Cliché’ly speaking, there are no unimportant NFL regular-season games, short of ones after playoff positions are either clinched or mathematically eliminated. The simple math is that one NFL game equates to a 10-game win-or-loss streak in Major League Baseball, or about five in the NBA or NHL.
But the upcoming three games against Detroit-Minnesota-Detroit take on added significance for considerably deeper reasons than just the obvious of being division games.
For incoming Bears head coaches, division games have too often been early indicators of what the future held for them and the organization. Coaches who fail to control the Bears’ division don’t last.
For nearly 20 years, since Dick Jauron defeated the Minnesota Vikings in 1999’s game five, no first-year Bears head coach has won his first division game. That extends from Matt Nagy (game-one loss to Packers) back through John Fox (Packers), Marc Trestman (Lions) and Lovie Smith (Lions). Smith recovered; the others didn’t.
What happens next, however, is the real point. Because with rare exceptions, Mike Ditka was right with his axiomatic, “control your division, control your destiny” has proved true. Unless Nagy can begin doing just that within the next two weeks, his fate may mirror that of his unfortunate division-challenged predecessors.
And Nagy needs to be joined in this division quest by Mitch Trubisky, who stands 0-6 against NFC North opponents.
Fox opened with a Packers loss and never recovered, finishing 3-15 in the NFC North, including an 0-6 wrap last year, and was fired after three seasons. Trestman went on from his game-four loss at Detroit to a 3-9 division mark and was gone after two.
Smith was criticized for playing to the crowd when he listed beating Green-Bay as the first of his three objectives when hired in 2004. But his teams went 6-2 vs. Green Bay from 2004-07, a stretch in which his Bears were 14-10 within the division, and not coincidentally won the division twice and reached a Super Bowl. He finished a game short of a second Super Bowl in 2010 when he lost in the NFC Championship – to the Packers.
The three years the Smith Bears reached the postseason were also the three in which they went 5-1 in the division.
The main reason: Smith’s Cover-2 defense with its Brian Urlacher-Lance Briggs core “owned” Brett Favre, going 8-5 in games against the Green Bay legend. Matters turned decidedly for the worse when Aaron Rodgers succeeded Favre as the Green Bay starter and, in a dismal 6-10 first season, established a template for his Bears dealings with a 37-3 smackdown in their first meeting. (Rodgers’ arrival coincided within a year with that of Jay Cutler but that’s for another discussion.)
Rodgers welcomed Nagy to the NFC North with a demoralizing loss opening night. Next Sunday Nagy, Trubisky and the Bears will be about the task of changing rather than repeating history.
“We’re trying to really create our own culture and create our own history,” Nagy said. “It’s week by week; it’s practice by practice.”
At 0-6, Trubisky is behind the division greats in establishing himself and his team where it matters most. By comparison, Favre’s .651 winning rate in the NFC North/Central was second only to his 72.7 percentage against the NFC West. Rodgers’ 73.2 win percentage against the NFC North, against which he is 41-15-1, is his best against any NFC division.
Nagy isn’t playing Favre or Rodgers, though. But he and his quarterback are playing to change a pattern.
“We’re in such a good place right now as an organization,” Nagy said. “The vibe that we have. We’re learning how to win in different ways.”
Winning in the NFC North would be a “different way.”