I touched on this briefly in my look at teams that need to create cap room over the summer and thought that the Chicago Bears would really make a great topic for discussion since they are in such a rare position in the NFL. Since reaching the Super Bowl in 2006 the Bears have been one of the most difficult franchises to really get a handle on. They are never bad, but never seem to have the ability to really make that jump into something better. In 5 of the last 6 years the team has won between 7 and 10 games, with the lone exception being the 11 win season in 2010. The first change was made in 2012 when Phil Emery was brought in as General Manager after the team took a major step back in 2011 falling to 8-8 after an injury to starting QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte derailed the season.
Despite a 10 win season in 2012 Emery made the decision to part ways with Head Coach Lovie Smith, who had spent 9 seasons with the Bears, making the playoffs 3 times and the Super Bowl once. But Smith was a defensive coach in an offensive league and few teams were blander on offense than Smith’s Bears. The team spent money on Cutler and later WR Brandon Marshall and for the most part the results were the same. Smith’s defense was considered by many to be antiquated and heavily reliant on older players that he had won with in the past. By cutting the cord on Smith, Emery could make the team over in his own image.
The Bears seem to clearly have their eye on rebuilding the team in 2014, leaving the Bears with a number of question about their 2013 plans. The 2013 Bears only have around $1.8 million in cap space as we make the turn into June. Five players have cap charges over $8 million dollars this season yet the Bears reworked no big time contracts for cap relief the way teams like the Steelers or Cowboys restructured deals. The team didn’t look to extend any contracts. So far they have just remained status quo with their players under contract.
Chicago had 7 unrestricted free agents in 2013, of which they re-signed 4, all on minimum salary benefit contracts. They signed 7 free agents from other teams, most of which were 1 year deals. The two big acquisitions were LT Jermon Bushrod, formerly of the Saints, and TE Martellus Bennett of the Giants. Bushrod will be with Chicago for at least two seasons, possibly three, while Bennett, despite the 4 year deal, may prove to be little more than a 1 year $5.215 million dollar gamble. From the cut players category they signed low cost 1 year deals with LB James Anderson, LB DJ Williams, and S Tom Zbikowski.
Not including the undrafted free agents from 2013, the Bears currently have only 38 players under contract in 2014, second lowest in the NFL to only the Oakland Raiders. In 2015 it is only 19 players under contract, tied with the Raiders and Broncos for the low point in the NFL. The league averages are 47.4 and 27.2, respectively. They will have in the bottom 5 cap payrolls in 2014.
33 of the Bears top 53 salary cap players (per my estimates) will become free agents in 2014, with another 7 slated for free agency in 2015. The list includes notable players. 4 of the Bears top 10 and 7 of the top 15 cap hits in 2013 will hit the market next season. The Bears have 6 positional players this year who will be top 1/3 of the market cap charges (Julius Peppers, Marshall, Henry Melton, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs and Matt Forte). Of those six, four will be free agents within the next two years and the remaining two have strong potential to be cut after this season when the cap consequences are not so dramatic. On top of that starting QB Cutler is also a free agent.
Thus far Chicago simply seems to be willing to let these guys play it out in hopes of being somewhat competitive this year and then move on after that. With these types of cap numbers it makes little sense to have guys play out contracts to just turn around and re-sign them next season. By doing that the clock doesn’t start on guarantees and prorations until 2014, often making the real term of the contract much longer and keeping a player on the roster thru 2016. If they extend now it pushes that up at least 1 season.
Of all the names Cutler is toughest guy to gauge. He was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft and he put up terrific numbers early in Denver. The Bears gave up a lot to get him and it just has not worked out. He has not had much to work with and their offensive line allowed him to take beatings most other QB’s will never face in a game let alone the course of a season, but if they are truly turning this roster over does Cutler provide enough upside to get the job done? Probably not.
