Known then as the Decatur Staleys, the Chicago Bears came into existence in 1919. The following season they joined the fledgling American Professional Football Association, which would go on to become the National Football League. Over the course of the succeeding 93 years, the Bears sent more members to Canton than any other. Among those 32 inductees, around two-thirds played on either the defensive side of the ball or along the offensive line. The remaining enshrinees were offensive skill players, coaches, or both (hello, Mr. Ditka).
Aside from punter, a position yet to be fully represented in the Hall on any level, the Bears boast an inductee at every position except one: wide receiver.
It's a bit early to say the drought will end with either Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery, but at the very least, 2013 showed us that this isn’t your grandpappy’s Chicago Bears.
Since 2000, 47 Bears receivers have tallied 40 targets over a full season (a paltry average of 2.5 per game). Four of those seasons are owned by Marshall and Jeffery, who have both topped the mark in each of their two seasons in Chicago. That alone isn’t impressive, but what they’ve done with those targets is. In 2013, Jeffery had the highest Reception Net Expected Points per target of any qualifying Bears’ receiver in the past 14 seasons. How did Marshall fare? Second.
As a team, Chicago posted its first recorded season of a positive Adjusted Passing NEP per play since before 2000. Their mark of .08 was good enough to rank them seventh in the NFL. But it wasn’t just efficiency that made the Chicago aerial attack so impressive. It was also sheer opportunity. This past season, they ran 610 pass plays, their highest total since getting to 611 in 2007.
All the throwing had a negative effect on rushing volume, with the Bears posting their third-lowest figure since 2000. Fortunately, according to Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, they still enjoyed their most efficient rushing campaign in a decade. Matt Forte finished 13th in Rushing NEP and 11th in receiving efficiency among running backs. Perhaps more importantly for fake football purposes, he finished in the top three at running back in both standard and PPR scoring formats.
Cumulatively, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown averaged 18.5 fantasy points per game, which puts the Bears fifth in team quarterback scoring. While there were certainly some ups and downs, this was perhaps the best season under center most Bears fans have ever seen.
Cutler started off slowly, playing adequate football the first month of the season. By Week 5, he rounded into form, averaging 310 yards with a 68.6 completion percentage and four touchdowns against zero interceptions over a two-game stretch. Then he tore his groin, thrusting McCown into the spotlight.
McCown was more than up to the task, playing at least the majority of snaps in six different games. Over the course of those contests he averaged 291 yards and threw for 12 touchdowns and only one interception. As great as those stats were, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention who they came against. The six teams he faced (Washington, Green Bay, Baltimore, St. Louis, Minnesota, and Dallas) ranked an average of 22.5 in our Adjusted Defensive NEP per pass metric. This is to say, they stunk.
Despite the calls for head coach Marc Trestman to stick with McCown upon Cutler’s return, Chicago went back to their incumbent. Cutler looked rusty in his first 30 minutes back under center against the Browns in Week 14 before playing a brilliant second half. Week 15 was a mixed bag as the Bears were demolished by Philadelphia in primetime. In the final game of the season, Cutler again looked sharp at times and much less so at others in a losing effort against Green Bay.
The Bears’ defense slogged through a historically bad season: they ranked dead last according to numberFire's rush defense metrics, some 60% behind the 31st-ranked Chargers.
It gets worse.
Their run D ended up as the worst ever on a per rush basis since 2000, and the second-worst from a cumulative perspective.
Other rushing categories they finished poorly in, yards allowed (32nd), fantasy points allowed (32nd), rushing touchdowns allowed (31st), and to top it off, they allowed 5.3 yards per rush when the 31st-ranked team (Atlanta) allowed 4.8 per.
To summarize: they were terrible.
To be fair, Chicago lost Henry Melton, who one of the league’s premier defensive tackles, in Week 3. His replacement, Nate Collins, missed 11 games, starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams sat out 10, Lance Briggs seven, and Charles Tillman eight. Before Melton went down, the Bears ranked sixth in against the run on a per rush basis.
What Should They Do?
They already did what would have been the first thing on this list, which was to resign Jay Cutler. Many, perhaps most, of you will presumably think this was a mistake. I disagree rather strongly. Josh McCown, also a free agent, is going to be 35 when the 2014 season kicks off. And aside from the six game streak against mostly awful defenses, he has been a disappointment his entire career. You could say the same for Cutler, but he has much more arm talent, is more mobile, much younger, and has proven himself capable of winning games in the NFL. Is he elite? Not by a long shot, but I do believe Chicago can win a Super Bowl with him at the helm. If I’m proven wrong, Chicago was smart with the deal, giving themselves at free out (zero guarantee, zero cap hit) after three seasons.
The Cutler re-signing also frees the team up to address their biggest area of need: the defense. The Bears have seven significant free agents on that side of the ball. The list includes the aforementioned Henry Melton, D.J. Williams, Charles Tillman, and Nate Collins. The other defensive starters who are free to sign elsewhere are James Anderson, Corey Wootton, Major Wright and Zackary Bowman. There is also speculation that Julius Peppers won’t be back unless he agrees to a radically restructured deal following the worst season of his pro career.
I would expect Chicago to comb free agency to bolster the front seven, especially considering the relative strength of the free agent class in those areas. We should also see the Bears dedicate most of their draft energy to the defensive side of the ball. Not exactly exciting stuff for us fantasy folks, huh?
Pending any surprise releases, they are not slated to lose much on the offensive side of the ball. There will have a need at center (a position all fantasy owners are concerned with) and Chicago should look to upgrade their running back corps behind an aging Matt Forte. But the odds of anybody reading this drafting any Bear in 2014 who is not already on the roster is somewhere between slim and none.
With even modest upgrades on defense, this is a team who can contend. With another season of Trestman at the helm, a bit better fortune on the injury front, and the continued development of Kyle Long and Alshon Jeffery, there is a lot to look forward to.