You know, I'm not one to brag.
Actually, who am I kidding? I love me.
And now that I have your attention, it was one year ago when the ace staff at NFL.com asked me, in the spirit of March Madness, to identify the NFL's version of a Cinderella team. I wrote about the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. Nailed it!
So here I am, one March later, and I need to prove that I'm not the Cinderella story of predicting Cinderella stories. I can't be a one-year wonder!
Now, what comprises an NFL Cinderella? Well, that's a great question in this, the most fluid of American pro sports leagues. With the right coach and general manager, with a productive offseason and solid player development, it's always possible to go from the outhouse to the penthouse. So when you're picking an NFL Cinderella, you better come correct.
Right off the bat, I obviously removed last year's postseason field from consideration. The Chargers just missed the playoffs, but I can't pick them: Shoot, they're my division favorites. And while we're on the AFC West, the Raiders' 2017 struggles were a fluke -- and they just paid a coach 100 million bucks. Jon Gruden's expected to win, and I think he will. Shifting across the San Francisco Bay, the 49ers missed the playoffs last year, but everyone and their mother (mine included) think Jimmy G and Co. are headed in the right direction. Cinderella stories don't spawn from massive preseason hype.
Bouncing around the rest of the league's non-playoff teams ... Dallas has upside in 2018, with a full year of Ezekiel Elliott. But the Cowboys are hardly a sleeper and never a Cinderella. Elsewhere in the Lone Star State, Houston's getting its stars back, with Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus on the mend. Oh, and add in Tyrann Mathieu. Yeah, that's too much buzz.
What would Sister Jean do?
Yes! Yes, of course!!
In the spirit of Loyola-Chicago's march in March, our 2018 NFL Cinderella team is the Chicago Bears.
Now, I'm not guaranteeing that the Bears will make the playoffs this season. I do have a brain, and the NFC is loaded.
Realistically, I think Chicago's goal should be to make the playoffs in 2019. But teams have proven ahead of schedule many times before. And I'm digging the Bears' current plan of attack -- starting with the fact that, well, unlike in prior offseasons, they actually have one. (I still can't get over the jumbled debacle of last offseason. Let Alshon Jeffery walk ... Pay big bucks for Mike Glennon, then trade up for Mitchell Trubisky ... What??)
Let's start with a crucial change at the top. John Fox is gone. Enter Matt Nagy, who's set to play the role of Sean McVay to Fox's Jeff Fisher. Now, being fair to the reigning AP Coach of the Year, there's only one Sean McVay. But I love the idea of getting an offensive guru in the big chair to clean up after Fox. Nagy will develop Trubisky in Year 2 like McVay did with Jared Goff. The Bears' offensive coaching staff was stuck in the mud last season. This is a big upgrade. Last year, I loved Doug Marrone and Co. in in Jacksonville, as well as McVay's all-star group in L.A. Chicago assembled a difference-making staff this offseason. Harry Hiestand is an elite offensive line coach. Mark Helfrich is a creative offensive mind. I expect Trubisky's sophomore season to sizzle with these guys manning the controls. And retaining Vic Fangio was a coup, akin to McVay getting Wade Phillips. Fangio is one of the top-tier defensive coordinators in the game today.
So, the coaches are great -- and now they have some great new players to coach up!
Last year, Chicago's receiving corps was the worst in the NFL -- 32nd out of 32 teams. And we all knew it in the preseason. That is not how you groom and grow a young quarterback. Credit Ryan Pace for taking a much more aggressive approach this offseason. I love the Allen Robinson signing. He's a legit No. 1 wideout -- and a great teammate. Yes, he tore his ACL last September, but he recently told me on SiriusXM Radio that he's way ahead of schedule in his rehab. Also, let's be honest: His game wasn't built on supreme quick-twitch athleticism in the first place. He'll be just fine. But the Bears weren't satisfied with just adding Robinson to their pass-catching group -- they also went out and got a speed burner (Taylor Gabriel) and a move tight end (Trey Burton). These moves not only significantly help Trubisky, but they'll give Jordan Howard room to operate in the ground game. I think he can go for 1,300 yards this season. And then there's Tarik Cohen, the explosive, versatile back who compares himself to Tyreek Hill. Remember what Nagy did with Hill in K.C.?
Now, Chicago still needs a little more talent on defense. It's good group, not a great one. Keeping Kyle Fuller in town was a wise move. And unless stud offensive guard Quenton Nelson falls into Chicago's lap at No. 8 -- how about reuniting Nelson with Hiestand, his O-line coach at Notre Dame? -- you have to think the Bears are going to add a great defensive prospect in Round 1. One way or another, Fangio will keep improving this unit.
All in all, things are looking up for the Monsters of the Midway.
Finally, there seems to be a direction to reward the amazing fans in Chicago. I firmly believe the quarterback takes a major step forward in 2018. This entire offseason was designed to bring that about. The right people are in place. Including Sister Jean.