While I still think there is a role in the NFL for a “professional” QB, and that is probably Cutler’s ceiling, it has to be the perfect situation. It is the type of team with the top rated defense and a capable offense. The Steelers in 2005 were probably the last team to win the Super Bowl with that type of team, but more recently the 2009 Jets, 2011 49ers, and a few Ravens teams made it to the Conference Championship with that strategy. Had those teams had better QB play, specifically the Jets and 49’ers, they would have advanced to the Super Bowl. That is where Cutler fits and I don’t think that is the Bears, but it’s almost unheard of to see a starting QB with an ok game hit free agency and perhaps the end game is to tag and trade next year to a squad like the Buccaneers or Browns.
Part of me says that this is a team Smith could have coached this season given the moves that have (and have not) been made, but there is some talent here and it may be best for Marc Trestmen to actually work with the players before deciding if they should or should not be long term members of his team. It seems like a strategy designed to “do your best” in 2013, let the new coach evaluate the Smith era players to make an informed opinion, and then blow it up next season rather than compromising anything in the present.
I think the Bears situation right now illustrates some of the difficulties NFL teams have when they are constantly able to hit that mediocre label so many years in a row. It is almost as if teams sometimes may need to hit a low point to push forward change in the NFL. The Bears are one of only six teams to win at least 7 games in every season since 2007. The only other teams to accomplish that are the Saints, Chargers, Giants, Patriots, and Steelers. Those teams have made up 7 of the last 12 Super Bowl participants, the Chargers and Bears being the only two to not make it. San Diego is, in many ways, in the same predicament as Chicago right now and I would not be surprised of the Saints are soon to follow suit.
It is always tough choices. I think we always tend to look at the positives with respect to our teams. For years with the Bears it was “if they only had a QB”. Then they got one in Cutler and it was “if we only had a better pass rush” which led to a contract for Julius Peppers. When they didn’t get them over the hump they turned to Marshall to “fix the passing game”. At some point the very hard decision has to be made that its not really one guys fault. There are some (rare) cases where that may be true, but most of the time it’s a collective effort and sometimes the collection is not going to get it done.
But that is an impossible sell to ownership and moreso the fans to just say what we have is not good enough so we need to start over. New York and Oakland are not taking well to that outlook on the season. Indianapolis did not take well to it when they moved on from Peyton Manning before winning last season ultimately brought them back. It almost seems like the Bears do not want to go that route yet, but are leaving a big window of opportunity to do so next season. Why? I see two main reasons.
Maybe part of the Bears strategy is the thought that a new coach can get something more out of the team than Smith. Its not unheard of in the NFL to see a new coach come in and do more with the same players than the former coach. The NFL is so much about planning and preparation and teams have years and years of footage of Smith to prepare for. A new coach has little to prepare for and they often catch teams off guard. This is a 10 win team and a team that historically has been decent at it’s worst. Maybe they can pull off 10 wins again. If they don’t, it makes it easier to cut (or simply not re-sign) players off a poor season than a good one.
Secondly, had Chicago parted ways with some of the high priced players this year they would have jumped towards the top of the food chain with cap space but they still would not have likely approached the major cap players like the Eagles, Dolphins, Browns, Bengals, and Jaguars. By all accounts this was a weak free agent crop of players and there may be more value in keeping these players in 2013 and being able to jump to the top of the cap charts in 2014. If the Bears do decide that its time to move on from this core group it becomes a far easier sell if you can rebrand yourself in just one year of free agency and pair it with a high draft pick and a few compensatory picks on the horizon in 2015 for players allowed to walk away. At the very least the cap space is going to be there in 2014 for the team to pull a Kansas City Chiefs type rebuild on the fly next season.
With so many potential moving parts I think its makes the Bears a fascinating team to look at both this summer and during the course of the year. Will they stay true to their current salary and contract composition? Will they get caught up in success in 2013 and have that change the plans that seem to be on tap for 2014? Will players begin to grumble that the Bears are not looking at them as future players and wearing them out to hurt their values in free agency? We’ll wait and see but it sure seems to be a very eventful season for Chicago, no matter what people think of their chances this year.