Every year we are surprised when successful football teams either falter or fail to bounce back after a season that fans and media alike both seem to consider an aberration. From 2010 through 2013 the Bears were a successful team. They made the conference championships in 2010, won 10 games in 2012, and won 8 games in 2013 despite losing their starting quarterback for a few games. They seemed like a team poised to break out and they went into 2014’s free agency period, spent some money, and then struggled through a 5 win season.
In 2015 they hired John Fox to coach the team and get some return on their investments, but just 3 games into the season they are already selling of pieces after realizing they are one of the worst teams in the NFL.They are one of the best examples (and there are many this year) of how successful teams crash and burn because of poor management and a lack of ability to critically scout themselves as they make big financial decisions.
For most positions in the NFL there is a general career pattern that most follow. Players struggle as rookies, become solid contributors in their 2nd year, and then hit their primes from year 3 to 6 of a career. Unless you have the Hall of Fame type quarterback on the team you need to find players in a draft who contribute. Teams can survive one bad draft, but surviving multiple years is near impossible.
The 2011 draft was a nightmare for Chicago. 1st rounder Gabe Carimi was useless and quickly traded for pennies on the dollar. Stephen Paea only showed something in his walk year in 2014. Chris Conte struggled and the rest were throw away players. Not one player remains in Chicago in 2015.
2012 wasn’t much better. They found a very good player in Alshon Jeffrey in round 2, but have gotten little out of 1st round pick Shea McClellin. The rest of that draft was a nightmare- Brandon Hardin, Isaiah Frey, Evan Rodriguez, and Greg McCoy pretty much never stepped foot onto the field for the team. It is quite possible that no talent will remain in Chicago next year from this group.
2013 was a horrible year league wide for drafting, but after two bombs, Chicago couldn’t afford another failure. They hit a home run with guard Kyle Long, but guards are not difference makers in the NFL so that impact is lessened that hitting on a premier position. 2nd rounder Jon Bostic was just traded for a 6th round pick after looking like nothing more than a reserve in another pennies on the dollar type of trade. The rest of the draft was another disaster. 4th and 5th rounder’s Khaseem Greene and Jordan Mills are already gone and no longer in the NFL. They have 6 combined starts in three years from their other two draft picks.
While it’s too early to write off 2014, the results don’t look great yet. Kyle Fuller has ability but has also struggled at times, though that isn’t uncommon for the position he plays. Ego Ferguson has yet to start a game while Will Sutton has started three this year on a struggling defense. They did make out fine with a punter they drafted, but the fact that they drafted a punter shows just how bad a job the Bears front office did self evaluating themselves.
Whenever you want to select when a team goes from passable to terrible look no further than a teams drafting in the three years leading up to the season. If the drafts have been good expect the team to improve. If average the team likely remains status quo depending upon age of star players. If the drafting is poor, expect the team to struggle. If the drafting is terrible, expect them to completely crash.
The 2011 through 2013 drafts are supposed to be the backbone of a team right now, but in three years of drafts the Bears basically have just two players to show for it- a guard and an injured wide receiver. The team didn’t even get fill in types as most of these guys were off the team rather quickly. 2014 looks to be more of the same for the team. The failures of 2014 and 2015 should not have been a surprise they should have been anticipated.
Lack of Definitive Vision
The Bears problems were made far worse because of the front office’s failure to decide on a definitive direction with the roster following the 2012 season. Perhaps some of that blame lies with ownership forcing GM Phil Emery to keep head coach Lovie Smith in 2012, not allowing him to see the players with his choice of head coach, but still they waited far too long to decide on a team direction.
When 2013 began the Bears seemed like a team ready to rebuild. They signed a few players to what could have effectively been short term contracts and did not rework any veteran deals to gain cap space. They were in the bottom 3 in the NFL in long term contracts and salary cap commitments moving forward. Over half of their summer roster was going to be free agents in 2014 and more could be cut. All signs screamed that this should be a rebuilding effort.
What could have changed in 2013, besides a glimpse of how some veterans fared under new head coach Marc Trestman, is not really clear. Their record actually dropped and it was clear that their draft picks were failing. But rather than rebuilding they began re-signing players at the end of the season to some very lucrative contracts.
The wait on extending players is costly for a team. When you extend a player early you begin the clock on their guarantees a year early and gain a large benefit because you are usually rolling a large salary for the year into a new guarantee package. Because you were going to pay that salary anyway the effective guarantee is small. Proactive teams use this to their advantage such as the Bengals who recently gave AJ Green nearly $27 million in guarantees in an extension. However his effective guarantee is just $16.5 million, because the team was already going to pay him $10 million in 2015.
Had the Bears extended their talent early in the 2013 season rather than after the season, they would have been able to reduce the effective contractual guarantee and pay some of that money off in 13 rather than having to account for it in 2015 and, in some cases, 2016. Chicago only did this in one case with Brandon Marshall who received an effective guarantee of just a little over $5 million. Chicago’s change of plans probably cost them at least one more down season before they can fix their mess.
Free Agency Failure
Chicago hit the trifecta when they looked past the poor drafting, changed course because of hope from the past, and began signing big contracts. Free agency is a great tool in the NFL to help enhance a core that is already in place and can even be useful to bridge a gap that exists in the roster while rebuilding, provided a team doesn’t compromise their future by having contracts that lock a team in for multiple seasons.
Where free agency fails is when a team uses it to enhance a core that doesn’t really exist, which is what Chicago did in 2014. That approach often involves overpaying talent because you feel they are absolutely needed to make that playoff push and you will deal later with the consequences. Chicago began that process right as the 2013 season ended.
The biggest move was re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears signed him to a very lucrative contract that over-guaranteed a flawed player who, at times, rubs both his teammates and fans the wrong way. The contract effectively locked him in for three years on the team. They surprisingly paid a very hefty price to retain veteran Tim Jennings with two years worth of guarantees. At Jennings’ age he should have cost millions less and, at the most, one year of guarantees. They also re-signed kicker Robbie Gould and extended Brandon Marshall.
They grossly overpaid defensive end Lamarr Houston, more of a run defender, as if he was a higher end pass rusher and then went off the deep end by signing Jared Allen to a contract with $15.5 million in guarantees. Allen had sat for nearly a month in free agency with limited interest. This was very different than the situation involving released players DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers who were signed within days of being released. The Bears granted Allen the same status despite the fact that 31 other teams were not doing the same.
Because the Bears tried to limit the signing bonus money in most of their contracts it left them with a roster of have and have nots. Because the drafts were such a bust the roster was instead filled with hang on talent from around the NFL, mainly players who qualified for minimum salaries. Again it was a lack of truly evaluating what was on the team as their middle class of the roster needed to be rebuilt to compensate for the poor drafts. As the high end players all failed, the rest of the roster was exposed.
The Bears have almost turned themselves into the Raiders of a few year ago because they failed in all three aspects of roster management. At best they are in a similar spot as the 2013 Jets, who ripped apart a veteran roster filled with failed draft classes in an effort to rebuild. These rebuilds are never easy. The Raiders are still working on improving and things got so bad for the Jets in 2014 when the bad drafting continued that the Jets decided to rebuild their team, at least in the short term, through free agency.
The Bears will have the cap room next season to hit free agency in a big way as they continue to gut their roster, but they need to be careful with how they approach it. Getting into long term deals with a team this barren is going to prolong the pain for the team. They are best off treating things as they did in 2013 where you bring in some professional talent to help the team be respectable while the draft picks develop, but not the type of talent that clogs the cap for too long.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.