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Monday, February 2, 2015

The Cycle Begins Anew

Jay Cutler could still win a Super Bowl. After everything he's done to me, after everything we've seen, I still believe it. I've seen what he can do in a system that works for him and the players around him. I've seen what he can be when he decides it's time to release the dragon. Jay Cutler could still win a Super Bowl. He's just never going to, because we're getting ready to throw the next five years in the garbage before they even start.

These last few years, the Bears were conducting a grand experiment. They broke free of tradition and hired a GM who looks weird and talks weird and acts weird and drafts weird players. That guy brought in a coach who was also weird, and together they tried to turn the Chicago Bears into a modern NFL franchise.

They failed. Oh, how they failed. The first year was a given. Honestly, it went better than I expected it to. The offense worked like a charm, and I'm not going to fault any one person for the fact that the defense crumbled into dust and we had to ask Shea McClellin to be a starting defensive end.

And then this season happened. And good God, was it a shitshow. Matt Forte played well because he always does, and Kyle Fuller looks promising. That's about the enthusiasm I've got. The Trestman Experiment revealed very little other than the fact that Marc Trestman moved to Canada for a reason.

Now, I don't know that it was strictly necessary to axe every member of the coaching staff and the GM. But you certainly won't hear me defending any one of them. There were fuckups so complicated and so numerous that we'll be trying to figure out exactly what the hell happened decades from now.

I'm not sad to see them go. But I am sad that we're apparently just going to revert to the year 1987 in reaction to it. We tried to do things your way, Modern NFL, and we didn't win a Super Bowl so we're never going to try to do anything different ever again.

I didn't really know enough about Ryan Pace to care one way or another when the team announced his appointment. On the one hand, the Saints fielded some good teams during his tenure. On the other hand, they had some pretty glaring recurring problems on their roster and they apparently never felt a ton of need to correct them; and a player like Drew Brees can cover up an awful lot of shitty drafting before a team just falls apart around him. I don't know what Pace's responsibilities within that office were at any point in his career, but there seems to be just as much bad as good coming out of the team as a whole.

But like I said, I didn't know enough about him to have felt one way or the other about it until his first press conference. And then I watched in slow motion as he said the words I feared the most—that we had to get back to Chicago football. That we had to run the ball in this cold Chicago weather. Because, as Kyle so succinctly put it, we don't have the luxury of tropical weather like noted passing juggernauts Green Bay and New England.

I thought it might just be a sop to the meatballs. The sort of thing you have to say to earn at least some of a rapport with the kind of person who still thinks Brian Urlacher could lace 'em up and go out there and show us all a thing or two about toughness.

But then he hired John Fox to be his head coach. John Fox, who loves to run the dang ball. John Fox, whose record without Peyton Manning is a staggering 81-79 including four playoff appearances in ten years—one of which was the 8-8 Tim Tebow Express. I guess playoffs are playoffs, but if you get in at .500 I still don't think you really deserve any praise. John Fox is Lovie Smith, and we've all seen what Lovie Smith gets you.

Fox brought with him Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase which... I mean how much credit can you even earn when your only experience at OC is two years of sitting in the booth and watching Peyton Manning do your job? Call him an unknown quantity if you want to, but if Fox likes him it's a safe bet that we're getting a steady diet of Chicago Football.

Vic Fangio is a good hire. No complaints there. He's built very good defenses. But because of what Pace said in his very first speech as GM; because of the fact that John Fox is here; because of the fact that we can't accept two years of being a different kind of shitty, the onus is on him. "Running the ball in this cold Chicago weather" didn't get Lovie to where he ended up, he got there because he built defenses that could bail out his weak-ass offenses. And if you think it's going to be any different for Vic, I suspect you are in for an unfortunate surprise.

Look. If you want to run the ball, that's fine. There are much worse players to build an offense around than Matt Forte, although 30 is probably a little old for coaches to finally start realizing that he can do basically everything well enough to merit that treatment. And if you want to play good defense, of course I'm not going to complain about it. But if you want to do those things because "CHICAGO," then you can get right the fuck out of my office.

