By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – Passion flowed through Bears receiver Marc Mariani as he stood before the assembled media Sunday.
The Bears had just lost 24-20 to the Lions, ending their season at 6-10 and the Soldier Field slate at 1-7, and he was hurting. Yet, Mariani was also beaming with pride, too. The team’s final record isn’t a reflection of the work, the fight and the heart showed this season – something Mariani saw every day at Halas Hall.
“The group that we have, it’s special,” Mariani said. “We fight and we scratch and we work our asses off every day.”
Soldier Field likely didn’t boast many – maybe any – Mariani jerseys in the stands among a crowd that had 10,570 unused tickets. Yet, Mariani’s a front man for this team, in a way – the kind of player who fought and brought the Bears some success in 2015. More importantly, he and so many others laid the foundation for better days ahead.
Year 1 for coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace in Chicago can be considered a success, perhaps not in record but because of the new culture instilled. The Bears moved past the ugliness of Marc Trestman’s tumultuous tenure, the disruptive influences like Brandon Marshall and worked collectively toward something better.
“I’m very, very proud of them – their effort, their spirit,” Fox said in an assessment of his first season. “They hung together. We went through a lot, which are pretty good building blocks for foundations to move forward.
“Hang with us. We’re going to get there. There will be much better days to come.”
The Bears’ long-term plan is what mattered the most this season, even after an 0-3 start and brief hopes of a playoff berth. They had a few gutsy wins and several more gut-wrenching losses, finishing one game better than 2014. But the overall progress should make this considered a success of sorts, because the Bears are in a much better place for 2016 than a year ago when Fox was still coaching the Broncos.
Gone were the negative influences that tore apart the Bears in 2014. Now, what the Bears need more than anything is greater team talent.
This group, despite its shortcomings, pushed until the end.
“Being a starter on both teams, last year and this year, I can tell you that this is a different team,” Bears tackle Kyle Long said. “Although the record doesn’t reflect that, and I’ve said it a million times, I’ll go to fight with this group any day of the week.”
Added quarterback Jay Cutler: “They didn’t give up. They fought hard until the very end.”
Pace will be counted on to guide this ship ahead. The Bears have decisions to make all across the roster, with so many voids to fill. For all the heart of this team, ultimately, it just wasn’t good. Playoff hopes were real at one point, but this team wasn’t worthy, at least not yet.
However, the collective spirit of these Bears is something that will stay in the locker room throughout Fox’s tenure. That is the foundation set by this 2015 group. Pace will be tasked with keeping that steady as he identifies greater talent.
“I see nothing but upside, a lot of potential,” Mariani said. “I think Coach Fox and Pace have this thing moving in the right direction. I’d be excited — if I was a Bears fan — for the future.”
In the end, and it was a bitter one, the 2015 Bears will largely be remembered for going 6-10. As Fox so often says, this is a results-based business. But inside that locker room, the sentiments are different.
Maybe a Mariani, a Rob Housler, a Greg Scruggs or John Timu isn’t a part of the grand plan in Chicago, but they can each take pride in building for the Bears’ future.
“Have faith – please have faith in us,” Mariani said. “We’re going to be playing longer, we’re going to turn it around quick. We’re going to put in the work, we’re going to put ion the time. Every man in this building that is honored to come back next year, I promise it’ll change quick.”
Years down the road, and perhaps sooner than one would think, the 2015 team could be viewed as the start of something special in Chicago. Maybe this was just the beginning for the Bears.