When the 2016 Chicago Bears capped off their 3-13 campaign with a January 1 loss against the Minnesota Vikings, John Fox did something he’d never done before: coach a team to losing seasons in consecutive years. I know, that’s not exactly the most exciting career first, but it is a noteworthy one.
Because whether or not Fox can avoid a third losing season in a row – and I’m just shooting from the hip, here – is probably something you’d like to find out.
To start, it’s worth pointing out that Fox has coaxed a bounce back out of his players multiple times throughout his career. For example, in 2003 (11-5, NFC Champions), 2005 (11-5), and 2008 (12-4), Fox led the Carolina Panthers to winning seasons, after each finished the previous year with a 7-9 record. Then, in 2012, Fox led the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 season after finishing an even .500 the year prior.
At a minimum, then, bouncing back is something with which Fox has actually had a great deal of experience. And while those losing seasons may not have been quite as bad as the Bears’ record in 2016, there’s no reason he can’t flip that same switch once again.
But let’s go a bit deeper.
Over at the Bears’ official website, Larry Mayer did some research into how many 3-13 teams bounce back in the following season, and the results are actually pretty encouraging.
Overall, 10 teams have gone 3-13 since 2005. Of those ten teams, eight won at least four games the following season (which is … admittedly not the goal, but technically an improvement), four went on to post a winning record, two managed to sneak their way into the postseason the very next year, and two more made it to the postseason within two years.
So let’s break all of that down a bit, starting with the two teams – Saints and Viking – that made the playoffs immediately following their 3-13 seasons. The question is: Can the Bears follow suit?
In 2005, the New Orleans Saints lost 13 games and headed into the offseason with plenty of questions. However, by the start of 2006, the team was headlined by a new coach-quarterback tandem (Sean Payton and Drew Brees), and together they led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. Yes, they eventually, and incidentally, lost that game to the Chicago Bears, but that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship (yielding four playoff berths and a Super Bowl title since).
But while yes, the Bears will have a new quarterback in 2017, that’s really only half of the Saints’ equation (and even that is a bit of a stretch). A more reasonable path to follow, then, might be that of the Minnesota Vikings.
In 2011, the Vikings went 3-13, finishing last in the NFC North. The following season, however, Minnesota bounced back to clinch a wild card spot with a Week 17 win against the Green Bay Packers (eliminating the Bears in the process). Running back Adrian Peterson carried the load for Minnesota that year, winning the Associated Press’ MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards, as well as the Pro Football Writers of America MVP.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to suggest (or even hope) for as much out of Jordan Howard in 2017 as Adrian Peterson in 2012 – betting that any second-year player will perform to the level of a Hall of Fame-caliber player in his best season is a fool’s errand – however, Howard was the Bears’ best offensive player last year and one of the league’s best backs. He seems primed to take on more of an offensive load in 2017, which will be especially important if the team winds up handing the quarterback position to a young, inexperienced player. So again, perhaps unlikely, but not entirely unheard of with these pieces.
Outside of the Saints and Vikings, two other teams have followed 3-13 seasons with winning campaigns. However, the 2010 Buccaneers (10-6) and 2016 Titans (9-7) wound up catching tough breaks and missed the playoffs entirely. And finally, two other teams reached the postseason *two* years after finishing 3-13. Washington won the NFC East with a 9-7 record in 2015, two years after their 3-13 2013 season. While Oakland, coached by former Fox assistant Jack Del Rio, went 12-4 in 2016 — two seasons after going 3-13.
So where does that leave us?
Well, nowhere, really. The fact that X-number of past teams have accomplished a particular feat doesn’t necessarily mean the Bears are likely to do the same. Even the fact that their head coach, John Fox, has coaxed bounce back seasons before means very little in the statistical probability world. This is, after all, a different team, with different players, in a different era. HOWEVER, there’s always a “however.”
If you’re going to take anything away from Mayer’s analysis or our commentary here, let it be just this: It’s possible. It’s possible the 2017 Chicago Bears can bounce back from their dreadful 3-13 2016 season and win more games than you expected. They have a new quarterback, a returning and burgeoning running back, a coach who’s proven capable of comebacks many times before, and other teams who’ve accomplished this very feat as examples.
We, of course, don’t know if any of it will actually happen. But if there’s even one shot in a thousand, that’s all you really need.
Michael Cerami contributed to this post.