LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The disappointment of unrealized potential thrusts the Chicago Bears into thoughts of 2012 despite one game -- which the team calls the beginning of next season -- still remaining on the schedule Sunday at Minnesota.
“We’ve already put up our goals of course for the 2012 season,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We want to be 1-0 for it.”
Despite the team's recent five-game skid after a winning streak of the same magnitude, the Bears insist they’re not far off from seriously competing for a title even though they’ve missed the postseason now in four of the last five seasons. Sweeping changes might be on the horizon. But the players think such moves -- outside of the normal transactions associated with roster turnover -- could possibly do more harm than good.
"It’s not going to solve anything if you get rid of all the folks who put this team together,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. “This year was unfortunate for us all, and even though we didn’t get in the playoffs, we are still a championship-caliber team. We’ll get there. It’s just not going to happen in the year of 11.”
It's legitimate to ponder whether it’ll ever occur. The recurring factor in the last two seasons -- which both came to disappointing ends -- was an injury to quarterback Jay Cutler. Although the team refused to make that an excuse for this year’s late-season collapse, the prevailing thought within the locker room is that a quarterback of Cutler’s caliber is irreplaceable regardless of the talent of the backup waiting in the wings.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher admitted as much. It’s also worth noting that in addition to Cutler, the Bears lost four other starters -- right tackle Gabe Carimi, running back Matt Forte, receiver Johnny Knox and left guard Chris Williams -- to season-ending injuries. Cutler’s favorite target, Earl Bennett, missed five games.
In all, 10 players -- including seven starters on offense, defense and special teams -- are currently on the injured reserve.
“[Injuries] have a lot to do with it,” Urlacher said. Everyone has that issue, though. We’ve had some pretty good players go down at bad times during the season. They’re hard to replace. Jay, you’re not going to replace, Jay, obviously. Jay’s an elite player. Matt [Forte], obviously, [is elite] running-back wise as well.”
So the lost season of 2011, Briggs said, wasn’t about “a bad team that need[s] to rebuild,” because “this team is very capable.”
“Every year, something is changed,” Williams said. “There’s no football team that keeps the same 53, nowhere in the league. There are going to be rookies coming in. They’re going to have a first rounder, second rounder. I mean, it’s going to be a new team. But I think we’re going to play well next year.”
Perhaps that’s why the team is already in the planning stages for 2012 despite being in the midst of 2011. Urlacher doesn’t expect the inevitable roster turnover to purge the team of core players.
“There will be some guys gone that are here now, obviously, and just like every year there will be a lot of turnover,” Urlacher said. “But I don’t think we’re far away. You’ve seen when we’re healthy what we can do. We’re pretty close to being one of the better teams in the NFL. We’ve just got to stay together and keep playing hard. I think the consensus around the locker room is we’re pretty close to where we want to be.”