In its bid for year-round attention domination, the NFL is down to one final conquest: June.
Because as of now, that’s the only month during which there is no unofficial league holiday. April, of course, featured the NFL draft, which came a little more than a month after the free-agency frenzy of March, which happened after Super Bowl LVI was played in February, punctuating a thrilling postseason that began in January.
That playoff party kicked off after a wild regular season took us from just after Labor Day until just past New Year’s Eve. August featured the somewhat glorious return of preseason football, which sprang back to life after teams opened their training camps to great fanfare in July.
And this week we’ve arrived at the NFL’s new May celebration: Schedule Release Day, which once upon a time was locked in to April but now has set up squatting rights in mid-May, creating a new wave of energy as a docket of 272 regular-season games comes into focus.
The full 18-week picture will become visible at 7 p.m. Thursday. But glimpses are sure to leak out earlier.
For Chicago Bears fans, it means a first peek at the road map that awaits new coach Matt Eberflus, second-year quarterback Justin Fields and a revamped roster. The Bears are a 100-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl, and the odds of them playing beyond Week 18 are slim.
Like all NFC teams this season, the Bears will play nine games at home and eight on the road. In addition to their six NFC North games, the Bears will host the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Commanders at Soldier Field while making trips to face the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, New York Giants and New York Jets.
By this point, the league has locked in most — if not all — of the schedule. But that shouldn’t stop us from making a few last-minute requests, right?
Here are a half-dozen wishes for how we hope the Bears’ 2022 itinerary materializes.
1. Bring Lovie Smith to Soldier Field for the season opener.
Save the date: Sunday, Sept. 11. Bears-Texans in that wonderful football theater just off Lake Michigan. You’d be up for that, right?
Sure, it has been almost a decade since Smith coached the Bears, and the reunion tour already had nostalgic dates in 2014 and 2015. As coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith lost his initial return to Soldier Field 21-13 in 2014 before suffering a 26-21 loss to the Bears at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the following year. But there would be notable symmetry in bringing Smith back to Chicago for this season’s opener as he starts a new chapter with the Houston Texans.
Smith coached the Bears for nine seasons, compiling an 81-63 regular-season record with three playoff berths and a run to Super Bowl XLI after the 2006 season. The Bears have played nine seasons since Smith’s departure with three coaches. And the trio of Marc Trestman, John Fox and Matt Nagy combined for a 61-84 regular-season record — and no playoff victories.
So why not give Week 1 some added pizzazz? Plus, Chicago could benefit from some feel-good vibes to open the Eberflus era. The Texans are widely considered the league’s worst team heading into 2022.
2. Keep Aaron Rodgers away until at least mid-October.
It probably won’t make much of a difference either way. And maybe it would be better for the Bears to take a swing at Rodgers in September while he’s adjusting to life without Davante Adams and still getting to know rookie receiver Christian Watson and free-agent signee Sammy Watkins.
Still, it’s only fair that Eberflus has an opportunity to get his hustling, takeaway-hungry defense up and running before subjecting him to the biannual Rodgers torture chamber. You remember last year, right? Two more Rodgers victories over the Bears, including a Week 6 triumph at Soldier Field in which he yelled to Bears fans: “I own you! All my (bleeping) life! I own you! I still own you!” Ouch. Again.
The grand hopes that last year might mark his final visit to Chicago as Packers quarterback fizzled this winter. So now Eberflus and new defensive coordinator Alan Williams will try to reverse the slide.
For what it’s worth, both Nagy and Fox were forced to face Rodgers in their first regular-season games as Bears coach. Both lost. Nagy, in fact, lost seven of eight games against Rodgers, who has beaten five Bears coaches, six Bears defensive coordinators and eight Bears starting quarterbacks. Including the NFC championship game in January 2011 at Soldier Field, Rodgers has a 23-5 record as a starter against the Bears.
3. Keep the Bears off Thanksgiving.
Admittedly this is a selfish plea from a sports writer who, just once, would rather not run his Thanksgiving morning 5K on a treadmill in the desolate fitness center of a hotel near the Detroit airport. Listen, Ford Field knows how to host Thanksgiving quite well. And ingesting a 4,000-calorie press-box dinner before 11 a.m. Chicago time is always quite the feast. (Gotta save the pumpkin pie for halftime.)
But the Bears have played on Thanksgiving in five of the last eight seasons with four of those games against the Lions. Does the rest of America really get fired up for that matchup to start the holiday? Wouldn’t another team like to give the experience a try? Shouldn’t football fans in Chicago be allowed to keep the Tums in the medicine cabinet until after dinner?
Outside of the Lions and Cowboys, who as a tradition play on Thanksgiving every year, no NFL team has been featured on the holiday more than the Bears, who have played 37 times. Last year Andy Dalton sparked a riveting 16-14 win that snapped a five-game losing streak. (Full disclosure: Every Bears beat writer is expecting to be sent to Dallas for Thanksgiving this year. Just a hunch.)
4. Schedule the Bears in New York in back-to-back weeks.
The scheduling stars have aligned for the Bears to play twice this season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. — against the Giants and Jets. The last time that happened was during the 2006 Super Bowl season when the Bears downed the Giants 38-20 in Week 10 and beat the Jets 10-0 the following Sunday.
So maybe the schedule makers could piece together another back-to-back just for fun — and perhaps to tempt Eberflus into a weeklong East Coast team-bonding experience. Mix in a few field trips to change up the week. Think outside the box of the standard NFL preparation rigors.
OK, we know that last part never would happen. But back-to-back games against the Giants and Jets at least would open a world of possibilities for the most dedicated Bears fans.
5. Give us Justin Fields versus Mac Jones late in the season.
Of the four other quarterbacks drafted in the first round in 2021, Fields could face three of them this season: the Jets’ Zach Wilson, the 49ers’ Trey Lance and the Patriots’ Jones. But let’s save Fields versus Jones for the back half of the schedule, when both quarterbacks have had time to build momentum.
The Bears, under former general manager Ryan Pace, engineered an aggressive trade up to draft their quarterback of the future last year, giving up their first- and fourth-round picks in 2022 plus a 2021 fifth-rounder to leap from No. 20 to No. 11. They could have selected Jones there but always had their eyes on Fields. The Patriots took Jones four picks later without having to trade anything.
Inevitably, every quarterback from the ‘21 class will be compared against the others for years to come. But the Fields-Jones assessment will be particularly compelling in Chicago, given the Bears had a choice between the two.
It’s worth noting that Fields might head to Gillette Stadium with revenge in the back of his mind. Jones and Alabama hammered Fields and Ohio State 52-24 in the national title game in January 2021. Jones also had a more impressive rookie season, helping the Patriots to the playoffs while throwing for 3,801 yards and 22 touchdowns.
6. Send the Bears to Minneapolis before Halloween.
Somebody in the league office needs to help with this one. The Bears and Vikings play twice every year, yet somehow the game in Minneapolis is always late in the season. Late late.
Since the NFL began playing only division games in the final week of the regular season in 2010, the Bears have played their finale on the road against the Vikings seven times. Furthermore, the Bears’ last 15 trips to Minneapolis have come in December or early January. Without fact-checking this, we’re pretty sure the average outdoor wind chill at kickoff of those games is right around minus-64.
Yes, yes, we know the Bears have been indoors for most of those games. Still, there was the ice-rink game in 2010, played at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus a week after the Metrodome roof collapsed. The Vikings also played their home games at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014 and 2015.
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