A Bears team that less than a year ago looked primed to make the jump from good to great now wobbles between contending and imploding.
A resurgent season could save a lot of jobs and keep their core together, but if they fall flat in 2020 — as they did last season — the whole blueprint is up for a redesign.
It wasn’t just that the Bears went 8-8, which was viewed as disastrous only because of the sky-high expectations, but it was alarming because they sat near the bottom of the NFL in offense and got walloped by every good team they faced but the Vikings.
‘‘We expect more from ourselves and our team,’’ general manager Ryan Pace said at the end of it. ‘‘We didn’t hit the goal we set out to achieve. . . . We have to learn from our failures, see it as an opportunity to improve.
‘‘We believe we have the right foundation, the right pieces in place, but we have to make the right decisions going forward.’’
If they don’t, Pace almost certainly will be the first one gone. Coach Matt Nagy’s future will depend on how ugly it gets. Same for quarterback Mitch Trubisky. And if a team moves on from its GM, coach and quarterback in the same offseason, that’s a total rebuild.
Pace has had five seasons to turn the Bears around and has managed a 34-46 record, one playoff appearance and a choppy performance in the draft. That 8-8 mess last season was the Bears’ second-best record with him running the team.
His vision of a lights-out defense and Nagy spinning the far-less-impressive half of the roster into a viable offense was a flop last season. The Bears’ defense was once again good enough to win a championship, but the offense undermined that by averaging 17.5 points.
Nagy might not have been dealt a great hand, especially at quarterback, but he also whiffed repeatedly. The running game was nonexistent, he made questionable decisions in games and he couldn’t strike the right balance between his ideals and Trubisky’s strengths. He spent every cent of the credibility he earned while going 12-4 and winning Coach of the Year in 2018, which leaves him with everything to prove in 2020.
Nagy’s 20-12 record already puts him among the coaches with the best winning percentages in Bears history. That mark wouldn’t usually put someone on the hot seat, but he hasn’t fixed the No. 1 thing the team hired him to get right. The modest success of Trubisky and the offense was overblown in 2018 and fully exposed last season. Nagy might survive another ho-hum season overall, but not if it’s once again because the offense is putrid.
Trubisky’s upcoming season is as much about trying to keep his job with the Bears as it is preserving his career as an NFL starter in general.
It seems crazy to mention after how badly he floundered last season, but if he manages to be even average in 2020, he might get an extension. In the last few seasons, the Bengals did it with Andy Dalton, as did the Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill. High draft picks usually get that second contract as long as they aren’t terrible, especially if the person who picked them is still in charge.
If the Bears bring in a veteran (such as Dalton) who beats out Trubisky for the starting job this summer, it’ll ground that idea before it gets a chance to take flight.
The stakes are high well beyond the Pace-Nagy-Trubisky triumvirate. If the Bears compete in 2020, they probably will keep the majority of the roster intact and let them have another go at it in 2021. If not, Trubisky and 10 other starters might be headed out as free agents or relatively cheap cuts.
The Bears are at the same juncture any team hits when it gets stuck in mediocrity. Whether a team rises to that level or stoops to it, the question is always whether there’s enough of a foundation to get to the top or so little of it that it’s not worth keeping.
The Rams, Vikings and Falcons are there this season, too. The Falcons must decide quickly which way coach Dan Quinn has them trending. Is the Vikings’ plan, which isn’t much different than what the Bears are trying, ever going to get them more than 10 victories and a playoff berth? And the Rams have followed a nearly identical path to that of the Bears, with both teams spending the next several months evaluating shaky quarterbacks and trying to decide whether they’re closer to what they did in a glorious 2018 or a listless 2019.
The great thing about it for the Bears is that it makes them compelling. While the expectations aren’t nearly as high as they were last summer, the Bears will be must-watch with everything on the line. And with free agency opening in a little more than a week, that drama starts soon.