"Chicago football" is a myth, one that goes all the way back to Ditka. He loved to motivate his players by telling them they were "the Grabowskis." The hardworking, lunch-pail players who had to just show up and want it if they wanted to compete with those pretty boys in Miami and New England and New York. And that's fine. That's a good motivational tool.

But those guys weren't scrappy, hardworking underdogs. The Little Team That Could doesn't go into the Super Bowl favored to win by 10 and blow out the second-best team in the world by 36 points. They may have been gritty and tough and punky and whatever the fuck else you want to call them, but they didn't win a Super Bowl because of any of that. They won that Super Bowl because they were one of the best Goddamn football teams ever assembled. And if you think Mike Ditka didn't know that his team was the best, you haven't heard him speak in 30 years. If anything, it's surprising that they didn't manage to notch more than one championship with that roster.

Unfortunately, Chicago bought into the Grabowski thing hard, and they've never let it go. Bears fans believe that there is an inherent value in doing things the hard way. They believe that it's better to be true to your "identity" than it is to be like... good at football. Just ask anybody who'll tell you without a hint of sarcasm that they'd never trade for Aaron Rodgers because "HE'S A FUDGEPACKER."

Kyle's parents moved a few years back, and at the new house there's a garage with a bathroom and a decent-sized sunroom attached. This building was designed to be a man cave before we ever made the grave mistake of allowing the phrase "man cave" to enter our lexicon. As is his right, Kyle's father turned this room into a den. There are comfortable chairs. There's a pool table. There's a fridge and a bar so you don't have to run all the way up to the house to get another beer.

On the wall there hangs a sign. A mural, proudly displaying generations of loyalty to the Chicago Bears. "Chicago Bears Football," it says. And under the image of a grizzly bear flexing an oddly human bicep, it says "Grinding it out since 1920."

And that's the crux of it. People think there's some kind of intangible merit in doing it the same way Papa Bear Halas did it back in the 20s.  That anything that was good enough for the men who played football in leather helmets on muddy fields with only their best gals watching, it's good enough for us. That "grinding it out" is the natural order of things; and one day soon all these teams that have been actually winning football games for the last 50 years are going to realize it.

Ryan Pace might be a fine GM. John Fox is certainly not the worst head coach in the NFL. Everything might be okay, and I'll look real silly sitting here all worried.

But we all called for Lovie's head. We all wanted Angelo gone. We saw the signs three years ago, and we decided it was time for a change. Whether Trestman succeeded or not, I can't find fault with the decision to look at a candidate so dramatically different from what we're used to. Because what we're used to—when you strip away the speeches and the mustaches and the pictures of men with mud on their faces and tape on their knuckles breathing out that crisp December air—isn't "Chicago football." It isn't an old way, or a better way. What we're used to, plain and simple, is losing.

There's comfort in knowing what to expect. In being able to say, year in and year out, that the reason we didn't win was because our new quarterback or linebacker or coach or whoever just wasn't tough enough. And it's easy to get sucked into looking at a team like the Seahawks, who have all but perfected the art of "running the football and playing good defense" and saying "Why can't we just do that?" like it didn't require a string of successful picks and signings the likes of which this league has never seen before.

But "Chicago Bears Football" is passive football. It's sitting and waiting for a championship team to fall into your lap. And that doesn't happen anymore. Not when our road to the championship runs through Aaron Rodgers. Not in an age when everything from the rules to the news coverage favors the offense.

Obviously, Seattle shows that it can still be done that way. But they didn't get where they are by sitting with their thumbs up their asses for 30 years waiting for the right combination of players and coaches to fall into their lap so they could win "their way."

You don't get to dictate how you want to win your Super Bowl in advance. You have to approach every year with an eye not only for what you want to do, but what you can do. And if what this team can do right now is run the football and play strong defense and give Chicago the brand of football it so strongly desires, then that's what they should do.

But if we're already going that way not because it fits our players or because it matches up well with our scheduled opponents, but because we have some imagined duty to Chicago in the abstract to play football a certain way well... it hasn't worked more than one time in the last 50 years, so I'm not going to hold my breath.


