Success? Oh, that is rich.
Forbes says the Bears are worth $4.075 billion, which doesn’t mean that they are, just that we get to chide the McCaskeys for being extremely rich and not particularly successful at what has brought them the mountain of money: football.
It’s not as if ownership has gotten a lot of bang for its buck when it comes to victories, titles and Lombardi trophies. More like a faint tapping. That’s what back-to-back 8-8 seasons sounds like.
But here we are, expecting more because . . . because . . . because a new season is upon us, and that’s what you do in Chicago with the Bears. You hope against hope.
One thing is almost certain, short of an act of God: General manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy will be here the entire season. It’s being billed as their last chance to keep their jobs, the storyline based on what, I’m not sure. Nothing short of a playoff victory will be acceptable, we’ve been told — by whom with knowledge of such a thing, I don’t know. After previous disappointing seasons, team chairman George McCaskey hinted that improvements needed to be made, or else. But then, when improvements were nowhere to be found, neither was “or else.’’ People kept their jobs.
It’s why skepticism is the right approach when it comes to talk of ownership cleaning house if the Bears don’t have a good 2021. Given a choice between change and the status quo, McCaskey will wake up with the sun, put on one of his brown blazers, wonder if this is the day he’ll get a prize in his box of bran flakes and table all decision-making until the next morning. The cycle starts up again 24 hours later.
But let’s live in Pretend World for a moment, imagining a life where ownership is more demanding and asking what it would take for Pace and Nagy to keep their jobs after this season.
The Bears can’t be mediocre again. They can’t back their way into a wild-card berth, as they did last season. And, just to be clear, with the 17-game schedule being unveiled this year, 9-8 is the new definition of mediocre. A 9-8 record is not acceptable in a world where winning is everything. It’s not an improvement from 8-8. It’s another helping of bran flakes.
Assuming the Packers are going to be dominant again, something like a 10-7 record, a second-place finish in the NFC North and a playoff victory are the bare minimum for job retention.
The offense has to be significantly better. It doesn’t matter if Nagy or offensive coordinator Bill Lazor calls the plays in 2021. It only matters that the Bears’ offense ends up miles away from the dismal rankings of a season ago — 27th (out of 32 teams) in rushing attempts, 26th in total yards and 22nd in points.
But because we’re being demanding here, it sure would be nice to know for certain if the coach who was hired because of his expertise on the offensive side of the ball actually knows what he’s doing. Call in those plays, Matt!
No soul-crushing losing streaks. Well-coached teams with the amount of talent the Bears had on defense last season do not lose six games in a row. Last season’s losing streak said all kinds of things about Nagy and Pace, the man who hired him. Mostly, it said that Nagy didn’t know how to pull his team out of a deep, dark hole either with motivational skills or offensive game-planning.
A more demanding owner would have canned Nagy and Pace for that terrible stretch, but McCaskey praised Nagy because players didn’t point fingers at each other when times were grimmest. The Bears’ higher-ups saw that as a victory, whereas most of us, naïve as we are, considered a victory to be something where one team scores more points than the other on a football field.
Let’s go back to the real world, McCaskey World, where life is much more conducive to long-term employment. Here are some factors that could help Pace and Nagy keep their jobs after this season:
Lots of Bears players suffer significant injuries. You would be right in thinking that injuries are a part of a game as violent as football. But because the McCaskeys would prefer to be flogged rather than fire anybody, a raft of injuries would serve as a convenient excuse for another season of more of the same from Nagy and Pace. You can almost hear the midseason cries from here: They didn’t have all their bullets!
The Bears handle COVID-19 better than most teams. The franchise was very proud of how it responded to the pandemic last season. Like, insanely proud. As if that, and not beating the Packers, were the goal. So if this year’s team keeps the big, bad Delta variant at bay, there could be a lot of shoulder-patting going on. And a lot of job-retaining.
The team leads the league in quality mental reps. Bears coaches are always gushing about one quarterback or another’s ability to process information when he’s not taking on-field reps. This phenomenon could lead an NFL owner who didn’t know much about football to conclude that mental reps are more important than passer rating or interception percentage. Am I saying that the Bears could go 7-10 with brainy, unproductive quarterbacks and still retain Pace/Nagy? I believe that’s exactly what I’m saying.
For the record, ESPN’s computer geeks project that the Bears will go 7.4-9.5 this season, with a 25% chance of making the playoffs, a 13.4% chance of winning the division and a 0.5% chance of winning the Super Bowl. I’m very concerned that McCaskey saw those predictions when they came out and exclaimed, “Nice!” And that Pace and Nagy had knowing smiles on their faces.