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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