Following a 6-10 campaign in 2015, the Chicago Bears took a step in the wrong direction this season.
They finished 3-13 in the second year under John Fox and his coaching staff. It was the first time since 1969 the Bears lost 13 games in a single season.
It’s not just one particular problem that plagued the Bears but instead a few issues that ultimately doomed their season.
The biggest factor was almost certainly the injury bug. Chicago had a total of 19 players reach Injured Reserve this season, accounting for $66 million in salary, which was by far the most in the NFL.
“I mean, obviously, it wasn’t [good],” G Kyle Long said. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was in the mid to high teens of guys that were out. I think eight or nine guys were starters and five or six of those guys were potential Pro Bowlers.”
The quarterbacks, offensive and defensive lines, wide receivers and linebackers all saw significant injuries this year. Chicago had three different QBs start games in 2016, with four seeing playing time. That’s not easy for any NFL team overcome and makes it very difficult to win games, as was clear all season.
Without a solid starter, the Bears couldn't find any consistency on offense and finished the year averaging 17.4 points per game, which was tied with the Houston Texans for 29th worst in the NFL.
As a team, Chicago had a point differential of minus-120, which ranked 28th in the league.
QB Brian Hoyer took over in Week 3 after starter Jay Cutler suffered a thumb injury. Hoyer didn’t throw an interception in his five starts but the Bears struggled to sustain drives and find the end zone, going just 1-4 with him under center.
Despite those struggles, Hoyer believes some players made the most of their chances when called upon to fill holes due to injury.
“I think guys also took advantage of their opportunities,” Hoyer said. “You look at a guy like Cameron Meredith. I mean, to have the year he had, emerged from that group when he had that opportunity. Kevin White, and really talking about Kevin seeing him here today, he was really starting to emerge, too. So you had some young guys who were taking advantage of opportunities. A guy like Cody Whitehair did a great job. Obviously Jordan Howard.”
Bears 2015 first-round pick, Kevin White, missed 12 games in 2016 just a year after he missed all of the 2015 season with a similar leg injury.
White now begins another long road back to being healthy.
“It’s frustrating,” White said. “Didn’t think I would be out this year, obviously. Did everything I could in the offseason. Stayed here, trained, worked my butt off, did everything I thought I could. It’s just unfortunate, but it’s the name of the game. Just got to fight back and stay patient and mentally stay tough.”
While Chicago struggled to maintain consistency on offense, the defensive side of the ball failed to execute in a key area of the game. The Bears finished the season with just 11 takeaways, including a stretch in which they forced just one turnover in their final three games of the year.
All three resulted in losses.
For the season, Chicago finished with a turnover differential of minus-20, which was tied for dead last in the NFL with the New York Jets. That’s an alarming stat for a coaching staff that has preached the importance of forcing turnovers.
The 11 takeaways were a franchise worst in 2016, beating out the previous record of 17, which was set in 2015. Over the last two seasons combined, Chicago has forced a total of 28 turnovers. In two season under former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the Bears forced 52 turnovers.
Yet players have high hopes that things will change for the better under current DC Vic Fangio.
“It's very important [to have Fangio],” ILB Jerrell Freeman said. “Vic's always had a top defense, even with the guys that were just coming in, we were rotating guys in, getting people off the streets, he was able to get them in and get them up to speed and yeah, personally I like playing in the defense.”
The Bears didn't have the depth to overcome the egregious number of injuries this year but the lack of discipline is something that can be changed going forward.
Chicago finished tied for 11th with 110 penalties accepted against them this season.
Many times, Bears drives stalled due to offensive penalties. But it wasn’t just the offense. The defense led the league in roughing the passer penalties with seven in 2016.
For a team that wants to crawl out of the basement of the NFL, cleaning up penalties and creating turnovers, while also taking advantage of opportunities in the red zone, are three areas that must be cleaned up next year.
“We’ve got to find consistency man,” Freeman said. “That’s the mark of a great player and a great team. Just being consistent. We’ve got to do that. We can’t give up big plays.”