Monsters of the Midway
Football, like life, is littered with instances of what ifs. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears surprised everyone by trading up one spot to land quarterback Mitchell Trubisky from North Carolina, as the number two pick overall. To move up to the number two spot, the Bears gave up three draft picks to the San Francisco 49ers. Trubisky told the media after the draft that he had no idea who was going to draft him, adding he hadn’t met with Bears management prior to the draft. Drafting a prospect number two overall who you haven’t met does not make sense. A further dollop of intrigue came when then Bears head coach John Fox said he was in the dark about drafting Trubisky. None of this sounds right. It will be a subject the Chicago and pro football media will pick over for a long time. Looking back on the 2017 draft, you can’t fail to notice that Patrick Mahomes was drafted by Kansas City at 10 and Deshaun Watson swooped up by Houston at 12. Patrick Mahomes is a world champion: a regular season and Super Bowl MVP. He is the best football player and now the best paid. Watson is the face of his franchise, and in a short time, a proven top five quarterback. Deep down, I suspect Chicago reflects regularly on what might have been. I’ll examine one of the NFL’s most decorated franchises and look at what the 2020 season holds for the Bears.
The Chicago Bears came into existence in 1920 and have won nine NFL Championships, more games than any other franchise. They are the most storied NFL club along with the Green Bay Packers. George Halas became Bears player-coach in 1921. The man affectionately known as ‘Papa Bear,’ remarkably prowled the sidelines as head coach until 1968. When Halas retired as Bears head coach, he became the principal team owner and took an active role in team operations until his death. He coached some of the greatest football players in Chicago and pro football history, like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. Halas could be turbulent and vindictive, but he also rewarded loyalty. When former Bears star tight end Mike Dikta wrote Halas a letter saying he’d like to be head coach “when he was ready”, Halas remembered it. That’s how Ditka came to be head coach for the start of the 1982 season. Led by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense, considered one of the best in NFL history, the Bears went on a dominant Super Bowl run and lifted the Lombardi Trophy in 1986. Ryan’s defensive scheme aimed to attack the quarterback with overwhelming numbers. It was all about pressure. Physical, nasty, Chicago. Mike Singletary won defensive player of the year in 1985 and was the cornerstone of the defense. The team was dotted with brute force and deft touch, epitomized by William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry and dashing Walter Payton. The two larger than life coaches, Ditka and Ryan, drove the Bears. This legendary Bears team with its power and eccentricities of character, epitomized aspects of late 1980s and early 90s America, with Chicago’s other commanding team, the NBA’s Bulls, increasingly in the national spotlight. Little wonder ‘Da Bears’ were immortalized in a regular Saturday Night Live sketch.
The Bears had a feel good air to them in 2018. Free agent Khalil Mack was an instant success. The defense was mean again, and new head coach Matt Nagy’s offensive scheme dialed up a lot of successive, innovative plays that got the best out of the offense and allowed young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to feel his way into pro football. Even when Cody Parkey’s ‘Double Doink’ devastating last minute field goal at Soldier Field cost the Bears a place in the NFC Divisional Round, it still felt like the Bears were set for an era of success and consistency. The 2019 season laid waste to that theory. The Bears regressed. Major doubts now exist over Trubisky and the coaching effort spearheaded by Nagy. Unlike the strong, working relationships between general managers and head coaches I’ve described in Seattle, Buffalo and San Francisco, Chicago enjoys no such cohesion or a consistent track record of success. General manager Ryan Pace has overseen a number of subpar draft classes that have in turn been poorly developed by the coaching system. Every general manager knows that if you move up in the draft and give up a lot in return, you must land an impact player. After working with John Fox first, and now Nagy, Trubisky has experience of two coaching systems and enters his third year with Nagy. The Bears declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. If you don’t have faith in your quarterback, you need a new one. Chicago acknowledged there is a problem by bringing in veteran and former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. If the Bears crave consistency, then Foles should start from week one of the regular season. The offense was held back by Trubisky last year. He is inconsistent and the accuracy of his short range passes is not good enough for a starting NFL quarterback. I do concede that his offensive line went from 11th to 25th overall according to Pro Football Focus in 2019, which didn’t help him. Nagy has insisted he won’t name his week one starter until the day of the Detroit Lions game. The Bears need to get even more production out of Allen Robinson and Tarik Cohen. Cohen thrived in Matt Nagy’s first season, operating effectively as a Swiss Army Knife that could be used in the passing and running game, and he can line up all over the formation. Robinson anchored the offense last season, although he’s entering this season with an ankle injury. The offense is already under duress to get its starters on the field after running back David Montgomery's groin injury at practice last week. He’ll miss the first few weeks of the season.
Monsters of the Midway
Chicago boasts one of the best defensive line groups in the NFL. This defense was Super Bowl caliber two years ago. If it is this to reconnect with the class of 2018 and dare I say, 1985, it needs linebacker Khalil Mack to rekindle his form of two seasons ago. When Mack combines the mode of dominant pass rusher, run stopper and all round dirty trench worker, it inspires those around him, and the resulting Bears defense is formidable. If you add in the outstanding Akiem Hicks who was injured last season, Roquan Smith and free agent Robert Quinn there is no reason why they can’t bully teams upfront this season. The secondary is not as strong. After cornerback Artie Burns tore his ACL, the stage is set for second round draft pick Jaylon Johnson to start. Headaches and Ticking Clocks The Chicago Bears have nothing exceptional to go up against in the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are good, yet limited teams. Baltimore and Kansas City they are not. Elements of the media are tipping the Lions as the team that could emerge from the NFC North, but there is a degree of fantasy in that assessment. The division is wide open. The Bears have a chance to make the playoffs.
Which brings us back to Mitchell Trubisky. What did someone see in him that made him a first round pick in the draft, let alone the number two overall pick? For a quarterback entering his fourth year in the league, there are too many question marks about Trubisky. By not exercising the fifth year option on his rookie contract and bringing Nick Foles in, the Bears have slowly started to admit as much. Expect what has the potential to be a fantastic Bears defense to bounce back, but it won’t be enough if the offense splutters again. Matt Nagy needs to return to the conviction of his former Kansas City coaching playbook and be aggressive if he wants to keep up with other teams in the division. This starts with his offense scoring more points. Getting the best out of Tarik Cohen and Allen Robinson will help in this pursuit. There needs to be a properly managed transition at quarterback. Nick Foles can be the bridge guy. I can see the Bears defense firing and a solid game manager at quarterback keeping a smart Nagy offensive scheme ticking. I can’t speak for Trubisky or Ryan Pace’s future, but if Nagy gets to the playoffs and his team looks like their 2018 incarnation, he could be the head coach for a long time.