Going from worst to first is just the first step for the Bears, who now face the more difficult challenge of remaining on top.
Yes, going from worst to first may be easier than going from first to first.
That's what veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson says, and he watched from a distance this season as the Jaguars team he came from crashed, completing the worst-to-first-to-worst circuit in the AFC South.
Plenty of factors give the Bears confidence they're just getting started on the kind of sustained run that has eluded them since the Mike Ditka era: a dominating defense, a foundation of young players, an innovative coach and a second-year quarterback they believe is poised for much bigger things in 2019.
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"First to first is harder to do," Robinson said. "It's tough because a lot of things vary from season to season. Coming back here next season is going to be twice as hard.
"There is no way we can expect to end up in the same spot that we left off. It's going to take a lot of work. It's tough to get back to that position. To have success in the league, the better you play, the better you have to play."
The NFL sells the idea of parity and brings facts to back it up. In 15 of the last 16 seasons, at least one team has won its division after finishing last or tied for last the year before. Each year since 1990, a span of 29 years, at least four new teams have qualified for the playoffs. There were eight new qualifiers in 2017 and seven this season. That's a great way to sell hope, but that turnover is precisely why the biggest obstacle is remaining competitive.
The Bears and Texans pulled off worst-to-first moves this season, bringing the number to 25 teams in the last 16 seasons. Of the previous 23 teams, only six reached the playoffs the next season. More teams (six) returned to last place the year after finishing first than defended their division titles (four).
Those are eye-opening figures about the difficulty of being in the playoff mix on a regular basis. There are the Patriots, who have won the AFC East a record 10 consecutive years, and there is everyone else.
Besides the Patriots, 12 teams have qualified for the postseason at least five times in the last 10 years: the Packers (eight); Seahawks (seven); Steelers, Saints, Chiefs, Colts, Ravens and Bengals (six each); Broncos, Falcons, Eagles and Texans (five each).
The common thread for many of those teams is a franchise quarterback. Because Mitch Trubisky can pick up the same playbook this offseason and not have to go back to ground level, the Bears are confident he can elevate his game.
Trubisky showed real signs of growth throughout the season and did a better job of protecting the ball at the end of the season. He was sharp in the fourth quarter of the 16-15 wild-card loss to the Eagles on Sunday at Soldier Field. The moment wasn't too big for him, as it was in a similar position against the Packers in the season opener at Lambeau Field.
The Bears hired Matt Nagy as coach because they believed he could bring out the best in Trubisky, and with the skill-position players also picking up where they left off, it's reasonable to expect improvement in Year 2 of the offense.
How much better the Bears can get is the question. The Jaguars backslid this year for a variety of reasons, and a big one was quarterback Blake Bortles, who was benched during the season. The Jaguars also have a stout defense, but the Bears appear in a much better place for offensive growth.
Of the four teams over the last 16 seasons to go from worst to first and then repeat as division champions, the 2013-14 Panthers are the most recent. They're an anomaly because they won the NFC South in 2013 at 12-4 and then defended that title at 7-8-1, becoming the fourth team to reach the playoffs with a losing record.
The Texans went 10-6 to win the AFC South in 2011 and repeated the next year at 12-4. The Broncos won the AFC West in 2011 at 8-8 with Tim Tebow at quarterback, then repeated at 13-3 after the arrival of Peyton Manning. The fourth team to win back-to-back division titles after a last-place finish is the 2005-06 Bears.
What those Lovie Smith teams couldn't do was remain a consistent factor. The Bears went 7-9, 9-7 and 7-9 the next three seasons, plagued by offensive inconsistency and a defense that had a lull between the departure of coordinator Ron Rivera after the 2006 season and the arrival of Rod Marinelli in 2009.
The 2010 Bears, who reached the NFC championship game, didn't pull a worst-to-first move, but it's significant to note they couldn't sustain success either. Again, quarterback play was topsy-turvy, and by then the defense was aging.
What bodes well for the Bears is they have the kind of game-changing talent on defense – with outside linebacker Khalil Mack, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, cornerback Kyle Fuller, free safety Eddie Jackson and inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith – that they should adjust nicely to the coordinator change.
The offensive line was solid and should get better under Harry Hiestand, one of the better position coaches in the league. Robinson should be better another year removed from ACL injury, and wide receiver Anthony Miller had a promising rookie season.
The schedule will be more demanding, but it's impossible to say now, or even when dates are released in April, how it will play out. The salary cap remains in good shape. The Bears had an overdue run of good health in 2018, and that's a wild card every year.
The Bears won't sneak up on anyone in 2019, but they also shouldn't fade away. Robinson is right. Finishing first and staying there can be more difficult than you think. Now the Bears have to prove parity will not turn them from this year's darling into next year's outcast.