Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Chicago Bears organization, Bears fans around the world and those who would tell you that, while deep dish is amazing, you should really give Chicago's excellent thin-crust pizza a shot (and to never put ketchup on a hot dog):
Club Dub was the hottest club in the world two years ago, like Tao at its heyday in Las Vegas. But this can be a fickle business. One day, people are waiting for hours behind a velvet rope. The next, you're offering two-for-one drinks to try to get anyone in the door. And that's the way it went for the Bears last season. In Year 2 of the Matt Nagy era, they were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders. The defense (even without coordinator Vic Fangio) was still strong. Mitch Trubisky figured to improve. And Cody Parkey was gone. What could go wrong?
Turns out, a lot of things. But as bad as last season was, Chicago still finished 8-8. The defense really didn't miss a beat, even though it was beset by injuries. And I realize that I'm going to look like the eternal optimist here, but there is again reason for hope with these Bears.
How the Bears got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.
- Eddy P making a kick! It looked like the Bears were going to fold in Week 2 against Denver, but Mitch Trubisky (!) led a last-second rally, capped off by Eddy Pineiro's 53-yard winning kick in controversial fashion, helping to exorcise the ghost of The Double Doink. I'm not sure if words can convey how amazing that was. Instead, I'll just tell you the photo of me and my kids celebrating is my phone's screensaver.
- Sweeping the Vikings. I know Vikings fans like to say their team wasn't trying in Week 17, with a playoff spot locked in and the backup quarterback under center. I'll tell you that we beat the Vikings' best quarterback on that day.
- Despite everything, still managing to finish 8-8. In the end, they were just a few plays shy of reaching the playoffs.
- Dropping the opener at home against Green Bay. It's always tough falling to the Packers, and doing so at Soldier Field to kick off the NFL's 100th season did not establish a great tone.
- Losing in London to the Raiders after blowing a late lead in Week 5. If Chicago had gone into the break at 4-1 instead of 3-2, the season could have been a lot different.
- Settling for a field goal in the closing moments against the Chargers in Week 8. I love Matt Nagy (we will talk about him in a moment). But not continuing to let David Montgomery run over a retreating Chargers defense was a huge error. Pineiro missed the 41-yard try, and Chicago dropped to 3-4.
- Failing to get an answer on Mitch. After three years, the team still doesn't know quite what it has in the QB.
- Kyle Long retiring. My guy put his heart and soul into the Bears.
Head coach: Matt Nagy. Huge fan. I called him my children's version of Mike Ditka last year. Now some fans are throwing out the dreaded "Trestman" name when talking about him. And that's not cool at all. I understand 2019 did not go as planned after a strong 2018. It's like when you nail your first song at karaoke and, fueled by hubris, think you can go up and start rapping Bust a Move, only for it to end up a disaster (trust me). However, to move away from Nagy so quickly (especially when you consider he's won 20 games in his first two seasons) would be a mistake.
The criticism can be fair. As previously mentioned, the field-goal situation against the Chargers was terrible. Ask anybody -- I was livid in the moment leading up to the kick, because it wasn't a good situation to put Eddy in. The Week 11 loss to the Rams was a disaster, with Mitch Trubisky getting pulled in the fourth quarter after the offense stalled out and L.A. took a 17-7 lead. After the game, it was revealed that Trubisky suffered a hip injury in the first half, which made Nagy's decision to have Trubisky (who was also dealing with a bum shoulder that kept him out of the Raiders game) run an option play on third-and-1 in the third quarter seem curious.
But even some of the best coaches make odd moves at times. Think of Pete Carroll not giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX. Or Bill Belichick not letting Stephen Gostkowski try a 49-yard field goal in Super Bowl XLII. Or, well, any decision made by Lovie Smith regarding Rex Grossman in general. (And even the coach who beat the Grossman-quarterbacked Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Indianapolis' Tony Dungy, kicked the ball to Chicago's best offensive player, Devin Hester, which, uh, backfired.)
Look, I'm not trying to make excuses for Nagy here. But to be bold, you need to make some bold moves. It's like when your buddy comes over to your house and immediately starts lining up shots of Fireball -- it could end up being the greatest day of your life, or it could end up going really poorly. It all comes down to Nagy's mantra of "be you." And, yes, "you" (or, in this instance, Nagy) can be really frustrating at times. But Nagy has also given Bears fans more hope than we've had in quite some time. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Quarterbacks: Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles. There is an old saying in football: If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. And I'm just talking about Mitch here. He's like two quarterbacks in one -- the Bruce Banner of the NFL. There are times when he drops dimes like he's peak Joe Montana. And then he'll seem completely oblivious to a wide-open tight end in the end zone. He nearly led Chicago to the Divisional Round in the 2018 playoffs -- and also looked at times last year like some season-ticket holder who won a sweepstakes to play quarterback. Mitch is one of just two Bears quarterback in franchise history (joining Jay Cutler) to have at least 3,000 passing yards in back-to-back seasons (no surprise, if you've actually lived this life). But the team scored just 17.5 points per game last year (down from 26.3 in 2018). The offense also ranked 29th in yards and points scored.
