These things are called duckies.
When a city boy is going whitewater rafting in the Rocky Mountains he expects to be in a large raft with several other individuals and have minimal influence on the proceedings. Sure he’s happy to drop a well-timed refrain of Pocahontas’ Just Around the River Bend or lightly tap somebody on the ass with his oar. But he really doesn’t want a major role in the maneuvering of the watercraft.
Not in a ducky. A ducky, pictured above, is more an inflatable kayak. I piloted one of these devices, if you’d like to call what I did piloting, down the Roaring Fork Valley. Because I was terrible at this and managed to hit every rock available for contact, I spent much of my journey with the kayaked guide at the rear of the field. (If this were a race I would have been the guy receiving thunderous applause for merely finishing.) The guide, called Ryan because everybody in the Aspen area seemed to be named Ryan, was a die hard Denver Broncos fan. We had time to speak.
The Denver Broncos broke offensive records a year ago. They were the most exciting team in the sport by a significant margin. They won the AFC seemingly uncontested. Then they botched a snap in front of the world’s largest television audience and the happiness kite drifted from the young child’s hand into the cloud-lined sky, never to be seen again. To hear this shaggy marijuana machine in a kayak talk of his beloved team’s 2013 campaign, you’d think they shamed the state of Colorado and all members of the Elway family with a 3-13 record.
They finished second in the NFL. Better than thirty other franchises. Only worse than one. And that’s the harsh reality of the NFL. Only one team, only one city, only one fan base leaves the season firmly satisfied. Nobody derides the club that loses the World Series or Stanley Cup Finals or NBA Finals (unless LeBron James is on that team). They give large trophies to the runners-up at golf and tennis major championships and grand slams. Supporters of the English Premiere League’s second-place side don’t pout in kayaks.
The loneliest loser in all of professional sports is the team failing on Super Bowl Sunday. So how does one set fair expectations for an NFL season?
Woody Allen joked a relationship is like a shark. It has to be constantly moving forward or it dies. The same could be said for an NFL program. It has to be in a constant state of progress or it will plateau, be passed by the league and ultimately end in a sea of firings.
Moving forward, progress, is the name of the game and one can set expectations for a season by laying out the landmarks of progress. For the 2014 Chicago Bears those landmarks are pretty clear but let’s take a moment to single out one element at each level of the Bears organization.
- Just peruse the offensive statistical categories from 2013 and you’ll realize it is difficult to find much to complain about when it comes to the Bears. They are essentially top ten in the league in everything. But there is one glaring element keeping them from elite status – third wide receiver. Marshall and Jeffery accounted for 189 catches in 2013. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker caught 179 balls. The remaining Bears wide receivers had 35 TOTAL catches. Wes Welker had 73. If the Bears want to be a transcendent offense that can overcome almost all defensive issues they will need to find production from a third option on the outside.
- Let’s call the one thing they need to do basic improvement. The Bears were dead last in run defense, nearly thirty yards per game worse than the 31st ranked team a year ago. The Bears were tied for dead last in sacks, nearly thirty sacks behind top-ranked Carolina. If you were to ask Bill Belichick what the two most important elements of a good defense are he would most likely answer stopping the run and rushing the passer. If the Bears can manage to get both of these rankings into the teens (or heck, even low 20s) they will be able to go into the 2015 off-season needing only to fill the few remaining holes on the defensive unit.
- I think it would be silly to assume the Bears are going to find a dynamic kick returner on the summer free agency pile. (Chris Williams is a still a strong possibility to have a successful year but trusting a speed threat’s weak hamstring to recover is not advisable.) What the Bears must improve in 2014 is opponent field position with the two-headed monster of Pat O’Donnell improving on the worst punt game since the dawn of man and Robbie Gould / Joe D’s coverage groups limiting return opportunities/success.
- It is perhaps the last BIG ticket question the Bears must answer. Is Mel Tucker the right man to lead the defense as Trestman elevates the offense to new organizational heights? This year must provide that answer as Tucker will now be out from the shadow of Lovie’s system/play calls/locker room and allowed to run schemes of his own choosing with a rebuilt, dynamic collection of position coaches. How will Tucker use athletes like McClellin and Bostic? How will be manufacture pressure? How will he adjust in-game? How will he compensate for a lack of talent at the back end of the secondary? Tucker has been given a collection of new toys but his job is nowhere near easy.
The Bears need a winning record. They need an appearance in the postseason. That would prove the work done by Emery and Trestman is allowing the organization to progress. Winning a playoff game would prove the Bears are on an accelerated path to contending for championships.