The Bears are not, perhaps, who we thought they were.
With no playoff appearances since 2010, three consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North and a franchise-worst 3-13 finish just last season, the expectations were not high for this team coming into the 2017 campaign, the third year of the John Fox Era on the lakefront.
But then the Bears, remade and restyled during a busy offseason, did what they did Sunday, coming within a handful of yards of beating the reigning NFC champions. They didn’t win, no, walking off the field with a 23-17 loss in their season-opening contest against those visiting Atlanta Falcons. But they were close.
Close, as tight end Zach Miller reminded reporters after the game, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Quarterback Mike Glennon looked practically disgusted when discussing the phrase “moral victory” at the podium. But the general consensus after the Bears’ surprising last-minute drive down to the six-yard line was that, hey, this is pretty good.
“Something we always talk about is that it’s a new year,” Glennon said. “At the same time, that team (the Falcons) is pretty much all back and was a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl. So there are definitely positives to take away from it. Nothing will replace a win, but I think we already know that we’re going to be competitive with everyone in the NFL.”
“We’re going to be a good football team — we are a good football team,” Miller said. “We need to execute down the line. Some plays we left out there, some things we can do better and clean up. But I’m proud of the way we stuck in it. There’s no such thing as a moral victory, but we have to bounce back.”
Glennon himself has been the lightning rod to end all lightning rods, as every new quarterback in this town always is. Signed prior to the team spending the No. 2 pick in the draft on Mitch Trubisky, Glennon — whose Sunday start was his first in nearly two years — has had fans, if not the rookie out of North Carolina, breathing down his neck waiting for any screw-up that will allow Trubisky to take over as the starter.
Through three quarters Sunday, Glennon didn’t do much to change hearts and minds, and Soldier Field was full of Bears fans in Trubisky jerseys who surely would’ve given you their thoughts on the subject. But the fourth quarter was a different story. The Falcons scored what seemed to be the game-sealing play, an 88-yard touchdown from Matt Ryan to Austin Hooper that put the visitors up 10. But the Bears surprisingly responded, ripping off a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a Glennon touchdown toss to new favorite target Tarik Cohen. After the Falcons boosted their lead to six with a field goal on the next drive, Glennon engineered the march down to the six-yard line. The failed four chances to win the game will get plenty of negative attention, of course, and the optics weren’t good with Glennon getting sacked on fourth and goal to bring the drama to a close.
But one thing’s certain: This is not what most people expected from Glennon and this Bears offense. Already without Cameron Meredith, the Bears lost Kevin White to a shoulder injury Sunday. Glennon was throwing the ball to Cohen and Jordan Howard and Kendall Wright and Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy. That’s hardly the pass-catching corps Ryan Pace envisioned when he assembled this roster. But Glennon made it work in the waning moments Sunday, turning in a performance that has to at least make fans think Glennon is capable even if he isn’t the dream candidate for the job.
“I thought the guys responded pretty well to him,” Fox said. “It wasn’t always smooth. Like all opening games, they aren’t oiled up really well. You have a lot of new people. In our case, we had our quarterback’s first time in the offense. I think he operated the team very well.”
“Business as usual,” Miller said. “From the first snap to the last snap, Mike was Mike. That’s Mike G. … You want to show people, ‘Listen, I’m very capable of doing this.’ But I don’t think the outside noise, you don’t want to let it affect you. Just carry on and do your job.”
The Bears, for their part, weren’t surprised. They’ve got confidence in themselves, as all teams and athletes do, especially at the outset of a new season. Glennon declared the secret to be out on Cohen, who dazzled with several fantastic plays and was a reliable and constant part of the action throughout. Miller said this is what Glennon can do.
Fox maybe summed his team’s attitude up the best, drawing an acceptable comparison, at least for Sunday, between his group and one that played in last season’s Super Bowl.
“What I told the team in the locker room is that is a really good football team we played today in the Atlanta Falcons,” he said. “I think right now we’re a pretty good football team.”
If close doesn’t count, shouldn’t we be looking at the only stat that matters? Yes, it’s true that the Bears are still 0-1, the same record they’d have if this were a 30-point blowout. And it’s also worth noting that these close-but-no-cigar near comebacks weren’t infrequent in recent seasons. Jay Cutler had them. Heck, Matt Barkley had them.
But being as close as they were, think about how different the feeling would be had the Bears won, had one of Glennon’s three passes to the goal line from six yards out landed in a receiver’s hands, had the Bears knocked off the defending conference champs.
“The storyline would be so much different, which is unfortunate,” Miller said. “I’m excited to get to next week, to keep on working, to keep grinding. I thought we were going to be a special football team from the get-go. I thought we could surprise some people. We had an opportunity to do that. That would’ve been great for us, for our organization, for our fans and our city. To knock off the NFC champs and damn-near world champions would’ve been a great start to our season.”
“I think we could easily be 1-0 standing up here right now,” Fox said. “I think the enthusiasm would be a little different.”
Expectations are constantly in flux, and the Bears’ have now changed. There wasn’t much expected of this team, but there might be something now as they head out to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next weekend. They’ll likely change again after that game.
But in the immediate, there’s a question to ask: What should be expected of the Bears moving forward? Because in the opposite of Dennis Green’s famous conclusion, it turns out the Bears might not be who we thought they were.