Acting like you’ve been there before with the dominant Bears is no easy task
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The Bears’ 9-4 record is tied for fifth-best in the NFL. That truth rolls off the tongue matter-of-factly, which I guess a fact is supposed to do.
They just beat the Rams, the putative best team in the league, and have won six of their last seven games. I write that sentence as though it’s the most natural thing for a Bears team to do, as though we’re used to such success. A city of Joe Cools who, upon scoring a touchdown, unceremoniously hand the ball to the official, having been there before.
But this is pinch-me stuff. I sometimes have to stop myself from being nonchalant about what the Bears are doing. You don’t just go from four consecutive seasons of at least 10 losses to being one of the best teams in the league and then pretend it’s business as usual. You don’t go from a combined 24 interceptions in the previous three seasons to 25 in the next 13 games. You don’t go from leper to skin-product model.
I’m sure every Bears fan is appreciating this. I have some advice: Appreciate it more, if possible. In light of where the franchise has been — rock-bottom — it’s incredible. They’ve been in first place in the NFC North for the last seven weeks. If this were a diet-program ad, you’d look at the before-and-after photos of the last year and say they clearly were doctored.
Who does this? The Bears do this.
They relieved the highfalutin Rams’ offense of its soul in a 15-6 victory Sunday. They forced quarterback Jared Goff into a career-high four interceptions and a career-low 19.1 passer rating. Goff had seven interceptions entering the game and seven interceptions all of last season.
Who does that? The Bears do that.
‘‘We have a lot of heart and a lot of focus,’’ defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said.
They also have a lot of fun, and if there’s a theme to this season, it’s that. On Sunday, Hicks lined up at running back on a pass play that went to offensive lineman Bradley Sowell for a two-yard touchdown. The play is called Santa’s Sleigh. Coach Matt Nagy has had other gadget plays this season called Papa Bear Left, Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompa. Santa’s got a big bag of tricks.
You have an offense that deals in sleight of hand and a defense that shakes a steel fist at opponents. The offensive fun and the defensive nastiness have created confidence. That confidence says it’s possible to go from bad to good, from outcast to cool kid and from unpleasant to comely in less than a year.
‘‘Our guys have worked hard to put ourselves in this position,’’ Nagy said after the game. ‘‘It’s not easy. It started [with] just the belief at the very beginning when we started in training camp, and then you start having some different types of games, some different wins, some different losses.
‘‘What was really interesting to me — and I felt it [Saturday] night at the hotel and I felt it throughout the week — was there was a looseness to our guys. The stage wasn’t going to be too big for them. They were really anticipating this. That’s fun. That’s why we do what we do.’’
The ‘‘why’’ of the success isn’t that hard to figure out. The Bears acquired linebacker Khalil Mack from the Raiders before the season began, and it has transformed them. Milk, honey and turnovers have flowed. A good defense has become great. General manager Ryan Pace has gone from a target of criticism to an object of praise.
The offense is good enough. Good enough to win a playoff game or games? That’s still a question mark, but this can’t be overstated: Isn’t it great to be asking the question? A playoff game? After a four-year horror show?
Arguing about whether quarterback Mitch Trubisky is good or isn’t good seems beside the point in this carnival ride of a season, though I’ll admit to being knee-deep in the debate. Maybe that’s the best measure of how far the Bears have come: We’re quibbling about whether Trubisky has what it takes to win in the postseason. Weren’t we just fighting vertigo in John Fox’s death spiral?
Beyond Mack, the biggest reason for the change from the 11-loss mess in 2017 to the party atmosphere this season is Nagy. You’ve heard of ‘‘a breath of fresh air’’? This guy’s a gale of fresh air. It’s not just because he treats people, including the species known as reporters, with respect. (Though that helps. A lot.) It’s that he’s sincere. You know sincerity when you see it.
It’s one of the reasons his players play so hard for him. And because those players are talented, success has followed at warp speed. Stunning, after the slow ooze of the previous four seasons. And absurdly entertaining.