The 2014 Bears will get into their schedule that actually matters in a matter of a few days. It is not exactly the same for the Bears as it was when the league released it, and may not be exactly as it has been perceived, for that matter.
A few over-thoughts on what the Bears are facing:
First, the popular “strength of schedule” is a vague measure, conveniently calculated based on combined won-lost records of opponents. The preference here is to reference the number of games against difficult opponents, i.e., playoff teams, since combined records can be skewed by aberrant teams like an 0-16 Lions team. Better to judge based on how many weeks will be against teams that know how to win and actually do.
On that basis, the 2014 schedule is arguably slightly easier than last year’s. The Bears have six games against teams making last year’s playoffs (Green Bay twice, San Francisco, Carolina, New England and New Orleans). The slate is front-loaded with four of those in the first eight games and three of those on the road.
The 2013 schedule had seven games against teams making the previous year’s postseason (Green Bay and Minnesota twice each, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Washington).
More specifically, the 2014 schedule has seen some unfortunate and unseemly changes affecting some of the top teams on the schedule.
Game 2 @ San Francisco 49ers, Sept. 14
The team that has reached three straight NFC Championship games and advanced to one Super Bowl lost one of its defensive linchpins when rush-linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended for nine games by the NFL for an incidents violating the league’s personal-conduct and substance policies. But there’s more.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman was placed on the team’s PUP list while he recovers from offseason surgery to repair torn ACL and MCL suffered in the NFC Championship loss to Seattle. Bowman will miss at least the first six games.
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The latest issue was the arrest of defensive tackle Ray McDonald on domestic violence charges.
NFL sources also told CSNChicago.com that coach Jim Harbaugh’s strained relationship with the front office is not the biggest internal problem there. Harbaugh has alienated significant sectors of the locker room, which may only qualify as an intangible now, but if matters decline on the field, underlying tensions can rapidly escalate.
Game 3 @ New York Jets, Sept. 22
After reaching consecutive AFC Championship games in Rex Ryan’s first two years (2009-10), the Jets have not won more than 10 games nor reached the playoffs in the last three. The beauty of the situation, for Jets opponents, is that the Jets continue to go through quarterback turmoil, sticking with Geno Smith (12 TD passes, 21 INT’s as a rookie in 2013) but also bringing in Michael Vick to both mentor and motivate Smith. The situation caused factions in the locker room, perhaps the single greatest distraction for a team that already has a coach who is a borderline lame duck in a playoffs-or-fired year.
Game 5 @ Carolina Panthers, Oct. 5
Quarterback Cam Newton suffered a hairline rib fracture on Aug. 22 to go with an offseason ankle injury. He has declared that he will play in the Sept. 7 opener but the Panthers have that and three other games, including successive games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, before the Bears arrive.
More concerning, for multiple reasons, is the case of Greg Hardy. The All-Pro defensive end was found guilty in a domestic-violence case, is appealing the verdict but the NFL has a guilty finding in hand at a time when Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league have declared plans for harsher penalties for violators in the wake of outrage over the two-game suspension meted out to Baltimore running back Ray Rice.
Possibilities of a suspension for Hardy range as long as six games, the proposed penalty for first-time offenses. It’s also possible and Hardy and the Panthers will evade any punishment this year, if the appeal does not come up for jury trial until next year. Suspensions are not dependent upon a guilty verdict in a criminal trial, which can be avoided for reasons having nothing to do with whether or not the offense actually occurred. Waiting for a final criminal verdict serves as a means of holding off any action by the organization or the NFL.
Games 4, 9 vs Green Bay Packers, Sept. 28, Nov. 9
Green Bay already has lost Pro Bowl nose tackle B.J. Raji for the season with a biceps injury suffered in the third preseason game. Raji hasn’t always been the Pro Bowl run stopper that he was in 2010-2011.
Losing Raji completes a makeover of the Green Bay down-three, which will bear almost no resemblance of the jumbo front that coordinator Dom Capers has fielded in recent seasons. The Packers did not re-sign Johnny Jolly (325 pounds) or Ryan Pickett (340) and now are without Raji (337). Julius Peppers (283) does upsize the “4” in the Green Bay “3-4,” but the starting front three will average 303.