TAFARockWarrior97 said...

I somewhat share your nervousness, since I have mixed feelings on the Fox hire, and I have no idea if Gase is going to be good or not. However, I was overjoyed that they got Fangio. The two fears I have is that they'll try to be like the Seahawks too much, and it'll just blow up in their face, and the fear you stated earlier. My worst fear with the front office goes a little something like this: "Welp, that Trestman and new-fangled "passing offense" didn't work, so let's go back to the way we used to! Let's run the ball five billion times and go ultra-conservative and defense-oriented with the playcalling. That way, the fans won't be so outraged, since that's what Bear football is all about They'll be used to it!"

Lee said...

Did somebody say the Grabowskis?

Jim Nantz Underpants said...

It's not just Seattle that's won with defense + running; Baltimore did it the year before, the Steelers weren't chucking the ball all over the field with Roethlisberger, etc. And going offense-oriented is fine, except that you're going to have to go head-to-head with Aaron Rodgers and beat him that way, so good luck with that.

The Bears just went out and got arguably the best available candidates for HC, OC, and DC. That's not about pleasing the fans, that's about acting like a professional organization for once. Who knows if it'll get them a championship, but for the first time in my life I don't have to wonder if the coaches are going to know what they're doing.

Erik said...

Baltimore won because Joe Flacco had one of the best strings of passing games in postseason history. If all they had was Ray Rice and that defense, there's not a chance in hell they win in Denver or New England.

Anyway, the point I'm making is not that defense and running are bad or invalid parts of a football team. As I said multiple times, what makes me nervous is that the reasoning is "We're Chicago, this is what we have to do." We don't have the defensive talent, offensive line or running back to build the 1985 Chicago Bears. What we do have is a stacked-ass receiving corps, arguably the best pass-catching RB in football, and an offensive line that has usually been considerably better in pass protection than run-blocking.

You play with the players you have, not the players you want; and the players on this team just are not a "Chicago football team." I don't think anybody we hired is a bad coach. I just don't think it's a good idea to base our decisions on the team we think we ought to be rather than the team we are.

Jim Nantz Underpants said...

Obviously Flacco played extremely well, but Baltimore wasn't giving him the ball 50 times a game, they were working off play action and high percentage plays. If you're going to win a Super Bowl with someone like Jay Cutler, you're going to have to do something similar.

I guess I'm saying I wouldn't pay too much attention to fan-baiting comments like that. They know what gets the meatballs riled up, but I can promise you that John Fox would not have taken this job if Pace and McCaskey were in the room with him going "BEAR WEDDER CUTCH PAYTON BUTKUS" and demanding that he try to reconstruct the Ditka Bears, nor do I think Ernie Accorsi would have *let* them do that.

I also don't think we necessarily know what kind of team the Bears are. Yes, we have a pretty good idea of their offensive talent, but their defensive coaching was so ignorant and so incompetent that I wouldn't be surprised if we discovered there's actually some talent on that side of the ball.

Also I wouldn't necessarily be too high on the receiving corps -- who knows what's going to happen with Marshall this offseason, and after him and Jeffery it's a pile of hot garbage. But assuming Marshall stays under control, it's hard to beat that top two.

Erik said...

I think that's being a little uncharitable to their passing potential. Marquess Wilson is a fine #3 receiver with a lot of potential to move into a bigger role. I'd also throw Marty B in there as one of the best pass-catching Tight Ends outside of the "is the best receiver on his team" guys like Gronk and Jimmy Graham.

People love to go to the "Their #3 guy isn't great," but I'm leery about that kind of logic for a couple reasons. First, surprisingly few teams even have two good receivers. The team that just won the Super Bowl did so with Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman starting at WR. Granted, they had Tom Brady throwing to them.

Second, a modern passing offense isn't just about wide receivers. Realistically speaking, the third-best WR on this team should be the fifth option on most passing plays, or fourth if Forte is staying home to pick up a blitz.