Chicago Bears

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

For 2017 Bears, more at stake than just win total

The release of the Bears’ schedule is something of secondary news, since the opponents for every team are set no later than the final game of the final Sunday. For that matter, 14 of every team’s 16 games are known years in advance simply because of the divisional rotation the NFL uses.

No, the overarching question for the Bears after their 6-10 and 3-13 seasons under John Fox is what kind of results from that schedule are needed for Fox to see year four as a head coach in Chicago. The schedule coming out didn’t really change that situation; the Bears were always going to play Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Green Bay sometime.

The same macro-question might be said of GM Ryan Pace’s fate. But nothing has indicated that Pace is standing at the brink of the abyss; the organization believes Pace has drafted well, in addition to making a real effort at trying to make a go of it with Jay Cutler as quarterback while there were millions in guaranteed money.

For that matter, so have Fox and his staff, who inherited Cutler and a talent cupboard with some very empty shelves.

But none of this is really about Cutler, who got his expected release earlier this offseason. It’s about whether senior team management likes what it is seeing, and while the records have been disasters, positives were seen “because we’re developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys,” Chairman George McCaskey said during the recent owners meetings. And frankly, isn’t that what most of BearNation wants, too?

So as far as McCaskey is concerned – and he specifically referred to the rookie impacts of Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard – Fox and his staff are getting Pace’s draft picks up and running, or at least the healthy ones.

If the Bears win seven or eight games this season, the win total by itself will represent some sort of progress over seasons of six and three wins. And folding the schedule into this: The early season with its Atlanta-Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh-Green Bay start is a crucible. But of the Bears’ final six opponents, only one (Detroit 9-7) had a winning record in 2016.

Meaning: Even with an anticipated rough start, with a still-jelling roster against some of the NFL’s best, the Bears could propel Fox into a clear year four with a finishing kick.

The reality is that no one really has a fix on what the mindset of McCaskey (and the Board) will be as the season plays out. Recent history has defined chaos and impulsiveness at more than one level.

The Bears opened 7-3 in 2011, Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the season unraveled behind Caleb Hanie. The result was McCaskey firing GM Jerry Angelo for an 8-8 season that came the year after falling a touchdown short of an NFC championship and trip to a Super Bowl.

Lovie Smith started 7-1 the year after the Angelo firing, limped to a 10-6 playoff miss and was fired by then-GM Phil Emery, who brought in Marc Trestman. Trestman started his second season 2-1 on the strength of two road wins, only to see the season and the entire football operation blow apart in a year many predicted would see a Bears next-step after Trestman’s 8-8 first season.

But McCaskey and the organization want their coach and GM to succeed, and obviously want an end to the kind of turnover that both results from and perpetuates failure. The Bears' First Family does worry about fan apathy and anger, but senior management also knows that fan loyalty reignites quickly; rebounds from abysmal times under Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron didn’t take long, just some wins, baby.

Anyone who’s observed the Bears for any length of time knows that a modest recovery in ’17 would do it. If the Bears win, say, seven games, one or two of those would likely have been “good” wins. It does happen; one of the Bears’ three ’16 wins was over playoff-bound Detroit; in ’15 they beat Kansas City and Green Bay, both playoff teams. What if the ’17 Bears stumble in at 6-10 but beat the Packers in Green Bay, the Lions in Soldier Field and one of the first three opponents on the schedule?

All of which is hypothetical/speculative/theoretical/all of the above. But the ’17 season will contain its own internal intrigue, beyond the schedule.

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Markus Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and wasn’t on the Bears’ injury report Thursday, signaling that the 5-foot-11, 189 pound speedster will make his Bears debut Sunday against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s not the solution for the Bears’ offense, but he could be part of it. 

For an offense that’s woefully lacked someone who can reliably stretch the field, Wheaton can at least provide the threat of going deep. Two years ago, while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wheaton averaged 17 yards per reception. Mike Glennon’s longest completion this year went for 22 yards. 

“It definitely adds another dimension,” Glennon said. “It’ll be great having Markus back.”

But Wheaton only played in three games last season (four catches, 51 yards) and, at his best, averaged 48 catches, 696 yards and four touchdowns a year from 2014-2015. Is it fair to expect Wheaton to be a big part of the Bears' offensive solution given he hasn't played much recently, and was limited to only a handful of reps in training camp and preseason practices due to a pair of freak ailments?

Maybe not, but with the Bears 0-2, he's the best hope they have at a skill position. 

Wheaton needed an emergency appendectomy the first weekend the Bears were in Bourbonnais — “I thought I had to poop,” Wheaton said, maybe providing too much information, before realizing the excruiating pain in which he was in was something worse. Shortly after returning to the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University, Wheaton fractured his pinkie finger in gruesome fashion (he said the bone was sticking out) when he was awkwardly grabbed while trying to catch a pass. 

That Wheaton broke a finger wasn’t only significant for his ability to catch passes. Consider what his former quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger — had to say about what makes Wheaton an effective deep threat:

“He’s got a very good ability of using his hands,” Roethlisberger said. “When you’re trying to stretch the field, you’ve gotta have some little techniques to help you get open because DBs can run as much as receivers can. So you gotta be able to use your hands to swim, kinda, get some swiping, get the hands off, I thought that he really had some good technique when it came to the deep ball and getting away from DBs.”

Roethlisberger and Wheaton shared a good rapport in Pittsburgh, with the quarterback clearly communicating to the receiver what he expected timing-wise in his routes. It’s been a challenge to develop something similar with Glennon given the lack of practice time, but Wheaton said putting in extra work after practice has helped. 

If Wheaton and Glennon can get on the same page, perhaps that can lead to at least some deep ball attempts. The Bears have to find a way to prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box and focusing on stopping Jordan Howard, who only has 59 yards on 22 carries this year. 

“We're going to face overpopulated boxes, we know that,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “There's going to be seven, eight guys in the box every time and we have to execute better and it comes down to that.”

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only three of Glennon’s 85 pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The only completion of those was Sunday’s garbage-time touchdown to Deonte Thompson, which was caught near the back of the end zone. 

The threat of Wheaton going deep won’t be enough, though. Glennon still has prove he can complete those deep balls — the last time he completed a pass of 25 or more yards was on Nov. 2, 2014 (though he’s only attempted 96 passes since that date). 

But Wheaton feels ready to go and is confident he can do his job — which, in turn, could, in a best-case scenario, help his other 10 teammates on offense do their jobs, too. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wheaton said. “I’m excited and hopefully this is the week.”

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

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AP

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

Count Kris Bryant among the Chicagoans who are calling for Mitch Trubisky to start at quarterback for the Bears.

OK, that may be a bit extreme as Bryant simply said he would supporting giving Trubisky a "shot", but still:

After a rough game for incumbent starting QB Mike Glennon last week, most of Chicago has been clamoring for the No. 2 overall pick to get some snaps under center.

Why wouldn't the crown prince of Chicago baseball get in on the noise?