On the current roster, the Chicago Bears have only a handful of players with playoff experience. The Bears have not made the playoffs since 2010, so for those players drafted in 2011 or beyond who are still on the roster, all they know of the postseason is what they've seen on television. And from that 2010 playoff team, only Jay Cutler and Robbie Gould are still playing in Chicago.
Former GM Phil Emery didn't put a lot of value in postseason experience during free agency. His first big moves were trading for Brandon Marshall and signing Lamarr Houston, neither of whom have ever been to the playoffs. He also signed Willie Young, who played in one playoff game as a backup in his four years before coming to Chicago.
Alternately, current GM Ryan Pace has put a premium on acquiring veterans who have had success in the past. His big free-agent splash last year was Pernell McPhee, who played in the postseason in three of his four years with the Ravens. Eddie Royal has played in four playoff games. Omar Bolden has played in eight playoff games, including two Super Bowls. Mitch Unrein has been to a Super Bowl. Manny Ramirez has played in seven playoff games, including a Super Bowl. Ted Larsen has played in three postseason contests, including last year's NFC Championship game. Akiem Hicks has four games of playoff experience, including last season's AFC Championship.
In essence, every big-name free agent Pace has signed comes from a winning organization with playoff experience.
The same is true for the club's newest inside linebacker pairing: Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Trevathan has played in seven playoff games, including two Super Bowls, and is coming off a championship season with the Broncos. Freeman has played in six postseason contests, including the AFC Championship game two years ago.
Trevathan and Freeman come from winning football teams and carry with them the mighty task of changing the culture of a locker room where nearly 90 percent of the roster knows nothing of the postseason.
"I believe [we're changing the culture]," Freeman told Bear Report. "You understand what it takes and know what it takes to win. I think that culture, me bringing that, [Coach John] Fox already brought that, he’s won pretty much everywhere. He’s revamped teams and that’s another reason why I came because I know that he’s always been a part of successful teams and successful organizations. You’ve got to bring that, you’ve got to know what it takes to continuously do that and not fall back doing things because ‘I know I can get away with this, I can get away with that.’ You’ve got to keep the pedal down."
Trevathan doesn't believe revamping the locker room will be a lengthy process. For him, it's more about feeding off that desire to win, which he sees in his teammates.
"I’ve been through [Super Bowls] two times, one time I lost, but to win it’s a different feeling. You want that feeling every year," Trevathan said. "It’s hard work but after being around some of the guys I was around, like Peyton [Manning] and DeMarcus [Ware], I know what it takes. The attitude has got to spread like wildfire. These guys have got to be hungry. They are. I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys. We’ve just got to keep pushing it and keep having great days."
Anyone paying attention to Freeman's career knows he's not in this for the money. The 30-year-old had to toil for four seasons in the CFL before finally breaking into the NFL in 2012.
"I don’t think anybody’s taken a path that I’ve taken to get here," Freeman said. "That grind. It’s just the type of player I am. You can see it on the field. I play every play like it’s my last one. Just running around. I take pride in just being that guy that worked from the ground all the way up. I’m still learning, still doing a lot of things, getting better. Getting much better. I’m liking that."
The belief at Halas Hall is that the presence of Freeman and Trevathan, working in tandem as the co-leaders of coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, can help foster a winning attitude, one that can wipe clean the losing mentality of a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs in half a decade.
If that's all they do, then they were worthy investments. Yet Trevathan and Freeman, who were the top two inside linebackers on the open market this off-season, are also expected to guide the defense on the field as well. To that end, they've already begun the process of building much-needed chemistry.
"We can do a lot of multiple things out there that you wouldn’t be able to get a bead on us," said Freeman. "It’s not like there’s one plugger in there and one athletic guy. There’s two athletic guys that can also plug and fill and do whatever we need to do as far as the running game, pass game, make plays on the ball."
Freeman has been a tackling machine in the NFL, averaging nearly 120 tackles the last four years. He plays a downhill brand of football, while Trevathan is the smaller, younger, quicker linebacker whose speed and agility are his greatest strengths. The Bears believe that dynamic will allow them to develop into a dominant ILB duo.
"We can feed off each other," Trevathan said. "I've seen him around the league and I like the way he plays. I know he played in Canada for a bit but I like his attitude and the way he hits the linemen and you know he hits fullbacks and he's just aggressive. That's what you want in a MIKE and a linebacker as well. He thinks he's faster than me but I doubt that. He's quick though and we're going to feed off that and we're definitely going to eat out here on this field."
The Bears last season deployed Shea McClellin and Christian Jones as the club's starting inside linebackers. Neither had any NFL experience at the position and both struggled mightily at the point of attack. As a result, McCellin was allowed to walk in free agency and Jones has shifted to outside linebacker.
So it's clear that Trevathan and Freeman represent a substantial upgrade in talent. That's welcome news for a city that prides itself on top-tier play from its inside linebackers. From Bill George to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, the history of dominant ILBs in Chicago is deep and impressive. With Trevathan and Freeman, there's no doubt that legacy will be upheld.
Yet more than that, their leadership and winning experience could have a collective influence on the entire locker room. Creating a mind set where losing is not acceptable, that's how you build championship teams. With Trevathan and Freeman, as well as nearly every free agent Pace has signed, that process has begun in earnest and the fruits of that labor should be reaped as early as this season.
"We work hard and we know what it takes. We’ve done been on both sides of it," Trevathan said. "Coming from a winning atmosphere, I hate losing, period. Even when I was losing, I hated it. I tried to give my best no matter what. To be here and to have a new start right here with a defense like this. I’m all about our attitude and the way we attack practice and go out there and put together great days. Attitude reflects leadership, man, and we’ve got some guys who are hungry. I can see it every day.
"You have to be a family both on and off the field. That’s my thing. I want to get the defense — I just got a house. I want them to come to my house. We can go out to eat. Build that family atmosphere. At the same time when we’re out here, we’re all working toward that one common goal, and that’s to be great and to win a championship. You have to be hungry. It’s hard to put together great days but great teams do it. You come in with that chip on your shoulder every day. Write it down, look yourself in the mirror, tell yourself what you want out of the day. Go out there and attack."