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.

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

With the 2017 NFL schedule officially released, a look at a handful of games that are must-watch events or that could determine playoff scenarios in January of 2018:

Thursday, Sept. 7: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

The defending champs open their title defense with a Chiefs team that went 12-4 and won the AFC West last year. Kansas City had the AFC’s second-highest point differential at +78, but that was less than half of New England’s (+191) in 2016. The last time these two teams played was in the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs, with New England winning that, 27-20. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

A week after opening the season in Chicago against the Bears, Atlanta will play its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday Night Football against a Green Bay side it crushed, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game in January. This could be an early battle for NFC supremacy or, at the least, an entertaining, high-scoring game. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos

Can Dak Prescott do it again? The Cowboys sophomore quarterback will face a tough schedule this year, headlined by this trip to Denver to face a team that had the NFL’s fourth-best scoring defense (18.6 PPG) and best passing defense (5.8 yards/attempt) last year. 

Monday, Oct. 2: Washington Redskins at Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City’s 18 interceptions tied for the most in the NFL last year, while Kirk Cousins threw for 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns. With Cousins likely to be on the open market after this season, he could set the tone for a rich contract with a strong performance against a top-level secondary in primetime here. 

[RELATED: NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch]

Sunday, Oct. 22: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

This is only the seventh regular season rematch between the previous season’s Super Bowl participants in NFL history, though they’ve been oddly common in recent years: Denver beat Carolina last year, and in 2014, Seattle won in overtime against Denver. 

Monday, Nov. 20: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks

The December Monday Night Football schedule is full of potential division-deciding matchups  (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, New England at Miami, Atlanta at Tampa Bay) and overall, this year’s Monday night slate is strong. But this Falcons-Seahawks matchup in late November carries plenty of intrigue. These two teams met in the 2016 regular season, with Seattle making a fourth quarter comeback to win, 26-24. 

Monday, Dec. 11: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins last year made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and if they have any lofty designs on unseating the Patriots in the AFC East, this could be the game that does it. Miami lost their home game against New England last year by 21 points.

Sunday, Dec. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders

Prescott against Derek Carr on Sunday Night Football, in what could be one of the last “big” games at Oakland Coliseum, should be one of the better cross-conference games of 2017. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s offseason haul was headlined by adding Alshon Jeffery to pair with Carson Wentz, which could be a dangerous combination in the NFC East. if Dallas were to fall back to earth, circle this season-ending game as one that perhaps could decide the division. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions

Green Bay ended last season at Ford Field, too, with their 31-24 win securing an NFC North title. If the division goes down to this game again, there’s some added intrigue given the Lions pulled T.J. Lang away from Green Bay in March with $19 million guaranteed — an awfully high price for a guard. 

NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch of 2017 schedule

NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch of 2017 schedule

John Fox’s tenure as Bears head coach began in 2015 with an opening run against the playoff elites of the NFC: Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle. Now, coming off two losing seasons with a franchise that has never retained a head coach after three straight sub-.500 years, the NFL has dealt Fox and the Bears an even more difficult start to the 2017 season.

The Bears have seven games this season against teams with winning 2016 records, and the NFL has put four of those in the first four weeks of a possible make-or-break season for Fox. New quarterback Mike Glennon is part of combined offensive and defensive lineups with as many as nine new starters over the 2016 opening day. They will be attempting to settle in against the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons (11-5), Glennon’s former team of Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7), the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) and the NFC North-winning Green Bay Packers (10-6). Tampa Bay, which missed last postseason by virtue of losing a tiebreaker with the Detroit Lions, and Green Bay are road games.

The Bears went 0-3 against that 2015 three-game Packers-Cardinals-Seahawks array. A win in any of the first four this season will be a significant upset in what will generally be forecast as a winless September.

For Glennon, Week 2 will be a matchup against his former team. It will not be particularly a grudge match – the Bucs made a strong effort to keep Glennon, but only as a backup to Jameis Winston.

“I had an opportunity to play,” Glennon said after he signed with the Bears. “I started 18 games there. Did some good things, and things I could work on as well. Right now, I’m just excited about my opportunity here with Chicago.” 

October holds no opponents coming off winning 2016’s and the Bears did beat Minnesota (8-8) in Chicago last season in Jay Cutler’s last winning start as a Bears quarterback. And they prevailed over the Baltimore Ravens (8-8) the last time the teams met (2013), albeit in Chicago, while this time it will be in Baltimore where the Bears have lost by double digits the only two times they have played there.

After that, the Nov. 5 weekend off.

The 3-13 mark for 2016 did not take the Bears completely out of prime-time consideration. Their game at Green Bay is on Thursday night Sept. 28, followed by the Minnesota game in Soldier Field on Mon., Oct. 9.

The release of 2017 schedules included setting exact dates and times for the Bears’ preseason (all times CST): Thurs. Aug. 10 vs. Denver, 7 p.m.; Sat. Aug. 19 at Arizona, 9 p.m.; Sun. Aug. 27 at Tennessee, noon; and Thurs. Aug. 31 vs. Cleveland, 7 p.m.