The Bears had the cap space to make a splash this off-season, but elected to trust the players that took them to the conference finals last season. It's a choice this year's squad will be defined by.
As dismantling as the outcome was, I'd like to think there was something cryptic inside the pitch Sergio Santos delivered to Miguel Cabrera in the ninth inning last Saturday, the one that would fly over the fence to complete a massive Tigers comeback and effectively end the White Sox's flickering postseason chances once and for all. Chicago baseball never lived much of a life in 2011, so perhaps it was a good thing that Detroit terminated the lingering playoff hopes that seemed destined to tease White Sox fans until the very end. As Neil Young wrote and Kurt Cobain forever co-signed: It's better to burn out than to fade away. We aren't sure those men were talking about baseball, but that doesn't mean it can't apply here, too.
This all means that it's upward and onward for Chicago sports fans, and fortunately, our favorites are right around the corner.
Yes, the things that have happened since last season's NFC Championship game to our beloved Bears have been somewhere between underwhelming and disconcerting. The front office -- poised with nearly as much salary cap space as any team in the league -- ignored obvious weaknesses at wide receiver and in the offensive line. Unlike the last two off-seasons, there wasn't an impact player added to the roster. Instead, the Bears opted to trust their own guys, the same ones, as they'll tell you, that took them all the way the conference finals a season ago. All this while stars aligned in Philadelphia and the champion Packers finally got healthy. It was a strategy that left most fans cold and some experts predicting a massive fall from grace. One, Grantland's Bill Barnwell, listed the Bears among eight teams with no chance to contend for the Super Bowl this season.
For their part, the Bears will get the opportunity to prove their mettle early. The first three games of the season -- versus Atlanta, at New Orleans, versus the Packers -- is far and away the most difficult stretch of the campaign. The Bears believed they could compete with the upper echelon of the NFL by keeping it status quo, and they'll get an answer sooner than normal this year.
Hard as it may be to view the glass as half full, there's something about the wonder of Bears football that will forever have this city's heart pumping. For as much as we love to complain about our baseball teams, this is a football town through and through. The Bears are more Chicago than political corruption, good pizza, or any other tired trait linked here. There are times SNL's old "Superfans" sketch seems like it just might be an alarmingly accurate portrayal of this metropolis. If nothing else, it sized up our football passion perfectly.
What it comes down to is this: NFL football is simply too precious a commodity to resign yourself to an early fate, no matter how bleak the outlook. And, of course, this is far from a completely dire situation. The troubling thing is that there was a chance in front of the Bears, a chance to swing for the fences, and the brain-trust elected to go in another direction. The current roster should still be good enough to win 8-10 games, mind you. From here, it's just a shame Chicago didn't go for broke with an aging-yet-effective defensive core that boasts a number of stars, all of them over 30. With a few additions -- namely at the offensive problem areas mentioned above -- this could be viewed as a preseason contender. Instead, Jerry Angelo and his men stuck to their guns, believed in their current crop, and kept their money in a tightly sealed vault. It may seem like the most conservative path available, but given how loud the calls for the heads of the coach and GM will grow if the Bears fail to make the playoffs, it was a direction that also took some fortitude.
If the Bears have something going for them, it's stability and continuity. Lovie Smith has his detractors, but you have to give him this: his teams always seem to believe in themselves. That 'us against the world' mentality may have been repackaged and sold to nearly every underdog team to ever live, but something about Smith leads you to believe his guys are actually buying in. That's a good thing. If the NFL has taught us anything over the past 15 seasons, it's that parity will consistently run the show. No one is picking the Bears to be among the final teams standing when this season ends, but no one thought they'd scale so high heading into last year, either.
The Bears made a bet, and they bet on themselves. If they think the gaudy results of last season were no mirage, we owe them the chance to prove it. In a few days, the spotlight will be on, and Chicago will be watching. For the sake of Angelo and Smith, this team better be up to the task.