Bears at midseason: Is the arrow pointing up or down?
In an anticipated tell-tale third season under Matt Nagy, the Bears, even at 5-3, look much closer to the 8-8 disappointment of 2019 than the 12-4 NFC North champions of 2018.
The Bears’ 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season is tied for their best record after eight games in the last eight seasons.
Yet there’s more doubt than hope, more trepidation than anticipation and more angst than confidence about Chicago’s most-beloved team these days. There’s something about potentially starting four back-up offensive linemen against the Titans on Sunday that appears to be a little unnerving.
And there’s a better reason: Even before their offensive line was shattered by injuries and COVID-related issues, the Bears haven’t passed the eye test.
In an anticipated tell-tale third season under Matt Nagy, the Bears, even at 5-3, look much closer to the 8-8 disappointment of 2019 than the 12-4 NFC North champions of 2018. They’re at the upper end of a huge bubble of mediocre teams in the NFL, but a step away from looking like a real contender.
How fine is the line? With their 26-23 overtime loss to the Saints on Sunday, the Bears dropped to No. 8 in the NFC playoff rankings — out of the postseason picture. Had they won, they would have been No. 2, which does not have a bye, but still a first-round home game.
Outside of rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney, the Bears don’t have a lot of feel-good stories. Allen Robinson is on a pace for 100 receptions for 1,262 yards and six touchdowns, but doesn’t have a contract for next season. Akiem Hicks is playing well, but also leading the NFL in penalties. Khalil Mack is better than last season, but still not at the Defensive Player of the Year level he was in 2018.
The Bears rallied from a 23-6 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions in Week 1, but the quarterback who made it happen, Mitch Trubisky, was benched two games later. Nick Foles engineered an even better rally against the Falcons, but in five starts since the has been even worse than Trubisky — a 78.1 rating, with five touchdown passes and six interceptions.
The energized rushing attack in the first three games — 149 yards against the Lions, 135 against the Giants, 130 against the Falcons — had ground to a half before showing signs of life against the Saints last week. Even with 96 yards against the Saints, the Bears are averaging 54.3 rushing yards in their last five games to drop from 11th to 31st in the NFL.
The defense has been good, but hasn’t come close to its 2018 dominance, despite the expensive (five years, $70 million) addition of linebacker Robert Quinn. The Bears have nine takeaways — a pace for one fewer than last season, when they had 19. And they miss nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. The Bears’ run defense has dropped to 16th this season, down from ninth last year and first in 2018.
And now they’re losing the battle of attrition that Matt Nagy was determined in the offseason to win. After staying clean for two games, Tarik Cohen suffered a torn ACL against the Falcons, ironically on a play designed to avoid injury — a fair catch. Since then, the Bears have lost guard James Daniels, center Cody Whitehair, tackle Bobby Massie, defensive tackle John Jenkins (twice) and special teams ace Sherrick McManis to injury. And backup tackle Jason Springs and guard Germain Ifedi are on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Be that as it may, the Bears still have hope for a strong second half. Their margin-for-error seems particularly small, but then again, you can never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL. A lot of teams have similar issues. So with that in mind, here’s an optimist/pessimist look at the second half:
Optimist: Nick Foles will find a groove after getting acclimated to the offense and his receivers and protection. The Foles Effect that was so evident against the Falcons will lift the entire offense.
Pessimist: As was suspected all along, Foles is only as good as the offense around him. Mitch Trubisky takes over as the Bears try to stay in the playoff hunt, with no better luck.
MATT NAGY’S OFFENSE
Optimist: A makeshift offensive line forces Nagy to keep it simple — prioritizing protecting the quarterback and the run game, and the offense flourishes.
Pessimist: Nagy continues to try to replicate Andy Reid’s offense without Andy Reid’s players — or Andy Reid — and the Bears keep spinning their wheels on offense.
Optimist: Rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney builds off a promising first half and gives Nagy’s offense the downfield weapon it desperately needs. Likewise, rookie tight end Cole Kmet gives the offense another key dimension it craves, with production that ignites an offensive revival. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson keeps getting better.
Pessimist: Defenses respond to the threat of Mooney’s speed and contain the rookie. Nagy keeps promising to get the ball to Kmet, but with too many offensive holes to address, that keeps getting lost in the shuffle. Johnson keeps making rookie errors that neutralize his good plays.
CHUCK PAGANO’S DEFENSE
Optimist: Under the diligent tutelage of line coach Jay Rodgers, Bilal Nichols and John Jenkins do a better job of filling the Eddie Goldman hole, the run defense improves and the chain-reaction effect turns the Bears into a takeaway machine again.
Pessimist: There’s still only one Eddie Goldman and the standout nose tackle’s absence continues to be a hole that prevents the defense from imposing its will. The Bears defense remains good but not great and unable to flip the switch for a clutch stop.
Optimist: Despite the recent downturn, Matt Nagy’s fastidious approach to the COVID-19 threat pays off as the Bears weather the storm and finish the season without major incident. Whitehair and Massie return to solidify the line and the Bears win several battles in the war of attrition in the second half.
Pessimist: This is just the beginning. The NFL experiences an explosion of COVID cases in the second half and the Bears are caught in the undertow. Wear-and-tear injuries leave the Bears scrambling to keep their defense intact and put a credible offense on the field.
Optimist: As unimpressive as the Bears were in the first half, they’re still pretty good — and well equipped to handle the five sub-.500 teams on their second-half schedule — the Vikings (2-5), Lions (3-4), Texans (1-6), Vikings (2-5) and Jaguars (1-6). With a split against the Packers, that gets them to 11-5 and a playoff berth. And especially in this crazy season, anybody who gets in is a threat.
Pessimist: The Bears’ margin-of-victory in the first half was four, four, four, one and seven points — and the small margin-for-error catches up to them against the weaker teams on their second-half schedule. They go 3-5 to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs, leading to an interesting offseason at Halas Hall.