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1st-and-10: What is George McCaskey’s definition of progress?

The Bears are 3-6 and long shots to make the playoffs, but with rookie Justin Fields taking bigger steps toward franchise-quarterback status, there’s no telling just how hot the hot seat is for GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.

The Bears are 31-26 in Matt Nagy’s four seasons, but 19-22 in the last three seasons.
The Bears are 31-26 in Matt Nagy’s four seasons, but 19-22 in the last three seasons.
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The last time the Bears were 3-6 was in 2017, when the situation wasn’t all that much different than it is today: A coaching staff on the hot seat and a rookie quarterback coming off a career-best game in another loss after Mitch Trubisky threw for 297 yards and a touchdown against the Packers at Soldier Field.

A promising quarterback wasn’t able to save John Fox, in part because — following a season in which Sean McVay worked wonders with Jared Goff — Trubisky needed a quarterback whisperer as his head coach.

The situation is a little more complicated this time, with Matt Nagy coaching Justin Fields. At 3-6 with Fields taking his biggest steps yet in back-to-back games against the 49ers and Steelers, the Bears are accelerating into what Nagy would call “the gray.” Or as Bears fans would call it, “The Twilight Zone”: A non-playoff team with a quarterback ready for liftoff.

Unless Fields’ small steps turn into giant leaps that transform the Bears into NFC contenders — stranger things have happened — the focus will soon turn to Bears chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips for an update on what they consider “progress.”

That was the bar McCaskey set for general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy in 2021 after both were retained following a second consecutive 8-8 season in 2020. McCaskey has not made himself available since that January press conference to define progress — a silence that has become increasingly deafening as the Bears’ season has veered off course under Nagy.

It would seem likely that a non-playoff season would elicit a coaching change if not a house-cleaning that would include Pace as well. But they have a strange definition of progress at Halas Hall. This is the place where former GM Phil Emery once defined Jay Cutler as “elite” because he had a winning record, so please hold all tickets during the inquiry.

The Bears’ 29-27 loss to the Steelers showed just how tricky this could become. Fields’ game seemed like a breakthrough. He passed for a career-high 291 yards, with pass plays of 50, 39, 28 and 25 yards (“Sunday” to Aaron Rodgers, but a celebration in Chicago). And he was at his best when the Bears needed him most — engineering a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 66 seconds to give the Bears a 27-26 lead with 1:46 to go. Yet, the Bears still lost — again.

What if the rest of the season plays out like the Steelers game, with Fields showing actual progress, making big plays, looking like he’s on the cusp of greatness — but with the Bears still losing to the Ravens, Cardinals, Packers and Seahawks? That could be more impressive to George and Ted than beating the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars to pull out of a six-game losing streak. Then what?

That might be an easy call for you, but it’s a much tougher one for McCaskey and Phillips. Justin Fields looks like the real deal. At Halas Hall, that’s progress.

2. Regardless of the NFL defending the bad call, the Bears got a raw deal when Cassius Marsh was called for taunting after a third-down sack in the fourth quarter. Is it really that difficult to call only the obvious taunting infractions? It’s a fine line, but referees such as Tony Corrente have no idea where that line is.

That said, the Bears have themselves to at least partially blame for the crackdown that is leading to these bogus calls. The violent reactions by Javon Wims and Anthony Miller against Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson last season heightened the NFL’s sensitivity to taunting and on-field altercations and what they can lead to.

3. It was a close call, but Nagy probably should have tried a Hail Mary pass on the final play against the Steelers on Monday night instead of having Cairo Santos attempt a 65-yard field goal.

Both plays are long shots, but Nagy had none of the factors that usually come into play on kicks like that — the wind at the kicker’s back, indoors, altitude or a kicker with a notably big leg.

Santos’ career-long field goal is 53 yards. His only other attempt longer than 55 yards was a 66-yard attempt against the Bears on the final play of the game in 2015. It never had a chance as the Bears won, 18-17 at Arrowhead Stadium.

It’s worth noting that Nagy was on Andy Reid’s Chiefs staff at that time. Reid explained at the time that Santos had made kicks from that distance in practice — 65 yards in training camp 65 and 67 yards at Arrowhead with the wind at his back. “It was a long shot either way,” Reid said.

4. For What It’s Worth Dept.: The Bears have completed three Hail Mary passes in recent memory: Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard pass to Kevin White — at the 1-yard line — against the Patriots in 2018; Jay Cutler’s 50-yard touchdown to Cam Meredith against the Buccaneers in 2015; and Shane Matthews’ 34-yard touchdown to running back James Allen against the Browns in 2001.

The Bears’ longest field goal in franchise history is Robbie Gould’s 58-yarder against the Bengals in 2013. No kicker had made a field goal longer than 64 yards until the Ravens’ Justin Tucker kicked a 66-yarder at Ford Field (a big leg kicking indoors) in Week 3.

5. Signs of Progress: The Bears gained 414 yards against a Steelers defense that is allowing 345.7 yards per game this season. It’s the only game in which the Bears’ offense has exceeded an opponent’s current average yards allowed.

The Bears’ 7.1 yards per play against the Steelers is the fourth-highest in Nagy’s four seasons. The top three all came in 2018, and against losing teams: the Buccaneers (8.3), Lions (7.6) and Dolphins (7.3).

6. Rookie offensive tackle Teven Jenkins was working out on the field prior to the Bears-Steelers game, an indication he likely will be able to return before the end of the season after having back surgery in August.

If Jenkins returns, the big question is where the Bears will play him. Jenkins is projected as the Bears’ starting left tackle for years to come. But veteran Jason Peters is starting there now, and arguably has been the Bears’ best offensive linemen this season. Would the Bears’ sit Peters so Jenkins could get a head start on next season?

Offensive line coach Juan Castillo didn’t want to speculate.

“I know this: When he comes back, he’s going to be ready,” Castillo said. “I hope we have to make that decision.”

7. Rookie Larry Borom has a long way to go, but the fifth-round draft pick hasn’t looked out of place in two starts at left tackle against stiff competition.

In fact, fifth/sixth round draft picks by Ryan Pace combined for three touchdowns and a sack against the Steelers: Wide receiver Darnell Mooney (5-173 in 2020) scored on a 15-yard run and 16-yard reception; safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (6-185 in 2016) scored on a 25-yard fumble return; Bilal Nichols (5-145 in 2018) had a sack. And another Pace fifth-rounder, Jordan Howard (5-150. in 2016), gained 71 yards on 17 carries and scored his third touchdown in two weeks for the Eagles against the Chargers on Sunday.

8. Bits & Pieces: The Bears’ four pass plays of 25 or more yards (50, 39, 28 and 25) were as many as they had in their first eight games. … Fields’ 291 yards was the sixth most in the NFL last week. That’s the first time a Bear quarterback has been higher than 21st this season. … The Bears are 0-3 in the game after the bye in Nagy’s three seasons. … the Bears’ final four 2021 opponents are currently 3-5 — the Vikings, Seahawks, Giants and Vikings, so …

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Falcons running back/wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson had six receptions for 126 yards against the Saints — including a clutch 64-yard catch in the final minute that led to the winning field goal in a 27-25 victory at the Superdome. Patterson is a three-time winner of this award already this season.

Patterson leads the Falcons in rushing (73-278, 3.8, two touchdowns) and receptions (38-459, 12.1, five touchdowns). He has more total yards in eight games with the Falcons (737 on 111 touches, seven touchdowns) than he did in 32 games with the Bears (550 yards on 113 touches, one touchdown).

10. Bear-ometer: 6-11 — vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (L).