You just never know what you're going to get with Mitch. And the Bears must have felt the same way. Not only did they decline to exercise his fifth-year option (no shock), they sent a fourth-round pick to the Jaguars for Foles to "create competition" -- and some would even expect Foles to be the starter in Week 1.
Will Mitch be given a fair shot? Not only by the coaches, but by the fans? Because even if Mitch wins the job, his first incompletion, first missed read and -- god forbid -- first interception is going to spark anger. To me, the best thing to do is to follow the Super Bowl-winning formula of the Eagles in 2017. Let Mitch begin the season as the starter, then have Foles replace him and lead them to the Super Bowl.
Projected 2020 MVP: Akiem Hicks, defensive tackle. The season changed when Hicks was injured in the London game. That was a big reason why Raiders running back Josh Jacobs was able to run through the Bears in the second half. Hicks went on injured reserve, and you could see that the Bears' defense was not the same without him in the lineup. He tried his best to return later in the season but couldn't quite get there. His presence, along with that of the newly acquired Robert Quinn, could make this defense the best in the NFL this season. I'm not kidding.
New faces to know: Robert Quinn, defensive end and Tashaun Gipson, safety. Since I just spoke about Quinn, it's worth pointing out the free-agent signee is a huge upgrade over the released Leonard Floyd, the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. No disrespect to Floyd, who was a fine football player. He just wasn't top-10-pick good. Quinn could definitely be that person. And if you have him and Hicks healthy, that not only creates a dangerous tandem, but it could also free up Khalil Mack to go out there and be one of the best damn football players in the game. Mack had just 8.5 sacks last year -- that's a solid total for mortals, but not for one of the best around. Quinn and Mack should be the most dominant tag team coming out of Chicago since the Road Warriors.
The addition of Gipson should allow Eddie Jackson a chance to flourish once again. Jackson played more in-the-box safety last year, instead of his traditional spot as the deep-high safety, because Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (now in Dallas) was allowed to play deep last year. Gipson also is a deep-high safety, but he's a better tackler and should be able to play more in the box. The good news is, both players are flexible and should form one of the best tandems in the league. I'm telling you, this defense is nice.
Projected 2020 breakout star: Anthony Miller, wide receiver. I'm excited for Miller to get more opportunities this season for the Bears. The former second-round pick regressed in touchdown totals from his rookie season, going from seven in 2018 to two in '19, and he had shoulder surgery for a second consecutive year. But he's still got talent. And the Bears felt comfortable enough to let Taylor Gabriel leave. (Though Ted Ginn Jr. was brought in to stretch the field.)
AND ALSO: Allen Robinson is a No. 1 wide receiver. Former Steelers safety Ryan Clark made news during the offseason when he said Robinson was not a No. 1 receiver, which is completely ludicrous. Robinson was the first Bears receiver since Alshon Jeffery in 2014 to top 1,000 receiving yards. This despite the regression of Trubisky and the offense. Robinson is clearly a top-10 receiver (let alone top-32), and I would slot him in the top five. Just look at this data from Matt Harmon, which shows Robinson is one of the best route-runners in the game:
This also seems good:
Please stop this nonsense, Clark.
The 2020 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Bears have made the playoffs only once in the last nine seasons, so it's strange to say they should be competitive. But the NFC North is down a bit. The Bears are the most improved team. And you don't make a bunch of moves with veteran players to shoot for 8-8.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 at Lions. The Bears are 0-2 in season-openers under Matt Nagy. To be fair, they played the Packers in both games. But the Bears haven't won a season road opener since Lovie Smith was the coach. And if we expect Mitch to start Week 1, this matchup could be huge.
- Week 5 vs. Buccaneers. If you have to play the Buccaneers, you want to do it early in the season, especially if there is limited preseason action with which Tom Brady can get up to speed. This could also be the point where Mitch has either proven to be the quarterback of the future or not.
- Week 17 vs. Packers. I mean, this might be the first chance to see Jordan Love, since the Bears will likely have the NFC North wrapped at this point, and the Packers will be playing for pride. At least, that's what Bears fans hope. For what it's worth, Chicago did clinch the 2018 NFC North title at home against the Packers.
Will the Bears be able to ...
Run the ball this season? A lot of folks believe that David Montgomery failed during his rookie season last year, but the tape doesn't show that. Montgomery looked the part of what the Bears expected from him when they drafted him in the third round. Montgomery had seven scrimmage touchdowns last year, the most by a rookie Bears running back since Jordan Howard in 2016. And while the team ranked 27th in rushing, I wouldn't blame the ball-carrier; rather, it was on an offensive line that was beset by injuries and some questionable positioning. My guy Kyle Long battled a hip injury all year before eventually retiring (or, depending on when you ask him, getting fired). Right tackle Bobby Massie missed the final five games of the season with an ankle injury. And then the team created a disaster by flip-flopping Cody Whitehair and James Daniels at the center/guard spots. While new offensive line coach Juan Castillo is expected to offer some stability for the line this year, the Bears didn't do much to improve the unit during free agency, though they did land the very intriguing Arlington Hambright in the seventh round. If a coaching change and a return to health of some of the players can get the offensive line back in form, the running game should pick up again, which will help whomever plays quarterback. But if the line doesn't improve this season, there is a good chance the Bears find themselves treading water for a second consecutive year.
