat through many a hopeless game as my team either went through a rebuilding process (Cubs, IU basketball, Pacers post-brawl), an injury-ravaged season (Bears, Pacers last season), or just plain incompetence/awfulness (IU football, the Cubs, the Bears.) I still get excited to watch the team play, as I prefer the negative feelings sports can sometimes provide to not having that at all. (Which actually might not be healthy, now that I consider it.) 

There's also a certain perverse pleasure in knowing the team you follow is bad; it removes a bit of pressure as a fan, freeing me up to appreciate the smaller positives, or to really enjoy an upset win. It also allows me to laugh at the mistakes, and find the humor when, say, IU takes a delay-of-game before the season-opening kickoff. (Note: this actually happened.)
But after the past few seasons of following the Bears, I'm not sure I'm even mustering that level of interest. 

I remember last season, after Jay Cutler led a precision quick-strike drive against the Bills to open the year, culminating in a deep touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, I texted a friend "Okay, I'm officially all-in for this season." The Bears would go on to lose that game in overtime, which was a signal of things to come, but I was pumped for Week 1. Why don't I have that for this season?

Sadly, I think what has happened here is organizational fatigue. If I haven't prefaced this enough, just know that I really do love the Bears. But they are a joke. They're the 1985 Super Bowl team away from never having won a Super Bowl, and they've only appeared in two, despite being a charter franchise for the league. (Obviously the pre-Super Bowl championships count for something, but only so much.) 

I was born in 1987, and the Bears have won a grand total of 6 playoff games in my lifetime. If you limit it to the past 25 years, they've won 5. They've only been to the playoffs 4 times out of the last 20 seasons. Their last playoff appearance was the ill-fated 2010 NFC Championship game loss to Green Bay, a game that is somehow probably both the highlight and lowlight of Jay Cutler's tenure as Bears quarterback. (Highlight because it's his only playoff visit, and the team was obviously much worse without him; lowlight through no fault of his own.)

This is somehow the status quo for the Bears, a team in the second-largest NFL market (and the only team in that market, unlike the two New York teams), with an undoubtedly passionate and supportive fanbase, has managed to churn out nothing. They're Washington without the racist team name, and with a bumbling family ownership that somehow escapes all scrutiny, most likely thanks to a wise decision to avoid the spotlight. (Remember how well George McCaskey's trip in front of the cameras went earlier this year?)

Again, I love this team. If my fandom was ever going to waver, it would have been when I lived in Indiana, growing up in the height of the Peyton Manning Colts era, with essentially all of my friends being Colts fans. I didn't cheer against them, and I did always want Peyton to succeed; as a Bears fan, I think I was uniquely qualified to appreciate quarterbacking excellence. But when they faced the Bears in the Super Bowl, I was totally on Chicago's side. (Though I barely remember any of it, as I was heavily drugged post-appendectomy. And I missed Hester's return thanks to a last-second trip to the bathroom. Not a fun time for me.) 

But it's just harder to get excited this year. Think of all that has transpired with this organization just within the previous calendar year. 

From Brandon Marshall's antics to Marc Trestman naming rotating captains to Aaron Kromer (last seen fighting a teenager over a beach chair) selling out Jay Cutler to the media to Cutler being benched for Jimmy freaking Clausen (only to have to return once Clausen was concussed) to the offseason purge to the disgusting Ray McDonald signing and subsequent release. 

And that's just the circus stuff. There's also the performance on the field, which was in a few cases historically, record-breakingly poor. (Allowing back-to-back fifty point games from your opponents for the first time since the 40's is, well, laughable.) Oh, and Lamarr Houston's celebration ACL tear.

And yet. And yet, still something pulls at me. After all of this, after all that I've written here (and trust me, I could have written a lot more) there's still something telling me that it's time.

As inexorable as the fall colors, or the winter snows, or the spring thaws, or the summer heat, it's the changing of the season. Football is back, and I'll be watching, and living, and drinking along with the fortunes of the team. 

Maybe the Bears can reward fans like me to the point that we can just enjoy it, wholeheartedly, without feeling a crisis of sports existentialism brought about by situations like this one. Just win games, please, and stop embarrassing yourselves. It doesn't matter how, goodness knows no fanbase cares about style points less than Chicago's. The formula is so simple. Win, and cut out the ridiculousness. The bar has never been lower, in my eyes. Hopefully the Bears can clear it, and they have a chance this Sunday to fly over without worrying about catching their heels.

I just hope no one gets hurt upon landing. Somebody better spot Lamarr just in case.

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