Full disclosure here because my travel and work schedule got the better of me on the road. So this reflection on a training camp day spent with the Chicago Bears is being penned now I am back in the UK.
I visited the Bears on Thursday August 1 and it turned out to be a very productive but long day. I was joined by Jamie King from NFL UK and cameramen Luke Ogden and Chris Martinez. We picked up our hire car at 6am and drove 90 minutes south of Chicago to Bourbonnais, Illinois and the training camp home of the Bears - Olivet Nazarene University.
After watching practice, I interviewed head coach Matt Nagy, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel and safety Eddie Jackson. I headed away from camp at 4pm and drove six and a half hours from Illinois to Cleveland (it seemed like a good idea when booking it) to cap a day on which I was reminded how much the Bears are beloved in Chicago.
Training camp was packed with thousands upon thousands of fans on a weekday morning. It was impressive. It should also be noted that the legacy of the 1985 Chicago Bears still hangs over this team and this town. There were a great many Walter Payton number 34 jerseys being worn and even a couple of 72's belonging to William 'The Refrigerator' Perry.
The modern-day Bears have much respect for their Super Bowl-winning counterparts and enter 2019 knowing just how much another championship would mean to their die-hard fans. It is against that backdrop that this talented team worked on a gloriously sunny Illinois morning.
This is not going to come as breaking news to anyone, but Khalil Mack is a breathtakingly-special defender. The All-Pro pass rusher is so explosive and his motor runs high on every single play, even in training camp in August. On the first play of team drills in pads on Thursday, Mack leapt to bat Mitchell Trubisky's pass high into the air. Mack then jumped to reel the football in for an interception, completing a play that had the hardened members of the media watching on from the shade of a sideline tent giggling like schoolchildren with excitement at witnessing something truly special. Mack is set for another monster year in Chicago, that's for sure.
There can be no denying the fact that the Bears have provided Trubisky with plenty of passing game targets. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller are an exciting wide receiver trio and Cordarrelle Patterson has been added to the mix as an explosive and versatile playmaker. Trey Burton should continue to be a factor at tight end. He made an outstanding touchdown catch from Trubisky during team drills, splitting two defenders to make the acrobatic grab in traffic. While so much of what the Bears do is about their defense, there should be no excuse for their offense. There is more than enough talent to score points in 2019.
But that defense is indeed special. I've already spoken about Mack but he is far from alone. They make plays across the board and did so time and again last Thursday. Cornerback Kyle Fuller intercepted a Trubisky pass intended for Miller in one on one drills and linebacker Roquan Smith knocked down a strike that was heading for Burton in seven on seven work. While the offense hummed at times and scored lots of touchdowns, there were other occasions where plays were whistled dead due to great coverage downfield. These Bears love to use the 'Monsters of the Midway' nickname of the past and as All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson told me: "When we get here, that's the number one thing they instill in us - how good the defensive teams have been. And how the city just thrives on great defenses in Chicago so, for us, that was something big."
One to Watch
The seventh-round selection out of Georgia in 2018 did not make his mark as a rookie until a four-catch performance against Minnesota in Week 17. Wims came into this training camp as a long shot at a crowded position, but he has been receiving rave reviews while earning a lot of targets from Trubisky. Wims certainly turned heads on the day I was in Bourbonnais, catching red zone touchdown passes from Trubisky and backup passer Chase Daniel. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Wims boasts tremendous size and appears to be a growing force in Chicago. I fancy he is going to make the roster and contribute in 2019.
Quote of the Day
"We're using that as fuel for this year." - Bears head coach Matt Nagy on last season's heartbreaking playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Inside the Game
The old phrase about iron sharpening iron certainly applies to these Bears. The offense has its occasional struggles against arguably the best defense in the league but when it survives, that unit comes out the other side as a stronger group. Trubisky admitted the Bears "have ballers all over the defense" but also stressed that the offense has positive moments every day. Trubisky added: "At times, it can be frustrating because they're very good. But we're making each other better. It gets competitive and ferocious but we are a family and we're pushing each other."
The Last Word
The Bears were a 12-win team a year ago and while I have predicted a slight fall back to the pack this time around, I must admit that there are few rosters as stacked as this one when looking around the league. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a playoff team in 2019. As for the Bears themselves, they are setting the bar a tad higher than that. As wide receiver Taylor Gabriel admitted: "It would be special to go to the Super Bowl. We practice every single day like we want to go to the Super Bowl. And if we did win it, the parade would be absolutely amazing."