The Bears will arrive at Olivet Nazarene University on Thursday carrying duffel bags, pillows from home and a whole lot of expectations.
They’re looking to make the playoffs a second consecutive year, a feat the franchise has accomplished once since 1992.
They believe they can win the Super Bowl. But there’s work to be done.
“I know there’s buzz right now around who we are and everything — and I get it,” coach Matt Nagy said Sunday. “That’s part of it. But we haven’t done anything. And this is a new year.
“There are plenty of examples of teams that have had really good years and then come back, and, for whatever reason, they don’t.”
Into which group will the Bears fall? It depends on how they answer the five biggest questions facing them this season:
1. How much will Mitch Trubisky improve?
No one’s going to print general manager Ryan Pace’s goals for his quarterback — “steady, incremental improvement” — on a T-shirt. But the fastest way for the Bears to improve despite a first-place schedule is for Trubisky to make a leap in his second season under Nagy.
The Bears proved last year that they can win with Trubisky. But can they win because of him?
An improved running game will help. So would another dominant defensive season. Super Bowl teams, though, need a standout passer. Of the quarterbacks to start the last six Super Bowls, only one — the Panthers’ Cam Newton — has a worse career passer rating than Trubisky.
There’s plenty for Trubisky to work on in his third year. The Bears have defended his accuracy but say he has worked on mechanics to fine-tune it. Because he won’t play much in preseason games, real answers might not come until Week 1.
He’s dependable in the locker room.
“That’s just the person he is,” Pace said. “He’s very close with all his teammates. I think he’s critical of himself, but in the right way. And I think it’s just natural for him. We felt it at North Carolina — even in the one year, you could feel that quality in him. So it’s just natural; it’s easy for him.
“Matt always says, ‘Be authentic. Be you.’ And that’s what Mitch is doing.”
2. Can the defense repeat?
The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways and 27 interceptions last year.
History says they won’t do it again. In the last six seasons, six teams have led the NFL in takeaways. The Ravens were first in 2017 and sixth from the bottom last year.
Takeaways don’t always carry over from one year to the next. Blame fumble luck — the ball is oblong, after all — or injuries or even the more difficult schedule assigned to good teams.
The Bears have a chance to buck the trend. They return 10 starters from their base defense, including Pro Bowl players Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. Second-year inside linebacker Roquan Smith soon could join them in the all-star game.
New starter Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will begin training camp on the physically unable-to-perform list, but the Bears claim the safety’s knee injury is not a long-term problem.
While the players look the same, the coaches don’t. New coordinator Chuck Pagano remade the staff — only defensive line coach Jay Rodgers remains in the same role.
That will give training camp a different vibe, though Pace expects the same result.
“I don’t feel like we’ve skipped a beat,” he said.
Pace pointed to the continuing development of their young players — defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and others — as another reason for optimism. Floyd impressed Pace more than any other veteran this offseason.
“I just feel like his repertoire — his toolbox — has grown,” he said.
A jump from the 2016 first-round pick, who has only 9½ sacks over the last two seasons, would boost an already-loaded defense.
“We have a young, talented defense that’s improving as we go,” Pace said. “And I think you can feel Chuck’s energy spreading through that unit.”
3. Who will kick?
The team’s well-documented derby hasn’t produced a winner — and might not until the Bears see other teams’ cuts two days after the last preseason game.
Thursday will be the 200-day mark since Cody Parkey punched his ticket out of town by double-doinking a likely playoff game-winner. His $4.06 million cap hit means the Bears want Eddy Pineiro or Elliott Fry to seize the job. Neither has kicked in an NFL game but will come cheap. Training camp is their audition.
If it goes poorly, Pace hasn’t ruled out trading for, or claiming, a veteran toward the end of the preseason.
4. How much did they upgrade at RB?
In his three NFL seasons, Jordan Howard posted more rushing yards than all but two players: Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. Still, he wasn’t a fit in Nagy’s offense.
“When you have a running back that doesn’t excel at running routes and creating mismatches on the perimeter in the passing game, it makes you predictable,” Bears player personnel director Josh Lucas said in June. “One of the reasons we moved on from Jordan.”
The Bears got little back when they dealt him to the Eagles in March: a 2020 sixth-round pick that could improve to a fifth-rounder. They believe their two new running backs — third-round pick David Montgomery and signee Mike Davis — can fare better than Howard.
The Bears will search for the right timeshare in the preseason. Tarik Cohen will continue to be the Bears’ dynamic, do-everything weapon. Nagy and Pace praised Davis’ offseason work, but the well-rounded Montgomery is the likely favorite to lead the team in rushes.
“It’s hard to always predict the number of carries in this offense by a running back,” Nagy said. “Who knows? Maybe one guy is hot, and he gets 20 carries in this offense. It really hasn’t happened yet, but it can happen.”
5. Can they stay healthy?
Maybe the Bears cut a deal with a higher power.
Or, Robert Johnson-style, a lower one.
They were the NFL’s second-most injured team in 2017, according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. The metric charts missed games as well as ones played by those appearing on the week’s injury report, taking into account the player’s role on the team.
Last year, though, only two teams were healthier than the Bears.
Nagy said the franchise dialed in to meet players’ needs — from the training staff to the strength program, and from diet to practice schedules. He figures to play his starters only sparingly during preseason games, the way he did last year.
“I believe personally — I know Ryan does, too — that we did a good job at controlling what we could control in that aspect,” Nagy said. “Now there are always some unfortunate things that happen, and we were lucky in that aspect. . . .
“Every coach you talk to in the summer right now, no matter who it is or whatever team they coach for, it’s the first thing they say: ‘We’ve gotta stay healthy.’ So we’ve gotta make sure we stay on top of that. It’s a credit to our people.”
Maybe the Bears figured it out. Most likely, though, they’re due for a market correction.