The Bears’ season finale against the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium was destined to be meaningless since they lost to the Buccaneers, Giants and Titans following their bye week to fall to 2-9. Now the Bears can’t even play spoiler against the upstreaming Vikings, who started 5-0 but have lost eight of their last 10 to fall out of playoff contention.
“There are a lot of people who have nothing left to play for,” Bears coach John Fox said. “So it’s about pride and respect. And it’s a division opponent at their place. They’ve struggled of late. So it’s going to be who executes. And it’s a game in the NFL.”
If the Bears (3-12) are looking for any morsel of additional motivation, they can try this: They need a victory over the Vikings to avoid standing alone with the worst record for a Bears team since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
As it is, the best the Bears can do is join the 1997, 1998 and 2002 Bears teams that finished 4-12. And it’s debatable where this team would rank among them. This year’s Bears have been outscored by 92 points and have a strength-of-schedule of .521 (123-113-1, prior to the Lions-Cowboys game Monday night.)
The 2002 Bears had made the playoffs the previous year in Dick Jauron’s third season, played their home games in Champaign while Soldier Field was being renovated and had three Pro Bowlers: linebacker Brian Urlacher, center Olin Kreutz and wide receiver Marty Booker.
The 1997 Bears under Dave Wannstedt’s fifth season had the worst point-differential (minus-159 points), but played a more difficult schedule — including 11 games against teams that finished over .500.
The 1998 Bears had a brutal season that got Wannstedt fired. They lost seven of their last eight, but also played a tougher schedule than this year’s team — their opponents were a combined 147-109.
This year’s team, though, is in a much bigger rebuilding mode than any of those 4-12 teams. These Bears are six years removed from their last playoff appearance — Jay Cutler is the only player left from that 2010 team that reached the NFC Championship Game, and he played only five games this season. In that six-season span the Bears have had three general managers, three head coaches and five offensive coordinators.
This team has undergone a total rebuild in all three phases, with just three starters remaining from the 2014 team that general manager Ryan Pace and Fox inherited — and Cutler, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and guard Kyle Long have combined to start just 22 of 45 games this season because of injuries and Jeffery’s suspension.
This team arguably has the best foundation of young players — starting with an impressive rookie class, including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, center Cody Whitehair and running back Jordan Howard. That might rate an edge over the ’98 rookie class that included running back Curtis Enis, safety Tony Parrish, Kreutz and long-snapper Pat Mannelly.
Regardless, at 3-12 the Bears need a lot of growth to take the next step. But to Fox, that starts Sunday, not in OTAs next May.
“Our guys are still competing,” Fox said. “They’re working hard. They’re practicing hard. There’s no splintering — you hear that word sometimes from the outside.
“Our guys will compete. We’re evaluating to see where they are. You very seldom keep the same group of people together from one year to the next. The understand that. And I’m not expecting any drawbacks.”