On the records: 6 Bears single-season marks that could fall with the addition of a 17th game this year

By Dan Wiederer

CHICAGO — The question was straightforward, the answer surprising. Two months after NFL owners voted in nearly unanimous fashion in the spring to add a 17th game to the regular season, Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham was asked for his feedback on the schedule expansion.

At 34 years old and with 169 regular-season and nine playoff games under his belt, it would not have been surprising if Graham ripped the league for subjecting players to additional physical damage.

Instead, after emphasizing his desire to keep his body as fresh as possible heading into the postseason, the accomplished acrobatics pilot took the question for an unexpected roll.

“The biggest disappointment for me,” Graham said in May, “is I carry a couple of single-season records on the field. And I take pride in those. … Obviously past records are all going to be scrubbed away. And for somebody like me, that sucks. Because there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Indeed, the addition of the 17th game will have an impact on the NFL record books. Single-season team records and league milestones will carry new context.

Graham’s 2011 records in New Orleans for catches (99) and yards (1,310) by a tight end might be in jeopardy. Saints tight ends will have at least one additional game to challenge Graham’s touchdown record (16 in 2013) as well.

“I can’t imagine (if) in my second year or my third or my fourth I had an extra game, how many people I would have dunked on,” Graham said.

That expression of disappointment doubled as a reminder for teams to keep their record books at hand this season and beyond. Erasers should be stored nearby.

Here are six single-season Bears records that could be in danger of falling in 2021.

1. Team net passing yards: 4,281 set in 2013

Erik Kramer’s individual passing yards record of 3,838 has held up for 25 years now, a source of bewilderment and embarrassment for many offensive coaches who arrive in Chicago and can’t wrap their brains around the idea that one of the NFL’s charter franchises has never had a 4,000-yard passer. (The Bears are the only team in the league who have never had a quarterback reach that milestone.)

Kramer’s record seems safe in 2021 with veteran Andy Dalton locked in as the Week 1 starter as rookie Justin Fields waits to wedge his way into the driver’s seat at some point. Still, Dalton and Fields together might have an opportunity to challenge the net passing yardage record that Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined on in Marc Trestman’s offense eight years ago.

The Bears would have to average 251.9 net passing yards per game in the new 17-game format. (That’s gross passing yardage minus sack yards.) For context, last season 12 teams exceeded that average. In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

2. Rookie passing yards: 2,193 set in 2017 by Mitch Trubisky

From everything we saw during training camp and the preseason, there’s ample reason to believe the timeline for Fields to emerge as the Bears starter is moving up. Dalton will get his chance to produce and lead the team to a promising start. But if there are any pronounced bumps in the road, Bears coach Matt Nagy will have little hesitation turning to Fields. When he does, Bears fans will be expecting fireworks.

Assuming Fields gets the opportunity to make at least 10 starts this season, he’ll get a crack at racing past Mitch Trubisky in this category. (Keep in mind, Trubisky set that mark in a run-first offense under coach John Fox in 2017. He threw only seven times during a 17-3 victory over the Panthers that season.)

3. Receptions: 118 set in 2012 by Brandon Marshall

Allen Robinson’s 102 catches last season — a personal best — tied Matt Forte’s 2014 season for runner-up honors in the single-season receptions category. Robinson now gets a 17th game to make a run at Brandon Marshall’s record.

Robinson has caught 200 passes the last two seasons with Trubisky, Nick Foles and Chase Daniel as his quarterbacks. He stands to benefit from his growing connection with Dalton and from Fields’ fearless mentality whenever the rookie is turned loose.

Robinson also is playing on the franchise tag with all sorts of personal incentive to take his game to new levels. Don’t be surprised if he also threatens the franchise mark for 100-yard receiving games in a season. That record of seven is shared by Marshall, Jeff Graham (1995), Harlon Hill (1954) and Ken Kavanaugh (1947).

4. Field goals: 33 set in 2015 by Robbie Gould

Current kicker Cairo Santos pulled a 46-yard field goal wide left in Atlanta in Week 3 and immediately wondered if his career might be over. Santos was fearful the kicking-scarred Bears might launch him into free agency the following day. He wondered if retirement was sneaking up on him.

But somewhere on the sideline of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Santos discovered a comforting relaxation that all would be OK if he just kept his concentration on each kick, one at a time.

From that point forward, Santos made his final 27 field-goal attempts of the 2020 regular season, breaking Robbie Gould’s 14-year-old team record for consecutive field goals made. Santos finished last season 30 for 32. Only six kickers made more field goals in 2020, including league leader Younghoe Koo of the Falcons with 37.

Give Santos an extra game in 2021 and who knows where he might take things.

5. Sacks: 17 1/2 set in 1984 by Richard Dent

Richard Dent’s breakout campaign has stood the test of time. But if there was ever a pass rusher talented enough to supplant the Super Bowl XX MVP in the single-season record book, it would be Khalil Mack.

Mack is coming off two seasons that were subpar by his standards. But he is feeling healthy and energized that new coordinator Sean Desai will find ways to maximize his impact. Mack was brilliant in his first season with the Bears, when he had 12 1/2 sacks in 14 games, including eight in his first eight starts. He had 15 sacks with the Raiders in 2015.

Mack is now 30 and racing against Father Time. But his talent and drive remain undeniable, so maybe he rediscovers a groove this fall.

6. Interceptions: 10 set in 1990 by Mark Carrier

OK, so this is admittedly the 500-1 long shot. After all, Jaylon Johnson, the Bears’ top cornerback, went all last season without an interception. So did safety Eddie Jackson. As a team, the Bears haven’t topped 10 interceptions in a season since 2018. Their picks leaders a year ago were linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Tashaun Gipson — with two apiece.

So, yeah, Carrier’s record is probably safe. For now.

Still, in 2018, with an attacking and opportunistic defense, the Bears led the NFL with 27 interceptions. Kyle Fuller had seven of those. Jackson added six. Back in 2012, Tim Jennings threatened Carrier’s record with a nine-pick season. Maybe sometime up the road — perhaps even this season? — the floodgates will reopen. You just never know.

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