By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — As he reflected back on this difficult season and envisioned how it all could change, Bears guard Kyle Long’s eyes went wide.
He looked toward reporters with conviction in his face.
“I want to go to the playoffs,” Long said Monday as teammates cleaned out of Halas Hall. “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?”
Chicago would love to see that day once again. First comes a critical assessment of the standard this organization has reached. The Bears have become one of the worst franchises in football over the last three years. They can only hope it’s a temporary state of affairs.
On Monday, Long removed himself from a scooter and sat in front of his locker to speak with reporters. His outstretched right right foot was in a cast as his broken ankle recovers from surgery more than a month ago. It will be removed on Jan. 25, when he can walk for the first time since being helped off the field in Tampa Bay in November after his ankle was rolled up. One day later, Long is expected to have surgery to repair a torn labrum.
He isn’t wasting any time trying to get back on the field. Long was willing to play through the shoulder pain. He hates missing football and has admittedly been “stircrazy” doing nothing but recovering. Watching the Bears limp to the finish line was challenging, too.
Speaking a day removed from the finalization of 3-13 — the Bears’ worst mark ever in a 16-game slate — Long pleaded for the playoffs in franchise’s future. He recalled how the city reacted in his rookie season of 2013 when the Bears were on the verge of the postseason. They fell one Aaron Rodgers throw away from making it in.
Long doesn’t really know what it’s like when Chicago is cheering on a winner. The city becomes a union of strangers thrilled for the arrival of each Sunday. It thrives off the victories. Recently, it’s been demoralized by the pile of losses. The Bears are 9-23 since John Fox arrived as head coach in January 2015.
“It was all bad,” linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “I’m glad we’re out of 2016.”
Inside that locker room that was cleared out Monday, there’s an angry team. No, players weren’t yelling like Brandon Marshall two years ago. Frankly, most just seemed dumbfounded 19 players on injured reserve was even possible, relieved it’s all over. McPhee is right, it was all bad for the Bears.
Finally, this lost, listless season is done. It couldn’t have ended soon enough. This was one of the worst years the Bears have ever endured. Those who are returning like Long and McPhee must take ownership of bringing the organization better ahead. They need to hit this offseason ticked off.
Team chairman George McCaskey has the final say on Fox’s future, but it seems he’ll return. Staff changes could follow for Fox, who may be forced to make decisions on coordinators Dowell Loggains and Vic Fangio. On Wednesday, Fox and general manager Ryan Pace will meet the media and wrap up this season. Then, it’s all done.
Perhaps this 2016 campaign will be looked upon years later as the last season of a dark era in the Bears’ rich history. Some pieces are in place for this team to contend in 2017, though critical decisions lie ahead that could alter the direction. Pace has to get this offseason right, starting with the call at quarterback. But first comes assessing the carnage of 2016.
The Bears have joined the company of the Browns and the Jaguars, the bottom dwellers of this league. In three straight years of last-place division finishes, they have faded into football’s abyss. Such a dramatic fall must be considered unacceptable for a proud organization. It certainly is in that locker room.
“Nobody has a crystal ball, so they can take their opinion and do what I want them to do with it,” Long said. “But we’re the Bears. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep fighting. It’s not in my blood to quit. It’s not in the blood of the guys around me to quit. We’re here. Soldier Field will still be standing. We’ll still have games next year. So we’ll be showing up to play in those.”
Changes are coming this offseason. After revamping the roster these past two years, Pace and the Bears should be looking to add through the free-agent market in addition to the draft. It was clear this season that young players like Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd and Cameron Meredith can join veterans in making an impact. But more is needed.
The Bears’ brass will spend the rest of this week evaluating the embarrassment of 3-13, then go right back to work. They want a playoff game in Chicago, too. Everyone in the organization — from McCaskey, Pace and Fox to Long, McPhee and the 53rd man on the roster — must be dedicated to bringing the organization back up from the bottom.
After all, Chicago is something special when the Bears are winning.
“These are things that when I lay my head on the pillow and I think about it, it keeps me up pretty late,” Long said. “That’s what’s going to get me through this process, because I know I’ll be able to run through that tunnel again.”