Create turnovers? The Bears were one of two teams (Ravens) to allow less than 20 points per game in each of the last two seasons, and they ranked fourth in scoring defense last year (18.6 points allowed per game). The one noticeable difference from the Bears team that won the NFC North in 2018 was a lack of takeaways. The 2018 group was so opportunistic on defense -- Jackson was out there like a modern-day Mike Brown, taking interceptions to the house like it was the 2000s -- and wound up leading the league with 36 takeaways. Last year's Bears tied for 22nd with 19. The Bears had an NFL-high 27 picks in in 2018 and just 10 (tied for 25th) last year. Jackson didn't have the same impact, though he was kind of playing out of position. But I did just lay out how newcomers Quinn and Gipson should make them much better. Hicks is again healthy. And I didn't even mention Jaylon Johnson, who was a steal in the second round -- he had some injury troubles at Utah, but he could end up being one of the best cornerbacks in the draft. I won't get crazy and say he's going to be better than Jeff Okudah. That's crazy. But Jaylen does have the benefit of playing with Kyle Fuller on the opposite side of the field.
Feel comfortable kicking the football? Again, I was so happy for Eddy when he nailed that winner in Denver -- but Nagy did him dirty against the Chargers. And while Eddy never seemed in danger of losing his gig last year, Pace set yet another kicking competition in motion by signing Ramiz Ahmed, who played at Nevada in 2018. I want to hope the Bears' fate never comes down to kicking again, but you know it will. And I can safely say I don't feel comfortable. It was like watching the end of The Clone Wars on Disney Plus -- I knew Order 66 was coming. I thought I was ready for it. But it turns out, I was wrong.
One storyline people are ...
... overlooking: Ryan Pace has built a damn good roster. He's never going live down the fact that he drafted Trubisky No. 2 overall over Patrick Mahomes (No. 10) and Deshaun Watson (No. 12) in 2017. He's going to have to wear that. Kind of like how Kevin Smith is going to have live with Cop Out, no matter how great some of his other movies are. But these Bears are loaded. The defense, as mentioned, is pretty great. He's done a nice job with the receivers. Montgomery is going to prove all of the doubters wrong. Obviously, quarterback is a huge question mark. But when you look at the team, 21 players strong, it's so deep and good that it's moronic to suggest the Bears should tank to get one of the top quarterbacks coming into the draft next season. The floor for this group should again be eight wins, like it was last year. I have a feeling it's going to be higher.
... overthinking: The tight end situation. The amount of time people had on their hands this offseason was illustrated by all the tweets about the Bears carrying 10 tight ends on their roster. (That total has since dropped to nine.) Yeah, it's the offseason. This is what happens when you're trying to address one of the most important positions on your offense. Free-agent signee Jimmy Graham is still a good player, though the Bears probably are overpaying a bit. And we can argue whether rookie Cole Kmet was a proper value in the second round. But sometimes you need to take your guy. If he becomes the next George Kittle (I'd be happy with Darren Waller), you won't care where you drafted him. When you see stuff like this, you'll understand why defending Kmet is a hill I'm willing to die on:
For the 2020 season to be a success, the Bears MUST ...
- Beat the Packers. The Bears were 4-2 in the NFC North last year, which is great, but if they'd taken even one of those games with the Packers, the season just would've felt different.
- Get back to the playoffs. I saw some power rankings that had the Bears at No. 31, which is an idea that exists outside of reality. This is a really good roster. Reaching the playoffs should be the expectation.
- Figure out who the quarterback is. I don't care whether the final word on Mitch ends up being good or bad (well, I do, sort of), but we do need to be able to say something definitive, one way or another. And if the answer is no, then we need to see if Foles can stick.
Even if you set the weirdness of our current times aside, last season seems like a lifetime ago. One year after thinking the Bears were Super Bowl contenders, we now have the same we'll see what we get feeling we had heading into 2018. And maybe that's for the best. Maybe this team needs to once again come in as an afterthought and shock the world. Maybe Mitch will start to put it all together and rise to the challenge. (Remember, this guy plays his best football in the fourth quarter.) Maybe he'll shut up the haters and lead the Bears back to the playoffs.
Or maybe Mitch won't progress -- and Foles will come in to save the day and lead the Bears back to the playoffs.
Or maybe the Bears will just kind of flounder through the season, winning eight games by virtue of their defense, which will make them not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a premium-tier quarterback. So instead, they'll have to draft a high-risk rookie and start the cycle all over again.