Coach Matt Nagy isn’t into optics, but let’s face it, the timing couldn’t be worse.
A week after the Bears were eliminated from playoff contention with quarterback Mitch Trubisky operating at the whim of a broken offense, reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs come to town to remind everybody of what could have been. You have to think Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace were in favor of moving this game to a noon start.
Pace, Nagy and Trubisky never will escape the comparisons between Trubisky and Mahomes. But the Chiefs-Bears prime-time game at Soldier Field on Sunday night obviously puts a local and national spotlight on the decision that ultimately could define Pace’s tenure with the Bears — trading up one spot to take Trubisky with the second overall pick of the 2017 draft when he could have stayed at No. 3 and taken Mahomes, who went 10th overall to the Chiefs.
In Year 3 of a quarterback class that also includes Texans star Deshaun Watson, the debate is a no-contest. Mahomes has backed up his MVP season with Pro Bowl numbers in 2019 despite missing nearly two games with a dislocated kneecap.
In 12 games, Mahomes has completed 280 of 426 passes (65.7 percent) for 3,606 yards and 23 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating (106.2), fourth in yards per game (300.5 — it’s 320.9 in 11 complete games) and third in yards per attempt (8.5). And he has done it with a running game that ranks 22nd in the NFL in yards and 25th in yards per carry.
But besides the numbers, Mahomes has an uncanny knack as a playmaker who can turn bad plays into big ones. His 14 completions of 40-or-more yards (nine for touchdowns) are the most in the NFL (Trubisky has two). And none of his top seven pass plays (83, 68, 63, 52, 49, 48 and 47) has been to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. In fact, Mahomes has thrown 40-plus-yard passes to six receivers.
Mahomes-Trubisky isn’t even a comparison at this point. Trubisky becoming the next Alex Smith — who made four playoff appearances in five seasons — seems like a more reasonable target.
But the comparisons will be inevitable this week.
“I don’t get into that,” said Nagy, a former Chiefs assistant under Andy Reid who coached Mahomes in 2017. “I understand [it]. But they have a good season going right now; they’re playing well.
“Obviously, I have the utmost respect for coach Reid. He’s taught me everything. I’ve learned a lot from him. Everybody in that organization, that building, I’m friends with. They’ve helped get me to this point. But at the same time, when we get rolling [Sunday night], it has nothing to do with a one-on-one battle. It’s [all] about these two teams.”
2. Trubisky’s postgame comment that “we could have taken more pressure off [the offensive line by] moving the pocket a little more and getting me out” was more of a lament of frustration than a direct shot at Nagy.
If anything, it put the focus on the offensive line — a big disappointment in 2019 and arguably the biggest area of concern heading into 2020. With tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie on long-term deals, this line is likely to return intact, with a huge onus to provide growth from within in a critical year for Nagy, Trubisky and Pace.
3. One potential upgrade on the offensive line is at right guard, with Kyle Long not expected to return. Rashaad Coward — a former defensive lineman who converted to offense last season — replaced Long because veteran Ted Larsen was hurt, then won the job. He figures to go into 2020 as the starter, with competition from 2019 undrafted rookie Alex Bars.
“He has the physical ability, and he has the toughness,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “When you project what a guy’s capable of doing down the road, you have to look at the person and how important it is to him, how driven he is, how hard he’s willing to work — and he grades out on all of those. So we’ll see. But he’s on the right track.”
4. Biggest needs for improvement in 2020: 1. Offensive line; 2. Nagy; 3. Trubisky; 4. Tight ends; 5. Running game. In theory, if the Bears get their offensive line right, they have enough talent — including at quarterback — that the other issues will fall into place. In theory.
5. Kudos to Akiem Hicks for gutting out the Packers game — and making a big impact — despite obvious issues with his left arm after the rehab of his dislocated elbow. But it’s not worth the risk to play him in the last two games. He’s in the prime of his career. The Bears don’t need him coming off another rehab through the offseason.
The more interesting decision to watch is with cornerback Prince Amukamara, who has a sore hamstring. The Bears might want to see if Kevin Toliver can be a more cost-efficient option in 2020. Toliver (31 snaps) and Amukamara (28) shared playing time against the Packers.
Amukamara will have a $10 million cap hit in 2020 (and only $1 million in dead-cap money). Toliver will be on the third year of his rookie deal, with a cap hit of $665,000 in 2020.
6. It would’ve been disappointing if the Bears’ offense had just stagnated in 2019, but the discouraging aspect was the regression. In Nagy’s first season, the Bears had 12 plays of 40 or more yards — only nine teams had more.
This year, the Bears are last in the NFL with only four plays of 40 or more yards — none for touchdowns. It’s the fewest for a Bears team since 1996, when they had three (not including a 47-yard pass from Todd Sauerbrun to Raymont Harris on a fake punt).
The Chiefs lead the NFL with 19 plays of 40 or more yards.
6a. Go figure: The Bears and Saints are the only teams in the NFL without a touchdown play of 40 or more yards.
The Bears’ long touchdown play from scrimmage is Trubisky’s 36-yard pass to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel against the Redskins.
The Saints’ long scoring play is a 38-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to tight end Jared Cook against the 49ers on Dec. 8.
The Saints (11-3) are ninth in the NFL in total offense. The Bears (7-7) are 28th.
7. The Bears held Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to his lowest season passer rating against them (84.5) and went 0-2. In fact, it’s Rodgers’ second-lowest cumulative rating in a season series against an NFC North opponent in his career (he had an 83.4 passer rating against the Vikings in 2015).
8. The Bears’ opponents for 2020 are all but set: Home — Saints, Buccaneers, Texans, Colts, Giants/Redskins (whichever team finishes third in the NFC East), Vikings, Packers, Lions. Road — Falcons, Panthers, Jaguars, Titans, Rams, Vikings, Packers, Lions.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week Award: Bills running back Senorise Perry prevented a big return when he tackled Steelers running back Kerrith Whyte on a 24-yard kickoff return in the second quarter, sparking the Bills to a 17-10 victory at Heinz Field.
10. Bear-ometer: 8-8 — vs. Chiefs (L); at Vikings (W).