Bears’ recipe for disaster: tight budget, poor evaluation, and archaic philosophy

September 27th, 2011 - 10:00 pm
It's amazing that the man who holds the Bears record for passing yards came from an era without facemasks.

It's amazing that the man who holds the Bears record for passing yards came from an era without facemasks.

If you are looking for somewhere to point the finger of blame for the Chicago Bears’ serious talent deficiencies and lack of depth, it’s probably best to start from the top and work your way down.

As a charter member of the NFL, the Bears hold the records for the most members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the most retired jersey numbers, and the most victories by any franchise in the league.

What’s upsetting about those records is that the bulk of the achievements occurred pre-1966, or the start of the Super Bowl era. The Bears have won nine league championships but only one is a Super Bowl title. Given the tradition of the organization and the size of the market in which the team plays, it’s inexcusable for the team to have just one Super Bowl victory wedged in between subpar seasons from a variety of subpar coaches.

Therein lies the question: have the coaches not named Ditka been that bad? Or have they been victims of an organization that can’t supply them with talent? And for that matter, was Mike Ditka that good a coach? Or did he benefit from a sequence of great draft picks and personnel moves in the early ’80s?

Perhaps the most discouraging historical fact is that of the quarterback position. The Bears’ all-time leader in passing yardage is Sid Luckman, with 14,686. The bulk of Luckman’s career took place in the 1940s.

Jim Harbaugh, Jim McMahon, Erik Kramer, Billy Wade and Ed Brown round out the Top 6. Jay Cutler is currently seventh on that list after a little more than two seasons with the team. Assuming his offensive line doesn’t get him killed — or he doesn’t leave the organization for greener pastures when his contract expires — Cutler will obliterate the numbers of those ahead of him and leave Luckman a distant second in the record book.

So, why have the Bears historically had trouble finding quarterbacks? Part of the problem is the stereotype of the history itself. Any time the franchise is mentioned in conversation, the words “defense” and “smashmouth football” are instinctively brought up. More specifically, linebacker and running back are the two positions most often associated with the franchise.

The recipe for success in the past is much different than the one in today's NFL.

The recipe for success in the past is much different than the one in today's NFL.

The sad reality is that while the NFL game has evolved, the Bears organization has not. As new rules have been created to place a greater emphasis on the passing game, the Bears have tried to use the same old formula from yesteryear. The truth is, the old sports adage, “Defense wins championships,” is no longer applicable in the modern NFL.

What wins championships these days is a potent offense with a skilled quarterback. Obviously, a good defense that creates a balanced football team helps a great deal. But look no further than the past decade of champions for proof. Of the past ten Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, only Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson during the 2002 season figures to be forgotten as a championship quarterback. Tom Brady (3 titles), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Peyton Manning (1), Eli Manning (1), Drew Brees (1), and Aaron Rodgers (1) will all be remembered for their leadership and passing success.

Meanwhile, the Bears are sticking to the philosophy that they can win championships with a stout defense and a strong run game, neither of which they’ve managed to assemble in the early stages of this 2011 season. The organization’s counter-argument is that they’re trying to assimilate to today’s game by acquiring Cutler and bringing in pass-happy offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. But neither Cutler, nor Martz’s offense, can operate successfully without sufficient talent around it.

Philosophy alone has not led the Bears down a murky path to the future. The combination of a tight budget and poor player evaluation has led to some ugly play in the past few seasons.

Splurging in one offseason while pinching pennies in several others does not mean you are "willing spenders." It means you're good at keeping a fiscally conservative budget.

Splurging in one offseason while pinching pennies in several others does not mean you are "willing spenders." It means you're good at keeping a fiscally conservative budget.

The McCaskey family has earned the reputation of being penny pinchers after years of fiscal conservatism as owners of the team. Defenders of the family will point to the 2010 offseason when the franchise splurged in free agency on defensive end Julius Peppers, running back Chester Taylor, and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, a spending spree that cost the organization over $100 million … in one day, nonetheless.

My response to that is threefold.

First, the money wasn’t all guaranteed. The team wound up releasing Taylor and Manumaleuna after one dismal season from the two players.

Second, the Bears had no first or second round picks in either the 2009 or 2010 drafts, the two first-rounders having gone to Denver in the trade that brought Cutler to Chicago. So, the inflated salaries the Bears otherwise would have had to pay their high draft picks in those two seasons wound up in Peppers’ pocket instead.

Third, the Bears immediately returned to their penny pinching this offseason despite clear need for improvement at a variety of positions and a larger-than-normal free agent class. It’s simply a matter of averages. Spending $100 million in one offseason may seem like a big deal in a one-year time frame but when the organization keeps its pockets closed for the next few years, suddenly they fall behind other franchises who spend consistently over that same time frame.

The major reason the McCaskey family keeps a tight budget is that the Chicago Bears organization is their sole means of support. While other owners in the league have other businesses outside of their football club, the McCaskeys live by the Bears. They’re ultimately trying to sustain a profit by “buying low,” such as trying to build through the draft, which costs them less money than splurging on veteran free agents.

Building a team through the draft is the best way to win championships. There’s just one problem with that philosophy: an organization has to have good talent evaluators and the Bears have failed miserably in that department under general manager Jerry Angelo’s watch. If the Bears could replicate the success in scouting of the Steelers, Patriots, Packers and Colts, among others, then spending money on free agents to fix gaping holes wouldn’t be as necessary.

Neither Angelo nor the McCaskey family deserves the lion’s share of the blame for allowing the team to become bereft of championship talent. It took an entire organizational failure to do that, from the tight budget to the misevaluation of talent, all the way down to the archaic notion of winning by the defense and the run game alone.

It’s time for a change at Halas Hall. And since ownership would never sell the franchise founded by the man whom the building is named after, they need to overhaul the personnel department with people who can find and develop talent while still conforming to the budget handed down to them.

The first step of the new personnel department should be to shun the organization’s “Monsters of the Midway” philosophy, give Cutler the weapons he needs to shatter the franchise’s dismal passing records, become one of the top passing offenses in the league led by a gifted quarterback who has all the physical tools, and finally start adding Super Bowls to the pre-1966 world championships.