The Bears went into Cincinnati on Sunday and absolutely beat the snot out of the Bengals for four quarters, coming away with their fourth victory of the year in an impressive 33-7 rout.
And yet, it seems a large contingent of Bears fans can’t help but whine that the Bears blew their chance at having a higher draft pick in next spring’s 2018 NFL Draft.
After dropping five straight games and being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, some Bears fans were hoping the team would lose out so that they could get the highest draft pick possible next year.
The Bears, however, had other plans, and it’s leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of fans dreaming of tanking this Christmas season.
Tanking in the NFL doesn’t work
The first notion we need to disprove is that tanking in the NFL is a viable way to build a franchise.
In some sports, like basketball and baseball, it’s feasible — although not probable — that players will actively take plays off, loaf on the field of play, and otherwise not give 100% effort if they realize their team is in full-on rebuilding mode and doesn’t have much to play for. There is a natural letdown when a championship seems like a farfetched idea.
While basketball can be an intense game, it’s not a collision sport like football is. Ask any football player what happens if he’s not giving his best effort and he’ll tell you that he gets his butt kicked — physically speaking, that is.
Players don’t want to tank. Football is dangerous enough a sport when everybody is going about the same game speed. If you slow down, you’re toast. Plus, NFL players are fighting for their jobs. They don’t want to give off the vibe that they’re disinterested and are deemed expendable by management.
Not only do players not want to tank, but front office personnel are wary of it as well.
The NFL, unlike most other professional sports leagues, is a much-more parity-driven league. You can go from worst to first in one season (see: both Los Angeles football teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Philadelphia Eagles, as well as the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints in similar turn-arounds).
And it’s because NFL owners realize that quick turnarounds are possible that they have much shorter leashes on their general managers. Why would GMs want to waste what little shelf life they have on the off-chance they can string together a few very high draft picks that turn into winners?
A general manager who theoretically pushes all his chips into the “tank rebuild” space of the NFL roulette table would essentially be gambling that the ball stops rolling in exactly the right slot for most — if not all — those high draft picks he accumulates.
That brings me to my next point about draft picks.
NFL first-round draft busts are all too common
NFL teams that are stuck in football prison do not receive a “get out of jail free” card simply by accumulating Top 5 draft choices.
Ask the Cleveland Browns how well their top draft picks have changed their fortunes over the years. They currently are an NFL-worst 0-13, they just fired their general manager — do you think “tanking” was on his mind? — they are perennially stuck at the top of the first round year-in and year-out, and they look like they’re years away from respectability.
The Buffalo Bills’ playoff drought is now at 18 seasons and counting. They have an outside shot at making the playoffs this season, but have their yearly high draft picks done them good?
The Jaguars — sitting in first place in the AFC South, which is perhaps the worst division in football — are staring down their first playoff appearance in a decade. It took them years for their failures to turn to draft success, but even they have had far more misses at the top of the first round than hits. Do the names Blake Bortles, Luke Joeckel, Justin Blackmon, Blaine Gabbert, and Derrick Harvey give you warm fuzzies?
The list of bad NFL teams that seem to stay near the top of the draft goes on. Now, let’s look at it from the opposite perspective.
The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks (among others) seem to always pick in the back half of the first round and they keep churning out fairly competitive teams (with exceptions here or there).
It’s not about where you’re slotted in the draft that matters. It’s what you do with those picks that counts. And thus far, there’s reason to believe that Bears general manager Ryan Pace has an idea of how to scout college talent and build through the draft.
Is Pace’s record perfect? Of course not. But show me a general manager who has been perfect. Some are better than others, but every one of them has swung and missed from time to time. The key is to assemble enough successful picks that a solid young base of talent has been formed.
Let’s take a look at some of the players Pace has drafted.
In Pace’s first draft with the Bears, he landed defensive tackle Eddie Goldman in the second round and Adrian Amos in the fifth round.
In 2016, he was aggressive and traded up for Leonard Floyd, who looks to be a star in the making. He grabbed an essential building block on the offensive line in center Cody Whitehair in the second round and followed up with promising defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard in the third. Inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski has been a solid fill-in this season and will play a role moving forward. Running back Jordan Howard, perhaps Pace’s best pick, was stolen in the fifth round.
And in the 2017 draft, Pace again was aggressive, trading up to land that elusive franchise quarterback. We don’t know what Mitch Trubisky will be, but he still looks promising thus far. Safety Eddie Jackson, taken in the fourth round, is going to be a cornerstone piece of the defense moving forward. And the versatile Tarik Cohen is exactly the playmaker that Pace said he is when he drafted him in the fourth round.
That’s ten players — maybe 11 if tight end Adam Shaheen builds upon his success in the past few games — that are pretty solid building blocks as the Bears build for next season and beyond.
Did Pace miss on a few players? Sure he did. Kevin White has been a disappointment, but at no fault of Pace’s. White did not come with an injury red flag and has just had a string of Derrick Rose-like bad luck. Center Hroniss Grasu and running back Jeremy Langford were both fourth-round-or-higher draft picks that have not panned out. Everybody else was picked in the fifth round or beyond, and there’s a greater likelihood of players not panning out when taken in those rounds.
If you’re a glass-half-empty person, you’re probably ready to get rid of Pace along with John Fox when this season concludes based on their win-loss record in the past three seasons. I think that is an incredibly short-sighted way of looking at Pace’s job performance.
The most important fact to consider is that the Bears have a better roster today than they did when Pace entered Halas Hall three years ago. With a new coaching staff in place, one that can groom the young talent — specifically Trubisky — that Pace has accumulated in his short tenure here, plus with another offseason of adding pieces to the puzzle, the wins should begin to add up.
Sunday’s performance was proof that the young pieces offer promise. And the development that those young pieces showed is far more important than trying to secure a higher draft pick.