For a team that's largely been defined by its long-term stasis, the Chicago Bears have quietly undergone a large-scale retooling over the past couple years.
The process started in 2013 with the retirement of Brian Urlacher and continued this offseason, as long-time stalwarts Devin Hester and Earl Bennett were sent packing. Also gone is Julius Peppers after a four-year stint in the Windy City, signing later with the Green Bay Packers on a deal that will add a new layer to a historic rivalry.
General manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman promised a different culture when they arrived, and so far, they have mostly delivered. Well, for the most part.
Those Bears fans (you know who you are) eager to move on from the Jay Cutler era will be deeply disappointed, as the high-variance quarterback signed a megadeal that keeps him under center for the foreseeable future. The Bears also kept Charles Tillman around to roam the outside, even as he reaches age 33 and is coming off an injury-plagued 2013.
Still, this team won't be lacking in new faces—particularly in the pass rush. Peppers was replaced by the double whammy of Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, again stoking the flames of another NFC North rivalry. Along with Jay Ratliff, Chicago stands to have one of the most formidable defensive lines in football.
Or, at the very least, an expensive one.
"I think we'll slow down a tad," Emery told reporters in March. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."
There are other issues at hand for the remainder of the offseason, particularly on draft night, but with a pick in the middle of the first round, Trestman and Co. seem primed for a run at their first playoff appearance since 2010.
With the NFL releasing the full regular-season slate for this season, we now have a good idea of how they'll get there. Here's a quick look at the 2014 Bears schedule and quick-hit analysis on how things should shake out.
|2014 Chicago Bears Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sept. 7||vs. Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||FOX|
|2||Sept. 14||at San Francisco 49ers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|3||Sept. 22||at New York Jets||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Sept. 28||vs. Green Bay Packers||1 p.m.||FOX|
|5||Oct. 5||at Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||FOX|
|6||Oct. 12||at Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||FOX|
|7||Oct. 19||vs. Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 26||at New England Patriots||1 p.m.||FOX|
|10||Nov. 9||at Green Bay Packers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|11||No. 16||vs. Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||FOX|
|12||Nov. 23||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||FOX|
|13||Nov. 27||at Detroit Lions||12:30 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 4||vs. Dallas Cowboys||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. New Orleans Saints||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|16||Dec. 21||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||FOX|
|17||Dec. 28||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||FOX|
To be fair, we already knew mostly how this would play out. The NFL announced the regular-season opponents for teams in December. The only thing left up to chance was the week-to-week grind, an effect that's up to the interpretation of most evaluators.
It's obviously more difficult in most seasons to play a Denver Broncos-New England back-to-back than a Oakland Raiders-Washington one, but they're professionals—they get paid to prepare for these things.
In that sense, the Bears schedule is exactly where one would expect: sitting right in the middle of the difficulty paradigm. ESPN measured opponent strength of schedule, and the Bears' opponent winning percentage of .496 ranked No. 15.
Using yearly winning percentage is a flawed and broad way to assess schedule difficulty, though, and there are a few obvious standouts that make Chicago's slate look more difficult than advertised.
The Atlanta Falcons, coming off an inexplicable 4-12 season, are one of 2014's biggest bounce-back candidates already. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions will ostensibly be competently run under new head coaches—a huge change from their previous regimes—and Tampa Bay's visit to Soldier Field marks the return of Lovie Smith.
The NFC North looks more formidable in April than it did in December. Aaron Rodgers missed seven regular-season games last season; Green Bay certainly isn't planning on a redux of the Scott Tolzien era. The Minnesota Vikings are in a weird stasis right now, but they're still two years removed from a playoff berth and made some moves designed to get younger.
Playing on the road in Carolina and San Francisco is almost unfair, though the Panthers' dreadful offseason makes that trip seem far less difficult than a few months ago. The NFC is loaded with quality teams, and Chicago and the rest of the NFC North get the unfortunate distinction of playing the NFC South—perhaps the deepest of them all.
Hell, we're five paragraphs in without a single mention of the Bears' home tilt against the New Orleans Saints or their visit to New England.
There are all the trappings here of a status quo for this team, a meandering and often confusing season in which the Bears head into the final couple weeks scrapping for the final spots in the NFC playoffs. The Packers and Lions are going to be improved next season, and the Bears boast a deeper roster than a year ago on paper.
We'll have to see if it's enough.
On paper, you can probably talk yourself into Chicago losing any of these games, with the exception of home tilts against the Vikings and Buffalo Bills. Tampa Bay and Miami stand out as likely losers as well, but I'd almost be willing to lock in the aforementioned twosome as victories as of now. Locking in road games is typically a fool's errand, though the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets are among the most likely regression candidates in 2014.
Otherwise, it's pretty much a slog throughout for Cutler and Co. They go to New England, Carolina and San Francisco—two conference finalists and a team that looked like the best in football down the stretch last season.
The Panthers' nonexistent receiving corps, loss of numerous veterans and injury to Cam Newton make their status as contenders tenuous, but throwing them entirely under the bus would mean ignoring the stable of young talent on the roster.
The trips to Foxborough and the Yay Area are certainly more daunting, though.
The Patriots are the NFL's answer to the NBA's Spurs. Despite overhaul of the spare parts and at times a teetering on the brink collapse, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the constants in a decade-plus run of excellence. Brady threw to what amounted to armless receivers and Julian Edelman for the most part in 2013 and nearly made the Super Bowl. Assuming Rob Gronkowski returns to full health—a not-so-small assumption—New England could be even more dangerous this year.
The 49ers' tumultuous offseason leaves a bitter taste, but they're still an NFC favorite primed for another deep playoff run. Jim Harbaugh is arguably the best coach in football at this very second, and even if their transactions sheet was filled with some head-scratchers, there's little reason to think they'll be discernibly worse in 2014. Having Michael Crabtree for a full season won't hurt.
Taken as a whole, the Bears look like a team that should be well within the wild-card hunt—or even compete with Green Bay for the division title. Cutler has the best weapons he probably ever will with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and a still in-his-prime Matt Forte. Allen and Houston should fortify a defense that was quietly one of the worst in football last season, though, help at linebacker is still needed.
Draft well, and the Bears might be a sleeper Super Bowl contender. With this schedule, though, they'll have to earn it.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: