Set the bar low.
After eight years of mostly high expectations and disappointment following Super Bowl XLI — capped by an historically disappointing 2014 Bears season that exposed the dysfunction and futility at Halas Hall in all its ignominy — low expectations are an almost welcome respite for 2015. Even if the Bears fail this season, they almost certainly will not disappoint.
With the hiring of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox to replace Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, optimism abounds that the Bears eventually will contend for the Super Bowl. But 2015 is a rebuilding season with modest goals no matter how you look at it.
The goals? Re-establishing a defense that can tackle, make the plays it can make and avoid embarrassment; rookies making an impact to provide some hope that Pace and his scouting staff can cost-efficiently re-invigorate the roster; play better at the end of the season than the beginning; develop some real leadership, with players whose voice leads others to discipline and focus rather than disarray and disillusion; and avoid the shenanigans — Lance Briggs’ day off, Brandon Marshall rants, Aaron Kromer’s loose lips and Trestman’s awkward handling of the quarterback change — that are unbecoming of a professional organization.
There’s no telling what a modicum of competence can do for a team like the Bears that is rebuilding but hardly devoid of talent. While it’s true that no Bears head coach since George Halas retired has had a winning record in his first season, the Bears never have had a first-year coaching staff with this much credibility. From Jim Dooley to Trestman, the Bears have hired only first-year NFL head coaches — including Mike Ditka, who had coached mostly special teams with the Cowboys when Halas hired him in 1982.
In Fox, the Bears have a head coach who has done this before. He long ago made his rookie mistakes and learned from them. He gives the Bears a chance to have a chance.
That said, nobody’s expecting much. The Bears are ranked 23rd or lower in most established power rankings. USA Today has them dead last in the NFL at No. 32, calling the Bears a “train wreck.” In Las Vegas, the “over-under” on Bears’ victories is seven — their lowest total since 2005, when the number also was seven in Lovie Smith’s second season.
That team ended up going 11-5 and winning the NFC North. The Bears finished fifth in ESPN’s power rankings that season after being 31st after Week 1. So you never know. But just to be on the safe side, set the bar low for the Bears this season. If you don’t expect too much, they might be better than you think.
With that in mind, here is our annual test of Bears fans’ optimism/pessimism for the upcoming season. Rate these 10 categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote — and we’ll just how optimistic or pessimistic you are about the 2015 Bears.
Optimist: The former Raven will take advantage of a perfectly timed career scenario —a big contract, a starting job, a featured role with a gold-level coordinator in Vic Fangio —and blossom into a difference-making star. Not only that, but he’ll make those around him better.
Pessimist: Without the safety net of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Haloti Ngata and other difference-makers he had around him in Baltimore, McPhee will struggle as the focus of opponents’ attention in a new defense and wilt under the pressure of high expectations.
VIC FANGIO’S DEFENSE
Optimist: With enough base talent to work with — Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, McPhee, Kyle Fuller, etc. — Fangio’s ability to teach, motivate and put players in a position to succeed will bring out the best in everybody. At least one player who struggled under Mel Tucker — Jon Bostic, Christian Jones, Shea McClellin, Brock Vereen —will become an impact player.
Pessimist: He’s a coordinator not a miracle worker. With too many players ill fit for a 3-4 defense — led by Jared Allen and Willie Young —and too much youth and inexperience, the Bears’ defense will struggle with chemistry and play like a bunch of square pegs in round holes.
Optimist: Motivated to prove he deserves an upgraded contract but smart enough to know he is playing for a GM and head coach who will not tolerate acts of selfishness, Bennett will be a good soldier, make the Pro Bowl again and become a beacon of leadership that lights the way for others: the team comes first.
Pessimist: Knowing that the Bears have a huge drop off at tight end behind him — Dante Rosario, Zach Miller, Bear Pascoe, Blake Annen, Chris Pantale and rookie Brian Vogler — the opportunistic Bennett will pout his way through training camp and give a token effort in an act of defiance that infects the team and forces Ryan Pace into an awkward position: Does he dare dump such a valuable asset to prove that the team comes first?
