Bears report to training camp with risky plan to make playoffs
As the Bears hope to make something of this season while they wait for the Justin Fields era to begin, they need nearly all of their gambles to pay off.
The Bears’ plan for this season is perfect — as long as everything goes exactly right.
Like a wild, multiteam parlay in Las Vegas, it’s more hopeful than prudent. That’s why Vegas, by the way, gives them the same odds of winning the Super Bowl as the Atlanta Falcons at 50-to-1.
When players report to Halas Hall for training camp Tuesday, it’ll be much different than two years ago, when they rolled into Bourbonnais talking about a dynasty. The tone will be more measured, but it’s a given that general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy will open camp by telling everyone they feel “really good” about the team they’ve built.
The truth is, this is a bridge season to Justin Fields taking over as the full-time starting quarterback in 2022. While the Bears don’t want to waste this season altogether, especially when they don’t have a first-round pick next year, they’ll need all their dreams to come true in order to make the playoffs.
That starts with quarterback Andy -Dalton, the consolation prize after the Bears weren’t able to trade for Russell Wilson or any of the other big names who were thought to be available in the offseason.
Dalton, 33, is a household name because he has been in the NFL a long time, not -because he’s a star. The Bengals spent nine years trying to decide whether he was good enough.
Nobody pounced on him to be their starter when they cut him after the 2019 season, and in 11 games for the Cowboys when Dak Prescott was injured, he had a lower passer rating (87.3), touchdown-to-interception -ratio (1.8) and yards-per-game average (197.3) than Mitch Trubisky. Their career numbers are remarkably similar, too.
Nagy has raved about Dalton’s accuracy and ability to read defenses — two major frustrations for Trubisky — but Pro Football Reference charted him at 78% for on-target passes last season and 72% in 2019. Trubisky and Nick Foles were at 76% last season.
So the Bears’ bet is that, four seasons removed from his last Pro Bowl, playoff-caliber football can be squeezed out of a quarterback who has been adequate most of his career and looks as if he’s close to -retirement.
And that’s assuming they’ve solved their offensive line, where they likely will turn to rookies Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom at left and right tackle, respectively.
It also assumes they’ll supply Dalton with enough threats despite Allen Robinson being the only sure thing at wide receiver, tight end Cole Kmet being unproven and running back David Montgomery still developing.
Lately, the Bears’ overwhelming defense has offset the offensive shortfalls. The thinking inside Halas Hall has been that if the offense can be merely league average, the defense can make the Bears a contender. But that’s no longer a certainty, and the team is taking significant risks on that side of the ball.
The Bears still have a good defense, but this blueprint requires it to be great. The defense must be what it was in 2018, when it allowed the fewest points in the NFL, forced the most turnovers and was third in sacks. The Bears haven’t seen that level of ferocity since.
The decline last season was most noticeable against the pass, and the Bears took a step backward by releasing star cornerback Kyle Fuller for salary-cap reasons. Now they will bank on second-year player Jaylon Johnson to take over as their No. 1 corner.
That’s fine. He’s ready for it. But there are vacancies at the other outside corner and at nickel, and the options are shaky.
Desmond Trufant is 30 and hasn’t played a full season since 2018. Duke Shelley played just 19% of the defensive snaps last season, and Kindle Vildor played 13%. Artie Burns is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
That group would look better if the Bears got their pass rush rolling, but that’s another wild card.
Pace signed Robert Quinn to a $70 million contract last year, and he began his Bears career with two sacks in 548 snaps. He was out during minicamp last month because of a back injury. The Bears are counting on not only production from him, but the ripple -effect of Quinn drawing attention away from Khalil Mack.
Some of what the Bears sketched out as a best-case scenario surely will materialize, but it’s awfully ambitious to expect all of it to break their way.
And that’s probably what they’ll need.