Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.
Despite the infamous double-doink ending, the Chicago Bears finished the 2018 season feeling pretty good.
They went 12-4 and won the NFC North, blowing away even the most optimistic breakout predictions. The defense was young, exciting and dominant. Matt Nagy was NFL coach of the year. Mitchell Trubisky made a Pro Bowl at 24 years old (yes, that actually happened). The future looked bright.
We like to think when a team makes a leap that it will continue to move forward. Nobody wants to pick a young 12-4 team to fall back to 8-8 the next season.
“The Bears were back,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “And then to take a step back was especially disappointing.”
The problems started right away with a 10-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the season opener. Nagy seemed to quickly lose faith in Trubisky after that, and so did Bears fans. By the end of the season it was worth wondering if Nagy was a one-year wonder, because his play-calling wasn’t exactly inspired. Blaming the media when things started to go bad wasn’t his best look either. The defense was good but nowhere near great. Only a few players didn’t take a step back from 2018.
It’s safe to say 2018 was probably a bit of a fortunate year for the Bears. It’s also fair to say last season was a bit unlucky. Maybe 2020 can be somewhere in between.
There’s no more hype for the Bears. The Chicago Sun-Times published a story, “Time to prove it: This season will show whether Matt Nagy is the right coach for the Bears.” Nagy was the NFL’s coach of the year two years ago. Another story proclaimed “Bears coaches: Khalil Mack has ‘something to prove’” about the 2018 first-team All-Pro. Most of the pessimism is due to the way everyone so quickly and completely turned on Trubisky, though he earned plenty of the scorn. His play was undeniably bad in 2019 after a promising 2018. There’s still a talented defense led by Khalil Mack, presumably Nagy hasn’t forgotten how to coach football and there’s probably enough on offense that a rebound could happen. Especially if the Bears figure out the quarterback position between Trubisky and Nick Foles, who was acquired in a trade this offseason.
Regression works both ways. The Bears probably aren’t as good as their fans hoped after 2018 and not as bad as a long and dreary offseason would lead you to believe. Now that the hype is gone, maybe the Bears can bounce back some and be close to the team everyone wanted in 2019.
If not, there will be plenty to talk about in Chicago next offseason.
The weirdest move of the offseason, not counting anything Bill O’Brien did, might have been the Bears signing tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham, who looked finished with the Green Bay Packers and turns 34 years old this season, got a two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed. The Bears also panicked in trading a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles. They reworked Foles’ deal to give him $21 million guaranteed. Months later, the New England Patriots got Cam Newton, a better quarterback, on a minimum deal and didn’t have to trade anything. Robert Quinn’s career had stagnated, then he had 11.5 sacks with the Dallas Cowboys and got $70 million over five years with the Bears. Quinn hadn’t posted a double-digit sack season since 2014. He’ll replace Leonard Floyd, the disappointing former first-round pick who got a $10 million deal for one year with the Los Angeles Rams. The Bears didn’t have a first-round pick and no third- or fourth-round picks either. The whole offseason plan was confusing.
When a team trades a fourth-round pick and guarantees $21 million to a quarterback, then declines the fifth-year option on the incumbent quarterback, it’s not like there’s much mystery. The Bears have one foot out the door on Mitchell Trubisky, and this is his last chance to pull them back in.
The Bears’ best-case scenario is Trubisky responding to the competition and becoming a star, and that’s why Nagy said he’ll get the first snaps with the starters in training camp. But coaches say it’s a true competition and based on what the Bears gave up to get Foles, it seems like Trubisky has to do something to win the job.
“I feel very good about the talks that Mitch and I have had about the fact that his future — and his career — is in his hands,” new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, according to the Sun-Times. “I think that’s the way he and I have agreed to look at it. And that’s a great thing about football — it’s up to you.”
It would be hard to find anyone who believes Trubisky will have a huge turnaround. There are too many flaws in his game, and he has clearly lost the confidence of Matt Nagy. The question becomes if he even starts by Week 1. It seems the Bears will have no problem going right to Foles at the first sign of trouble.