Optimist: Showing off the strength, versatility and high motor that had many projecting him as a first-round pick, the 6-4, 336-pound Goldman will be a perfect fit as the centerpiece of Fangio’s 3-4 defense, not only plugging the middle but providing pass rush as well.
Pessimist: Despite being all but handed the starting position out of the gate, the 21-year-old Goldman will struggle to learn the nuances of the nose-tackle position in Fangio’s defense with those around him learning new positions as well. Despite showing flashes, will be overrun by NFL offensive linemen and dogged by inconsistency. He’ll get there, but not this season.
Optimist: With the bar finally lowered to a more appropriate level, Cutler will succeed in an offense that doesn’t ask him to be more than he is. He’ll throw fewer passes, but make fewer mistakes and more friends, will turn out to have been the good guy in the Brandon Marshall break-up and finish the season with a career-high passer rating and new outlook on his NFL career — with the Bears.
Pessimist: He’s still Jay Freakin’ Cutler.
Optimist: Motivated after a disappointing first season with the Bears, Allen will be rejuvenated in a prove-it situation that mirrors his entrance into the NFL with the Chiefs as an unknown fourth-round draft pick from Idaho State. With Fangio’s inventiveness and guidance, Allen will excel in a hybrid DE/LB position that will seem tailor-made for his unique skill-set.
Pessimist: If he couldn’t excel at his absolute best position in the NFL, how is Allen going to be any better at a new position that seems to accentuate his weaknesses? He’ll bristle at suggestions his 5 1/2-sack season in 2014 was a disappointment, tire of questions about why he can’t make the transition to linebacker, stop talking to the media altogether and end up on a team with a 4-3 defense.
Optimist: No player will benefit more from the coaching change as the heady, talented Fuller blossoms into a consistent, aggressive, ball-hawking Pro Bowl cornerback under Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell in his second NFL season. We’ll have to remind everybody this was a Phil Emery draft pick.
Pessimist: Overburdened by the transition to Fangio’s defense and the responsibility of covering the opponent’s best receiver, Fuller will have his moments but will be overmatched as opponents figure out how to attack him in a still-vulnerable secondary. Still a year away.
Optimist: Surrounded by proven offensive talent, including the quarterback, the No. 7 overall pick will be a sensation — using his size (6-3), speed (4.35) and competitiveness (“he attacks the ball in the air”) to fill the void left by Brandon Marshall’s departure, without all the distracting sideshows.
Pessimist: Despite White’s obvious natural gifts, the complexities of the NFL game will be problematic for the raw rookie from West Virginia and White will struggle to gain the all-important trust of Jay Cutler, who has plenty of other receivers with whom he’s more comfortable in Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte.
Optimist: With Brandon Marshall out of the way, Jeffery quickly will become Jay Cutler’s favorite target and Jeffery’s already impressive production will reach a new level. By late October, fans will be asking Cutler to throw more to Kevin White to prevent Jeffery from producing numbers that will put him in Dez Bryant contract territory.
Pessimist: No longer able to thrive in Marshall’s shadow, Jeffery will wilt under the pressure of being a No. 1 NFL receiver — more attention from opposing defenses and the media. As much has he tries to avoid talking about a long-term contract and impending free-agency, he won’t be able to avoid it or ignore it.
Optimist: His no-nonsense approach will be like a breath of fresh air to an organization in dire need of professional leadership. He’ll allow Adam Gase to maximize Cutler. He’ll allow Vic Fangio to get the defense back on its feet. The Bears will win the games they can win, which could put them in surprising contention for a playoff spot.
Pessimist: Though Fox has produced quick turnarounds before, there’s just too much work to be done here. He’ll lose patience with Cutler, which could lead to bigger problems. He’ll spar with Fangio over the multitude of issues facing the defense. And his restrictive access policy will turn the media against him. He’ll find that Chicago is not Denver or Carolina or even New York.
90-100:Lay off the Kool-Aid.
70-80:Must be new in town.
20 to minus-20:Seeing is believing.
Minus-50 to minus-70:Waiting for Ditka’s return.
Minus-80 to minus-100:Packers fan.