If the Bears are the surprise team in the NFL this season, it won’t be a surprise.
After a season in which the Super Bowl champion Eagles and the Jaguars and Rams made quantum leaps from losing records in 2016 to serious playoff contention in 2017, everyone’s radar is out for the next surprise team, and the Bears are among the prime contenders.
The Bears have been a train wreck since general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith were fired in 2011 and 2012, but this year’s team fits the profile that catapulted the Rams from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017: former No. 2 overall draft pick Mitch Trubisky is in his second season at quarterback; offensive-minded coach Matt Nagy replaced John Fox as coach; general manager Ryan Pace acquired upgraded passing-game weapons for Trubisky; and without an Aaron Donald — even without a Pro Bowl player — the Bears have a top-10 defense (10th in yards, 11th in yards per play, sixth in sacks, ninth in points) that is virtually intact and adding rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick in the draft.
Veteran NFL writers took note.
“The Bears could be one of the league’s most improved teams,” wrote longtime Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain, who had the Bears 24th in his offseason power rankings.
Vinny Iyer of The Sporting News went one step further. “The Bears could be the Eagles of 2018,” wrote Iyer, who had the Bears 20th in his post-Super Bowl power rankings and 19th heading into the draft. But the Bears will have to prove it on the field. Despite the optimism, the Bears are 24th to 28th in most major power rankings. The Bears had nobody in NFL Network’s list of Top 100 players entering the 2018 season — a poll of NFL players, not media. The Bears are 100-1 to win the Super Bowl in Vegas sportsbooks. And their over/under win total is 6.5.
The best endorsement came from NFL.com columnist Adam Schein, who picked the Bears as his Cinderella team. (Last year, Schein’s Cinderella team was the Jaguars, who went from 3-13 to 10-6 and the AFC Championship Game.)
Then again, when ESPN.com had its beat writers make game-by-game predictions for the team they cover when the schedule was released in April, every reporter of a Bears opponent picked the Bears to lose — they compositely have the Bears going 0-16.
With that in mind, here is our annual test of Bears fans’ optimism/pessimism for the upcoming season. Rate these categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote.
90-100: Lay off the Kool-Aid.
70-80: Must be new in town.
20 to minus-20: Seeing is believing.
Minus-50 to minus-70: Waiting for Ditka’s return.
Minus-80 to minus-100: Packers fan.
Optimist: With an improved receiving corps and a knack for simplifying the complexities of Nagy’s offense, Trubisky blossoms as a quarterback and becomes the face-of-the-franchise leader the Bears have lacked since Brian Urlacher retired. His 97.8 passer rating is the Bears’ highest for a full-time starter since Sid Luckman.
Pessimist: Overwhelmed by the complexities of Nagy’s offense and the challenge of playing with new teammates who also are overwhelmed by the complexities of Nagy’s offense, Trubisky takes as many steps backward as forward. His 82.4 passer rating is worse than all but one of Jay Cutler’s full-season ratings as a Bear.
Optimist: With a top-10 defense that puts the wind at his back and a burgeoning array of multi-dimensional weapons, a clear-thinking Nagy keeps defenses on their heels and becomes the Bears’ first Coach of the Year winner since Lovie Smith in 2005.
Pessimist: Overwhelmed by the added burden of being the head coach, Nagy too often looks like a rookie, struggles with game day responsibilities, ends up giving play-calling duties to Mark Helfrich — but still is an upgrade over John Fox.
Vic Fangio’s defense
Optimist: With the addition of Roquan Smith to an experienced cast of players in their second, third and fourth seasons under Fangio, the defense plays a half-step quicker and finds its bite — becoming a dominant takeaway machine that rivals Lovie Smith’s best teams.
Pessimist: Unable to avoid the injury bug again, Fangio’s defense develops a gaping hole at edge rusher as lone threat Leonard Floyd is easily contained, Kyle Fuller struggles to live up to his contract, and the Bears’ defense drops to the middle of the pack.
Optimist: The Bears’ cautious approach in the offseason is rewarded as Robinson, with a better quarterback and better supporting casts, returns to his 2015 form and exceeds Alshon Jeffery’s 1,133-yard, 10-touchdown 2014 season.
Pessimist: Recovery from his torn ACL turns out to be more arduous than the Bears thought — not a big surprise. Falls short of Cam Meredith’s 888-yard, four-touchdown 2016 season.
Optimist: Healthy and ultra-motivated with his 30th birthday approaching, Long starts all 16 games for the first time since 2015 and makes up for lost time with the best season of his career. Makes his fourth Pro Bowl.
Pessimist: Turns out he’s an old 29 — starts the season healthy and in good spirits but breaks down little by little, gets overwhelmed by opponents he used to dominate and finds himself at a career crossroads entering 2019.
Optimist: With proven veteran talent around him, Smith adjusts quickly to the NFL, shows off his versatility — playing like a safety on one play, like an edge rusher the next — leads the Bears in tackles and wins the defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Pessimist: Struggles to adjust to the demanding nuances of Fangio’s defense, rarely is able to use his speed, makes a splash play here and there, but being only 6-0 is a factor. Nick Kwiatkoski is more effective.
Matt Nagy’s offense
Optimist: With a real leader at the helm in Trubisky, the offense averages more than 25 points a game — most since the 2006 Super Bowl season. Long, Cody Whitehair, Charles Leno, Robinson and Tarik Cohen make the Pro Bowl.
Pessimist: With too many moving parts trying to get into sync, the offense shows promise but can’t find consistency. Miscommunications lead to costly mistakes. Wait until next year.
Optimist: With better health and better luck, the third-year linebacker comes into his own with a 12-sack season and becomes the kind of devastating threat that makes every other defender better.
Pessimist: Never really getting to top speed after missing most of the offseason, Floyd struggles to take the next step in his development and has an uninspiring 6.5-sack season.
Optimist: Like a freight train that can’t be stopped, Hicks continues his rise to Pro Bowl status with his best season yet — a factor on almost every play he’s on the field — and finally earns league-wide recognition as an elite player.
Pessimist: Consumed by his desire for recognition and individual accomplishment, Hicks tries too hard, loses discipline and is easily contained — a downturn that has a chain-reaction on the defense.
Optimist: Bears face the right teams at the right place at the right time early — Seattle and Arizona rebuilding, Tampa Bay in James Winston’s first game, etc. — get off to a 7-2 start and ride the moment to a 10-6 season and a playoff berth.
Pessimist: In a formative stage in Nagy’s first season, not-ready-for-prime-time Bears come up short in winnable early games and struggle in a difficult division — a 1-5 mark in the NFC North keeps them in the basement at 6-10.