The Khalil Mack trade looked like a runaway win for the Bears and it probably still is, but it’s a little less clear now. Mack was great in 2018 and good in 2019. He had 8.5 sacks, his first time not reaching double-digit sacks since his rookie year in 2014. His 14 quarterback hits were his lowest total since 2014 and Mack set career lows with 47 tackles and eight tackles for loss.
“It’s tough,” Mack said late last season, according to the Sun-Times. “I’m a tough critic, especially on myself. It definitely wasn’t what I wanted to put on film all year. But it is what it is.”
Losing Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator might have hurt, and current defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said he can scheme ways for Mack to be in a more impactful role. Mack is a fantastic player and should rebound, and will have to if the Bears want to make it back to the playoffs.
Even though I think the Bears could bounce back, the under of 8.5 wins at BetMGM seems like the slightly better play. A quarterback controversy — and a mediocre to bad year from both quarterbacks — is a big threat. I wouldn’t feel strongly about it though. There are reasons to believe in a nice rebound.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “We need to be careful not to anoint Nick Foles as some kind of savior, but if he does indeed take over at quarterback, it could be a boom year for Allen Robinson. Keep in mind, Robinson had a WR4 season with Blake Bortles, and was WR12 last year despite the mess of Mitch Trubisky. Robinson is a fantasy target in the third round, and even deserves consideration if you find yourself unsure at the end of the second round.
“Robinson faces little competition for the ball, always a delicious fantasy boost. Heading into his age-27 season, the timing is right for a production spike.”
It seems a bit strange, but Allen Robinson posted just the 16th 1,000-yard receiving season in Bears history. For reference, Jerry Rice has 14 by himself. Robinson was one of the few Bears who was much better in 2019 than 2018, another year removed from ACL surgery. His 98-1,147-7 line was strong considering the inconsistent quarterback play and lack of any other offensive weapon to take defensive attention away from him. According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson’s 153 targets last season ranked second to only Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints. Unless the Bears get a lot more from the tight end position or Anthony Miller has a third-year breakout, expect Robinson to be among the NFL’s leaders in targets again.
Can the Bears find a running game?
Even Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was upset with Matt Nagy’s offense last season.
“I’d like to see Nagy’s play-calling be a little less predictable and pedestrian,” Lightfoot said during a fundraiser in April, via NBC Sports Chicago.
The Bears’ lack of a run game was an issue all year. After the Bears attempted just seven runs in a loss to the New Orleans Saints, setting a franchise record in the Super Bowl era, Nagy said, “I know we need to run the ball more. I'm not an idiot.”
David Montgomery’s struggles didn’t help. The rookie was supposed to fit Nagy’s offense better than Jordan Howard, but he was never a big factor. He had 889 rushing yards in 16 games, averaging 3.7 yards per attempt. Montgomery ranked 42nd of 45 qualified running backs in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR). In Pro Football Focus’ grades, he ranked 24th of 29 backs who had at least 150 carries.
The Bears did little to add to the running back position in the offseason, showing some faith in Montgomery. He was just a rookie and could improve in his second season. If he doesn’t, the Bears will have a similar problem.
For all the angst over Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears went 12-4 with him two seasons ago and he generally played well. It’s fun to crush him and constantly joke about the Bears passing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson to draft him second overall, but it’s not like Trubisky is incapable of playing well enough for Chicago to win a division title. Or, Nick Foles can play well enough for the Bears to win games. If the defense ticks up a bit to get closer to 2018 levels and the Bears get the offense back to the middle of the pack, they could live up to that 2019 hype a year late.
Imagine being told at the end of the 2018 regular season that Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky might be gone at the end of 2020. I don’t buy that Nagy needs to win this season or he will be on the hot seat, but maybe that will happen if this season is bad enough. And Trubisky certainly is playing for his Bears future. Let’s put general manager Ryan Pace on the hot seat, too. It’s at least possible that two seasons removed from what seemed like the start of something good, the Bears could be making some seismic changes.
I might end up being a little low on the Bears. Last year was not good for them and they still went 8-8. The constant negativity surrounding them, the weird approach to the offseason and the potential mess at quarterback is hard to shake. Let’s put the Bears in the 8-8 range again. That will likely be enough to buy Matt Nagy more time. We’ll see what Mitchell Trubisky’s future looks like after the season.
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