By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) In the event the Bears don’t coin a clever slogan for the upcoming season, I’m offering up one of my own: no excuses.
Dating all the way back to general manager Phil Emery’s introductory press conference, he was emphatic that the goal was to win championships. Plural. Last time I checked, it’s impossible to win a championship without making the playoffs.
The charter franchise of the NFL and its loyal, faithful and patient fan base that has made it the world’s 18h-most valuable sports team — just think how much higher on the list they would be if they actually owned their own stadium — should expect to make the playoffs more than once every four years, which has been the rate over the past 20 seasons. None of those five appearances have come under Emery’s watch.
To be clear and fair, Emery has taken significant measures to close the talent gap between the Bears and the top third of the NFL. Unlike the previous regime, it’s refreshing to know that the general manager views the team’s deficiencies through the same lens that close observers do.
It’s also fair to speculate how much further along the Bears would be in their improvement process if Emery had been granted complete autonomy to hire his own coaching staff instead of inheriting one upon accepting the job.
Alas, the recent history is what it is, and it’s time to deliver on promises made and offer no excuses if the team once again falls short.
Look at the success some of Emery’s NFC counterparts have had during their tenures. John Schneider (Seahawks) was hired in 2010 and has been in the playoffs three out of four seasons and won the Super Bowl in year four. Trent Baalke (49ers) was hired in 2011 and has been in the NFC Championship game every year and has one Super Bowl appearance. Emery’s most immediate challenger, Ted Thompson in Green Bay, has been in the playoffs six of the last seven seasons and won a Super Bowl in year six.
The Bears came close to a playoff appearance last season. However, had Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers not missed seven starts due to injury, chances are they would have been a more distant second-place finisher in the NFC North. Either way, by season’s end, Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses were crystal clear heading into the offseason, and it had ample financial resources at its disposal to fix the roster.
On an offense that ranked second in the league in points scored, maintaining continuity was key. As such, all 11 starters returned.
A franchise-defining decision was made when quarterback Jay Cutler was extended at a premium rate. Cutler’s guarantees for 2014 put him ahead of six of the last eight Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. When you think of the contract in those terms, Cutler must be held to a championship standard.
The Bears also extended the man who has caught 19 percent of Cutler’s career passes, Brandon Marshall. With a full complement of weapons and a full offseason for coach Marc Trestman to grow the Bears brand of football, the expectations should be an even crisper, more productive offense in 2014.
On a defense that ranked dead last in both run defense and sack production, an infusion of better talent and coaching to aide in personnel development was needed. Based on Emery’s offseason actions, he agreed.
The Bears prioritized their free agent dollars and early draft picks on defensive players and brought in defensive assistants with a combined 16 years of NFL coaching experience. They spent $35 million guaranteed to acquire three defensive linemen who have a combined 151 career sacks and a history of being stout against the run. When they were on the clock in round one of the draft, only five defensive players were off the board. Thus, these new acquisitions were targeted players.
When the final 53-man roster is determined, at most six players drafted by the previous regime could remain, which is down from 12 in 2013 and 18 in 2012. Only four projected starters — Lance Briggs, Roberto Garza, Stephen Paea and Charles Tillman — are in contract years.
Make no mistake about it, this is Emery’s roster.
The core of this team has been shaped by Emery’s vision and in year three of his plan, it must come to fruition.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin.