The Bears know this is their time.
Coming off a franchise-rejuvenating 12-4 season that ended with a disappointing wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles at Soldier Field, the Bears consider themselves rebuilt and are in “win now” mode in Matt Nagy’s second season, feeling the sense of urgency to win the Super Bowl. That’s what the Eagles did in Doug Pederson’s second season in 2017. And the Rams nearly pulled it off in Sean McVay’s second season in 2018, losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Now, it’s the Bears’ turn.
“I would definitely say there is a sense of urgency,” Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “You can’t get outside the box and start pushing yourself in ways that aren’t effective. But you have to know that these opportunities … don’t come around often.
“This is my eighth NFL season, and I’ve been in the playoffs three times [with the Saints, Patriots and Bears]. That’s more than a lot of guys, but that’s still not a lot. You have to take advantage when you got it.”
It might turn out that 2019 ends up being the Bears’ best chance, with so many productive players still on rookie contracts — quarterback Mitch Trubisky, All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson, linebacker Roquan Smith, running back Tarik Cohen, wide receiver Anthony Miller, guard Cody Whitehair and center James Daniels among them.
But while acknowledging that urgency, it’s unlikely that the Bears will be one-and-done contenders. In fact, by managing the salary cap and efficiently identifying building blocks — as of now — at their current rate of development, they figure to have a three-to-four-year window of opportunity.
Thirteen starters are signed for at least the next three seasons — Trubisky, Hicks, cornerback Kyle Fuller, tight end Trey Burton, left tackle Charles Leno, wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and center James Daniels through 2021; Smith, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and right tackle Bobby Massie through 2022 (plus rookie running back David Montgomery, a presumed key player, if not a starter); and linebacker Khalil Mack through 2024.
In fact, only three Bears starters are in a contract year in 2019 — linebacker Danny Trevathan, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left guard Cody Whitehair.
Many factors play into a team’s chances of realizing its potential to have a run of postseason contention. The Bears have to stay relatively healthy. Trubisky has to develop into a high-level facilitator, if not an elite quarterback. Players such as Fuller have to maintain their current level. Players such as Jackson and Smith have to continue to develop as difference-makers. And general manager Ryan Pace has to keenly identify which pieces to keep if player-development forces him to make tough decisions.
So far, Pace has had a fine touch in that department. Four of five players he has extended or re-signed to long-term deals — Leno, Hicks, Goldman and Fuller — have continued to ascend after getting paid. And Kyle Long, signed to an extension after his third consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2015, is at least a candidate to regain his Pro Bowl status in 2019 after three injury-plagued seasons.
That’s a big improvement from previous GM Phil Emery, who extended/re-signed veterans Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson and Robbie Gould in his three-year tenure and did not get near the return-on-investment Pace already has received.
The obvious challenge for Pace is managing the salary cap as players presumably continue to grow. Jackson, who is signed through 2020, is up for a massive contract if he continues to play at an All-Pro level. Cohen and linebacker Leonard Floyd also will be up for new contracts after 2020 — as will wide receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Prince Amukamara and Long. Trubisky, Daniels, Miller and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols also are on rookie contracts.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s something we’re mindful of,” Pace said. “We’ve forecast out all these things. So whether it’s, ‘We need to be smart in free agency because we need to make sure we have enough cap space to handle some of these extensions’ … I think our team’s paying attention to who we reward. We know we have some important ones on the horizon, and that’s all part of our forecast as Joey Laine [director of football administration] and I talk through that.”
But even getting your money’s worth can become problematic, which makes Mack’s historic, six-year, $141 million contract worth watching. After an offseason restructuring, Mack’s cap hit jumps from $11.9 million in 2019 to $26.6 million in 2020, according to spotrac.com, with bigger hits in 2021 ($26.65 million) and 2022 ($27.15 million).
Pace was confident he could avoid the salary-cap pitfall the Dolphins faced when they cut big-ticket defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after three seasons in 2018.
Suh’s six-year, $114 million deal in 2015 — also a record for a defensive player at the time — was team-friendly early, like Mack’s deal with the Bears. But it quickly became unwieldy, in part because of the second-year restructuring — just as the Bears did with Mack this offseason. With a $26.1 million cap hit coming up in 2018 and three years left on the original deal, the Dolphins cut Suh — who was voted the team MVP the previous season — and incurred a league-record $22.2 million in dead salary-cap money.
“We feel very comfortable with that [contract situation with Mack],” Pace said. “The way we plan this out, we’re always thinking years in advance, so we’re never going to hamstring the organization. We feel very comfortable with our cap space going forward to ensure we can keep the players we drafted and developed … with Mack in that equation.”
Trubisky’s contract situation is even more intriguing as it pertains to the Bears’ window of opportunity. Trubisky, who made the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season (and was 16th in the NFL in passer rating and third in QB rating, which factors in his running production) signed a four-year contract in 2017, with the Bears holding a fifth-year option. He is eligible to sign a long-term extension after this season.
If Trubisky has a breakout season, he’ll be in line for an expensive extension. How expensive? Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, like Trubisky a No. 2 overall pick, has yet to play in a playoff game, has suffered a season-ending injury the last two seasons and was 5-6 as a starter last year. Yet he signed a four-year, $128 million extension in the offseason.
So it might not take much to earn Trubisky a hefty raise in his next contract.
“It was pretty cool to see,” Trubisky said of Wentz’s contract. “We have the same agent, so I got to hear a little more about how they got it done. And from what I heard, it was beneficial to the player and the organization.”
Therein lies the key to sustaining success in the NFL — signing key players to contracts that are beneficial to the player and the team. Who knows what will happen at the negotiating table, but right now, Trubisky has a healthy appreciation for his teammates, his coaches’ role in his success and the sacrifice it takes to be on a winner.
And he’s not alone. Bears players appreciate the bond they are building on this team. Massie signed an extension rather than test the market. Mack and Goldman restructured their contracts to give the team salary-cap relief. The Bears also benefitted by signing Clinton-Dix and Aaron Lynch to team-friendly, one-year deals — both players wanted to play in this defense.
“There’s no doubt. I’m gonna try to fight my hardest to get a long-term contract here, and hopefully it works out,” Lynch said. “But you have to take [into account] that there’s a bunch of other people they have to pay on this defense and on the offensive side. So if it happens, it happens. It’s not going to stop me from working my ass off.”
Whitehair, who made the Pro Bowl at center last year but moved back to his natural position at guard so Daniels could play his best position at center, is next up for a long-term extension. He won’t come cheaply, but he acknowledged the bright future is a lure for players in his position.
“Absolutely,” said Whitehair, a second-round draft pick in 2016. “What we have here is something special. The culture here, the organization’s done a great job of bringing in great guys that are hard workers and talented players. There’s definitely a good vibe, a good feeling of togetherness, guys just playing for each other. I can just speak for the O-line. I think we’re the closest we’ve been since I’ve been here.”
Hicks is even more emphatic about that on the defense.
“Pace doesn’t bring in a--holes,” Hicks said. He’s not bringing in bad guys. The criteria for a player he wants is somebody who’s super-talented but also has the focus and ambition and drive and will be a good teammate. So he gets talented guys who are good teammates. And naturally, when we’re out here [at practice] together, we all have that same mindset. It just works.”
Hicks is living that reality.
“This past OTAs, me and Danny [Trevathan], we went to dinner together at this little restaurant up in Lake Forest,” Hicks said. “And then we went to his house and watched a movie. We played with his dogs and hung out. I think the difference [with this team] is, we actually like each other. It’s cliché when you don’t really like the guy that you’re hanging out with. But I can spend time with my guys off the field and enjoy each other’s company. That makes us even more tight-knit.”
The Bears are riding a wave of harmony under Pace and Nagy that almost seems too good to be true.
“I have zero issue with us sustaining it … because we have good people,” Nagy said. “I have zero reservations about us, if we have success, ever having an ego. It won’t happen because we talk about it every day of what it takes. And when you have high-character people, it carries you a long way.”
With Nagy establishing a reputation around the league as a players’ coach and with a defense led by a game-wrecker in Mack and plenty of bite at every level, the Bears are becoming a good team to play for. Maintaining that is the challenge, but with productive players on rookie deals and key veterans signed to long-term contracts, the Bears at least have a foundation that could have staying power.
When the Bears reported to training camp last week, the excitable Cohen set the bar high.
“I’m doing what I love, playing football, and I get the opportunity to come out here with my guys and make a dynasty.”
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Cohen said. “After we win one, you know that’s not going to be our goal, just to win one. We’re trying to win multiple [titles].”
That’s overstating it. But for now, it appears the Bears’ championship window could be open for at least the next few years.
Then again …
“You don’t know that,” Hicks said. “It’s not a guarantee. You hope. But there are so many things that are out of your control. So you just have to play your game. You have to make sure the guy next to you knows how important the game is to you, so that he takes the same value it in it. That’s how I approach it.”
The Bears know this is their time. Their turn. But no matter how bright the future appears, they’re taking it the only way they know: Win now.