It’s hard to believe the Bears were talking Super Bowl at this time last year. Winning a championship was all that mattered. Running back Tarik Cohen even mused about a dynasty.
The bar has been lowered in 2020. A lot.
Now, with the team reporting Tuesday ton Halas Hall to begin coronavirus testing and conditioning, the goal is just to make the playoffs and hope that’s enough to save jobs. That’s familiar ground for a team that has reached the postseason only eight times in the last three decades.
The scenario creates a lot of pressure for general manager Ryan Pace, coach Matt Nagy, quarterback Mitch Trubisky and some others facing a make-or-break season, but the good news is the playoffs are a realistic target. It’s certainly possible for the Bears to get there, and here’s why:
It never has been easier to make it
Adding a seventh playoff team in each conference makes a big difference for meandering teams such as the Bears, Rams and Falcons. The 9-7 Rams and 8-8 Steelers would have made it last season.
The last time the Bears would have benefitted from a seventh playoff spot was 2012. Coach Lovie Smith’s team missed out at 10-6, and he was fired the next day.
That seventh team is going to be the definition of mediocre. The Steelers would have gotten in with the No. 27 offense and No. 5 defense last season. If that’s all it takes, the Bears have a shot.
Powerful pass rush goes long way
If you can be good at only one thing, it should be quarterbacking. But the next choice would be pass rushing. While the Bears are a wreck at the former, they might be the NFL’s best at the latter.
Even after a down season, Khalil Mack is one of the NFL’s most valuable assets. The most logical explanation for his dip in production is that he was all by himself. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was out with an elbow injury, and fellow outside linebacker Leonard Floyd did little.
Bringing back Hicks and replacing Floyd with Robert Quinn has explosive potential. With that trio, the Bears could top the 50 sacks they put up in 2018.
Nagy is coaching for his job
One of Nagy’s most admirable traits is that he doesn’t seem to have the stubbornness that often derails young coaches. He needs to change, he knows it and he’s willing.
Nagy has spent months analyzing his worst plays and decisions to grasp why they didn’t work. He often talks about growing from failure, and there’s good cause to believe he’ll do that this season. He won’t be completely different, but he’ll be rewired in some aspects — especially the running game.
If he can coax competent play out of Trubisky or Nick Foles, that also will help.
Robinson remains a go-to weapon
Personnel-wise, all the Bears’ offense needs to fix is its quarterback, offensive line, tight end and running backs. Easy, right?
Nagy has 99 problems, but Allen Robinson isn’t one of them. He doesn’t have the accolades and popularity, but he’s a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Robinson managed 98 catches for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns last season despite dreadful quarterback play. That’s nothing new. He had a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season with the Jaguars with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He has the ultra-valuable ability to bail this offense out of third-and-long.
Nothing scary in NFC North
One of the best things the Bears have going for them is that they could make the playoffs simply by solving their own problems. There’s no NFC North juggernaut looming outside Halas Hall.
The Packers went 13-3 last season, but they had major defensive shortfalls, as usual. The Vikings snuck into the playoffs at 10-6 but lost twice to the Bears. And the Lions are still the Lions.
Beyond the division, the opponents the Bears would figure to contend with for a wild-card spot would be teams such as the Cowboys and Rams.