With the season opener almost upon us, I’m sensing the traditional surge in civic optimism about the Bears. The team could have a roster full of teacup poodles, but by Sunday morning, fan enthusiasm will have upgraded them to tigers.
Likewise, Kevin White’s hamstring might be double-knotted by game time, but that won’t stop the faithful from adding two victories to their initial regular-season prediction for the Bears. So make it 18-0.
The wide receiver’s hammy, which apparently had been behaving until three days before the game, put him on the injury report Thursday. No one remotely associated with the team will talk about the extent of the injury, not with special-forces units ready to eliminate anyone who releases sensitive information.
White might be perfectly fine, his name on the injury report the result of prudence on the Bears’ part. But he missed all of last season with a stress fracture in his shin, and anything, even a mosquito bite, raises a red flag the size of a football field. A hamstring is in the dreaded soft-tissue category that caused Alshon Jeffery so many problems last season.
But let’s put aside the possibility that White’s issue sets off an injury chain reaction that leaves the Bears with offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains at right guard. What are we to make of this team?
I have seen and heard predictions anywhere from 11-5 (your drug-test results are expected back tomorrow) to 4-12 (you were forced to watch reruns of the preseason game against the Chiefs, weren’t you?). I have them going 7-9, though my confidence in that prediction is shaky. An unsettled offensive line, a Pro Bowl guard with a shoulder problem, a new running back, a new offensive coordinator and a new kicker? That doesn’t feel like 7-9. That feels like a Jay Cutler death wish.
There’s a chance that everything will come together for the Bears on Sunday in Houston and that those of us who predict a middling season or worse will be forced to dine on our words. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but there is a possibility the Kansas City debacle was a fluke brought on by bad luck, bad biorhythms or bad burritos. An improved defense could carry this team farther than anyone thought possible.
But galloping optimism over the Bears always brings a smile to my face because of how quickly the smallest spark of success can erupt into a Super Bowl parade in these parts. Judging by some of the emails, tweets and sports-talk chatter I have been subjected to, after the Bears get past the Texans on Sunday, a beautiful world will open up to them. They will face two rookie quarterbacks after that – Carson Wentz for the Eagles and Dak Prescott for the Cowboys – followed by the enigmatic Lions.
You know what that means – 4-0, baby!
The only problem is that the Bears don’t appear to be talented enough. Yes, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have better players than he had last season and, yes, coach John Fox’s teams have a history of improving in his second season. But that’s not enough to make up for an offense that’s going to be hard to watch at times.
The NFL is about which teams have the best players. Talent wins. Everybody gets caught up in the intricacies of game planning and the battle of the minds between opposing coordinators, but it usually comes down to which team has more talent. The Bears aren’t there yet, no matter how good the coaching staff might be and no matter how gentle the schedule is. Unless Fox can wave a wand to magically close the talent gap, it’s hard to see the Bears improving markedly from last season.
They need better players, and they need more of them. That doesn’t mean the Bears have no shot this season. It means almost everything has to go right. A faith healer for White’s hamstring might not be a bad investment.
I can’t shake the memory of the offense’s ineptness against the Chiefs. Every instinct and 30 years of covering the league tell me to ignore the preseason, but I saw huge issues in that game. If new Bear Josh Sitton can play two offensive line spots at once, maybe Cutler has a chance of duplicating last season, his best as a Bear. Sitton is big, but he’s not that big.
Some of you see an above-.500 team, and some of you see a playoff team. Some of you should see a mental-health professional. Even after downing a shot of whatever it is you’re drinking, I see a 7-9 team.