By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Think back to this time a year ago.
You wanted nothing to do with the Chicago Bears, who had so disappointed you, so disgusted you with incompetence that you just needed to give them the silent treatment for a while.
Now think about how you feel today about the Bears. That frustration from January 2015 isn’t there. The team that lost to the Detroit Lions on Sunday to wrap up a 1-7 campaign at Soldier Field might be the least bothersome 6-10 Bears team of your lifetime, because there’s an understanding of structure and of grownups running the show. Better days are ahead, and your expectations for this season were nothing more than to not be embarrassed anyway.
The reality check of it all is the attrition that comes at the end of every pro sports season, but this more than others seems especially poignant. As this team progresses under coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace, faces under the masks will change, particularly if they’re products of a prior regime. But you gotta let go if you want to get better.
The odds are Matt Forte has played his last game as a Bear. He’ll leave Chicago as the franchise’s best running back since Walter Payton. More importantly, he will leave a gaping hole in the collective professionalism of the franchise.
“If this was the last game that I play in Soldier Field, I didn’t want to leave without telling the fans that I appreciate them in person,” Forte said after high-fiving some fans before exiting the field.
If the NFL could create a player in a lab with its best team of scientists and PR reps, it would end up with Forte. He’s productive, a pro’s pro and never controversial off the field or in front of a microphone.
“It’s hard to explain how much I learned from him,” said rookie Jeremy Langford, who presumably will grab the reins if Forte is not re-signed. “I’ve learned a lot on how to be a professional, how to compete every game– in it or not – and how to finish, just like he did today.”
On a different side of the ball and a different side of our hearts, we’ve also likely seen the last Bears game from linebacker Shea McClellin. Perhaps no player defined the lingering futility of the Phil Emery era inherited by Pace. McClellin’s a helluva nice guy who was misdrafted and despite position changes could never overcome a league that overmatched him. There was never a complaint out of McClellin, never an attitude — but also never the talent that warranted a first-round draft pick. The goat of the defense that scuffled in recent years will be no more.
Less certain futures lay with veterans of productivity Martellus Bennett and Robbie Gould. Never shy about speaking his mind, Bennett had a salty relationship with his bosses this year both over wanting more money and more balls thrown his way. His uncharacteristically underproductive season ended unceremoniously on Dec. 8 when he was placed on injured reserve, further allowing fellow tight end Zach Miller to show his worth.
While Bennett’s still one of the better players at the position, the vibe around Halas Hall is that the relationship with him has run its course. With one year left on his current deal, he could be traded, and it doesn’t cost much to cut him otherwise. His soundbites would be missed for sure, and practices and postgames would be a bit less unfiltered without the Black Unicorn.
Gould is just a kicker — that should be the logical response to his potential cutting after a season in which he broke his own franchise record for field goals made in a season while also missing crucial kicks in losses to San Francisco and Washington. He’s finished two straight seasons now below his career field-goal percentage and — maybe never being able to live down a quote about feeding his family — is owed $3 million each of the next two years, with $500,000 roster bonuses each, per spotrac.com.
But Gould has been more than just a kicker. He’s the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. He’s the longest-tenured active Bear. The team’s field goal situation has been an afterthought for a decade because of his prior reliability.
This is a cruel league, though. Which brings us to the now-annual question — what will become of quarterback Jay Cutler?
2015 yielded his best season quarterback rating of his career. The interceptions were down (even with the three in Week 17 that weren’t really his fault), the poor decisions fewer and the pocket presence impressive. That’s not enough for most Bears fans, though. Cutler will always be the bane of meatballs’ existence, no matter how much logic dictates this team has it better at quarterback than most franchises.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be a head coach elsewhere in 2016, and it’s worrisome to think of Cutler playing under another offensive coordinator, especially after being so impressive in 2015. Yet with a healthy Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White and whomever else is added this offseason, it stands to reason that the guy who will turn 33 will progress before he regresses.
While it’s possible Pace shops Cutler prior to a quarterback-heavy draft, he stands the slimmest chance of a change of address of the players named here. Which is probably better for the Bears than most fans think.
The 2016 Bears will be different, both in look from 2015 and definitely, thankfully, in feel from recent years. Again, shiver at the status of last January. This otherwise inconsequential end to a season doesn’t taste so sour.
And a year from today you’ll probably not miss the departed. Because this is progress.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.