Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Chicago Bears are back. After a long hibernation -- way too long if you ask me -- the Bears reclaimed their crown as the kings of the North last season. They did this the only way the Bears know how: through a punishing, unrelenting defense. But getting back to the top of the NFC North was just one goal. The Bears are one of the most-storied franchises in NFL history. They are second all-time in NFL championships. And now that they have reached the top of the North, it's time to set forth on a new goal: the Super Bowl.
How the Bears got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
-- Ended the Vikings' season in Week 17. Absolutely the right decision to play the starters in the season finale.
Head coach: Matt Nagy. He is going to be my children's Mike Ditka. I loved this hire right from the start. The franchise had kind of veered off course when it hired John Fox back in 2015. The Bears had never hired a retread coach in their history and it had worked out well for them. Guys like Ditka and Lovie Smith were first-time NFL head coaches. I mean, so was Marc Trestman, so it's not always perfect. But the Bears absolutely got it right with Nagy.
There is the offensive pedigree coming from the Andy Reid coaching tree. The Bears went from 29th in points scored in Fox's final year to ninth last season. It was wild watching the Bears run an actual NFL offense from the 2000s, instead of 3 yards and a cloud of punts. Nagy also brought an element of confidence with him. Swaggy Nagy if you will. He brought in Club Dub, a disco ball used to celebrate big wins, taking a cue from Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Nagy also instituted "Monday Funday" as the team began its offseason program. He's made Bears football both relevant and fun. That was something missing for a while.
Quarterback: Mitch Trubisky. I've made the joke that the best Bears quarterbacks of my life are Jim McMahon, Jay Cutler, Walter Payton on the halfback option and ABRG. (That's anybody but Rex Grossman.) Trubisky has already rocketed to third on that list. He might have been third for a while, but Cutler has been so strong on "Very Cavallari" that he moved back to second. Seriously, if you didn't like Cutler in the past, watch this show. It will change your mind. He's a good dude.
But I digress. This is about Mitch, who passed for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. He also rushed for 421 yards and three scores in what was basically his rookie season. Fox treated Trubisky like a guy who just purchased a brand new Porsche but was afraid to open it up on the freeway. Nagy had no such reservations with Mitch. And if we're being honest, we expect improvement this season. Trubisky started just 13 games at North Carolina, so of course there would be growing pains his rookie year. Now that he's got some starts under his belt, though, it's time to really take advantage of his skill set. With another full offseason working with Nagy, not to mention the numerous offensive options he's been surrounded with, it's all on his shoulders.
Projected 2019 MVP: Khalil Mack, outside linebacker. He came in and absolutely changed the game. Literally. Week 1. "Sunday Night Football" at Green Bay. Mack had the greatest half of football ever. He was sacking Aaron Rodgers. He was returning picks for touchdowns. It was incredible. Now, the Packers fans will delight in pointing out they won the game. For sure. I hope they enjoyed watching a replay of it while the Bears were in the playoffs. But overall, it was a win for the Bears. And even the most-ardent Packers fan will point out that Mack's lack of conditioning (remember he held out from the Raiders) is the only reason why Chicago lost that game, as Mack understandably lost steam in the second half. It's all good.
And that's the thing that should scare NFC North rivals. Mack was that amazing without a full training camp with the Bears. Now he's got a full offseason working alongside his teammates, pushing them all to be even better. Mack openly talked about being one of the best ever, wanting to be mentioned with the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas. Hell, he's already drawing comparisons to Bears greats Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. Love the ambition, love the player. It's quite a tradition. My dad was a Butkus fan. My uncle loved Singletary. I'm an Urlacher guy. My kids will have Mack.
2019 breakout star: Roquan Smith, linebacker. The Bears selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. And he went through a contract situation and then an injury. But he finished with five sacks and you saw the flashes. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is already singing his praises.
New face to know: David Montgomery, RB. The Bears didn't have a second-round pick, so I thought I was safe to excuse myself from the draft for a moment to read to my daughter. I returned to about 60 text messages regarding Montgomery. He was my highest-rated running back coming into the draft, though I'll admit I'm no Daniel Jeremiah. But you can't deny Montgomery's skills and must realize he is a perfect fit for Nagy's offense. He would be the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year if Kyler Murray was in the Oakland A's organization.
