Three years ago the Chicago Bears dominated the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game 39-14. (That season feels like it happened in 1942.) Soon after both teams packed up their belongings and settled on Middle of the Road. The Bears went 7-9 and 9-7 in 2007 and 2008. The Saints went 7-9 and 8-8. You could easily make the argument that the states of their current seasons serve as a further indictment of a Bears organization clearly headed in the wrong direction. But I’ll take a more optimistic track and argue that the 2009 Saints polish off the yellow bricks on the road to a quick turnaround.
How did the Saints do it? First you have to take the face value facts. The Saints have a terrific head coach and brilliant quarterback. Those two things, when paired, are the cornerstones of prolonged organizational success. The Bears have a terrifically talented quarterback and a head coach who likes to throw the challenge flag because he likes the pretty red color.
I break down building a team like this: draft talent and develop, trade for value and sign need.
The Saints have drafted Robert Meachem, Sedrick Ellis and Malcolm Jenkins over the last three first rounds and each has turned into a productive, terrific player. Meachem has struggled tremendously at times but the organization supported and developed him. This is something we can’t say about a single player during the Lovie Smith era.
The Saints have traded for tremendous value, grabbing Jon Vilma from the Jets and Jeremy Shockey from the Giants for mid-range picks. Those two players not only have been productive on the field but they’ve instilled a sense of toughness that Sean Payton clearly believed was missing from the locker room.
The Saints signed need. When Darren Sharper was available this off-season, I wrote that the Bears would be foolish not to consider him. They didn’t. Now he’s in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Sharper has solidified a secondary that has been a laughing stock for half a decade. As their corners have fallen to injury, the Saints added Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister to the roster. They had a need at corner and they filled that need without the words “Rod” or “Hood” being involved.
The first part of the Bears re-build has to involve the hiring of a new head coach but we’ve been down that path. Outside of that, the Bears should acknowledge that their club is worse defensively than New Orleans ever has been and target those same positions in the same way. They should acknowledge that they are currently two or three years away from being a championship team and they should approach this off-season with that in mind. No one should be kept on the roster that can’t be helpful in two or three years. That means cutting Olin Kreutz, Orlando Pace and Tommie Harris. That means not re-signing Adewale Ogunleye. That means only making trades when the value is right and only signing veteran players that fill a specific need.
While this may sound dire, it’s not. The Bears know who’ll be lining up under center. They know they have a potential franchise left tackle. They have talent at all the skill positions, especially tight end and I think wide receiver. I had hoped 2009 would be about 2010 but I think it’s quickly becoming about beyond that. That’s okay only if the organization takes realistic stock of where it is now and stops believing in the quality of its players and coaches. Give us a couple fiesty, young 8-8 teams that fight like hell for wins and we can take that if we know the endgame. But that must start now. Today. And the Bears need look no further than last night’s football game to understand how to proceed.