The Chicago Bears finished a franchise-worst 3-13 in 2016, a year in which many expected the team to take a substantial step forward.
Instead, the Bears took four steps backward and will now try to reboot this off-season, again, and create a palatable on-field product next year.
That's obviously easier said than done but it helps to have a number of young players upon whom GM Ryan Pace can build going into 2017.
One of those first-year players is RB Jordan Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,313) his rookie season.
"I just read Jordan Howard’s No. 2 in the league in rushing," G Kyle Long said today. "And you have to run the ball to win in the NFL, so I’d say, Jordan Howard is kind of the hare out their in front of us leading the pack there, which you can do from a personal standpoint, because you can see he wills himself to get four or five extra yards every time he’s got the ball.
"I just think we have such — I’ve heard the young thing for so long, and I’m so tired of all the talk. Talking is not gonna get us anything, but we've got young guys who can play. So I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’m looking forward to getting healthy so I can stop talking and start playing. That’s something I’m looking forward to."
Along with Howard, fellow youngsters LB Nick Kwiatkoski, WR Cameron Meredith, OLB Leonard Floyd and C Cody Whitehair also showed great promise for the future.
Meredith finished with a team-high 66 catches for 888 yards and 4 TDs, despite being a healthy scratch the first two weeks of the season.
“Even when I was here in OTAs and training camp you saw the flashes [in Meredith]," QB Brian Hoyer said. "Then you talk about a guy taking advantage of an opportunity to keep getting better and better, that is what he did. He really impressed me. To come as far as he came throughout a season was really impressive.”
Yet Meredith and a number of other rookies would have never seen the field had it not been for the plethora of injuries that befell the team this season. With a league-high 19 players and $66 million on IR, the Bears believe improved health should result in an improved record.
"I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was in the mid to high teens of guys that were out," said Long. "I think eight or nine guys were starters and five or six of those guys were potential Pro Bowlers. You’re looking at an entire roster that’s [banged up].
"But our guys come to play."
Despite winning just three games this year, the Bears stayed competitive in almost every contest, yet they couldn't find a way to pull out victories. For many players, that's a mindset deficiency that must be overcome.
“We've just got to understand as professionals we just don't come in just to compete. We come in and get paid to win. And that’s what this business is, it’s based off winning," OLB Pernell McPhee said. "We just got to create that mindset and sell out every play because that’s what it’s about, creating a mindset of winning and knowing how you win is about selling out every play.”
"You've gotta be better, 3-13 is not acceptable," ILB Jerrell Freeman said. "It's not acceptable to anybody in this room and, if it is, they don't need to be in this room. We don't need anybody out here going through the motions and just riding along like OK, I'm in the NFL, I gotta roll. You might be a one-star, but if you don't have a mentality like a five-star and want to get out there and train like it and study like it, you don't need to be here."
Better health and a shift in locker-room culture will be key to success in both the short- and long-term, but talent infusion is a must, which falls on GM Ryan Pace this upcoming off-season.
That said, Pro Bowl WR Alshon Jeffery, whose future with the team is nebulous at best, believes the Bears are on the doorstep to greatness.
"We’re the Chicago Bears," said Jeffery. "We’re just like the [New England Patriots], the only difference is just a few plays here and there. We went to New England and practiced. They know. If you were there and watched the practices, they know."
If Jeffery is right and the Bears improve dramatically next season, then the playoffs will be a reality for the first time since 2010. A postseason appearance is something Long, and Bears fans, want desperately.
"I just know what this city’s like when the Bears win," said Long. "I had a taste of it my rookie year and I sniffed the playoffs and we lost by a close margin there. I want to get back to that. I want to go to the playoffs. I want to have 10 wins before we get to the playoffs and have an opportunity to have home-field advantage. A frickin’ playoff game in Chicago — can you imagine that?"null