The Bears have been on a volatile ride the last few years, and they might be coming to the end of it.
They broke training camp in 2018 with very little idea of what to expect, then swung big on a last-minute trade for star linebacker Khalil Mack and roared to a division title. They went into last season thinking they were the team to beat — one player even hailed it as the beginning of a dynasty — and quickly fell flat before stumbling to 8-8.
So now what?
Players have been noticeably quieter, still smarting from the sting of talking a good game but not playing one. But internally, the expectations are just as high. It’s not enough to win nine or 10 games when the defense is this great. Mack isn’t plowing through double-teams every week just for the Bears to sneak into the playoffs for a one-and-done.
They must aim higher, and general manager Ryan Pace didn’t hesitate to go public with his goal.
“Every year, we have championship expectations, and this is no different,” Pace said Monday. “I really feel like we can excel in this [unusual season] because of the people that we have, the continuity that we have, so our expectations are championship expectations. And they are every year.”
They really aren’t every year — there’s no way the 2017 team was thinking Super Bowl — but the Bears’ defense always gives them hope. It has been one of the scariest in the league the last two seasons and could outdo even that distinction if defensive tackle Akiem Hicks stays healthy and outside linebacker Robert Quinn goes for double-digit sacks.
Pace’s blueprint starts with those two and Mack, who account for 20 percent of his payroll. If you can be good at one thing, make it quarterback. If you can’t be good at that, make it destroying other teams’ quarterbacks.
That has a ripple effect through the defense and — very helpfully — lowers the bar for the offense. It’s no coincidence that when the Bears were third in the league in sacks in 2018, they were also No. 1 in takeaways.
“It’s a passing league, [and] if you hit the quarterback, your corners are better, your safeties are better,” Pace said. “If you’re hitting the quarterback, those balls are going to get thrown up. . . . We’ve loaded up the secondary with guys that have ball skills. With a defense that can generate that kind of pass rush, that can equate to a lot of turnovers.”
That’s what has Pace thinking championship, much more than hoping he and coach Matt Nagy have patched all the holes in a leaky offense.
They aren’t good at quarterback. Pace’s trade for Nick Foles didn’t fix that, and it’s hard to buy that Mitch Trubisky will be markedly better than he was last season.
“I like our quarterback room right now,” Pace said — a quote that’s likely to be dragged back up in December.
Tight end is crucial, and Pace is betting on best-case scenarios: rookie Cole Kmet being an instant weapon, Jimmy Graham reversing his decline and Demetrius Harris breaking out in Year 7.
The Bears think their offensive line, where Pace sank high draft picks and big money, will suddenly turn around thanks to new position coach Juan Castillo.
As sturdy as the defense is, it’s that shaky on offense. This has been the problem throughout Pace’s six seasons, and it’s why the Bears are 34-46 under him — tied with the Dolphins for the eighth-worst record in that span, with only the Jets and Browns scoring fewer points.
If Pace has finally figured out the offensive personnel, he has every reason to target the Super Bowl. But if he’s wrong, it’s going to be another season of hoping two touchdowns and a field goal is enough, and that’s hardly the formula for a championship.