And for those of you concerned about how he and Tarik Cohen will coexist (mostly fantasy dorks wondering this), realize that Jordan Howard had 250 attempts last year. That's a lot. And while many of us loved Howard because he was one of our bright spots in the Fox era, this just wasn't a fit. The offense struggled while he was in there. The Bears, while ninth in scoring, were still 16th in yards per drive. They were 18th in plays per drive. Too often, the Bears would have these three-and-outs. Mostly when Howard was in there, though that might be more anecdotal. Count on Montgomery making this offense more diverse.
The 2019 roadmap
Will the Bears be able to ...
Continue to dominate without Vic Fangio? It was kind of a bummer losing Fangio, who had done such a great job with the defense. I mean seriously, Denver. First you saddle us with Fox a few years ago. Now you steal our DC in an era where coaches are becoming more offensive-minded and younger. So it was sad, until Chuck Pagano was hired. Even after the flirtation with Todd Bowles as a possible replacement, Pagano is pretty good. He was previously the head coach of the Colts but served as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011, so here come those comparisons. But he doesn't have to change much on this defense, and Smith and Nichols should continue to develop. Really, the lone question is if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can live up to the standard left by Adrian Amos. Honestly, if that's your biggest question, you're all right.
And honestly, Pagano is considered more aggressive than Fangio, so could the Bears be even better defensively this year? Worth considering.
Have a receiver step up as the No. 1? There was this game back in 2017 against the 49ers when the Bears' starting receivers were Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman. They each had two receptions, which combined to match Cohen's four that day. Those were not fun times. And it's crazy to think that the Bears now have one of the best receiving corps in the league. Allen Robinson is one of the best route-runners in the business. Taylor Gabriel is a great field-stretcher. Anthony Miller is on the verge of a breakout. And then the team added Riley Ridley in the draft. Seriously, were other teams even trying during the draft?
Find a kicker? Fine, fine, fine. Let's talk about the kicking situation. The Double Doink. All of that nonsense. Was Cody Parkey unfairly criticized for the missed kick against the Eagles? Maybe. But dude didn't do himself any favors parading around the interview circuit talking about it. Maybe keep a low-pro after that for a little while. Now the Bears have seemingly taken a shotgun approach to getting a kicker. And it's not exactly been Danny Ocean putting together his crew to knock over three Las Vegas casinos. Kind of the opposite of that. The guy I really like out of the group competing is Eddy Pineiro. I mean, he was the guy who went to Florida and was all, "Hey, may I please wear No. 15 (a.k.a. Tim Tebow's number)." I love that kind of moxy.
Three key dates:
-- Week 17 at the Vikings. What a hoot it would be to end the Vikings' season once again. Let's address that for a moment. The Bears absolutely did the right thing by eliminating the Vikings from the playoffs last year. Sure, you allowed the Eagles (who beat you) in. But could you imagine laying down for a team and then losing to them in the playoffs? I mean, it's the Vikings so the chances of that are slim. But still, could you imagine?
One storyline people are overlooking:James Daniels and Cody Whitehair are switching spots on the offensive line. I know a lot of people might be thrown off by it because Whitehair played great at center last year and is Pro Bowl-caliber at the position. But Daniels is a natural center and Whitehair became one of the league's best while essentially out of position.
And let's be honest, few teams played better up front than the Bears in 2018. No team surrendered fewer pressures last season than the Bears, who allowed 117 in 519 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. They ranked second in sacks allowed (11), fifth in hits allowed (14), and third in hurries allowed (92).
One storyline people are overthinking:Trubisky's accuracy issues. This became a thing for some reason. Dude completed 66.6 percent of his passes last year and had a passer rating of 95.4. And if for some reason you are still not convinced, watch my guy dealing right here.
For 2019 to be a success, the Bears MUST ...
-- Get back to the playoffs. You don't want to be the team that makes the playoffs after a long absence and then disappears.
-- Win some playoff games. Duh.
The NFC is wide open. There are a lot of good teams, namely the Rams, Eagles, Saints and a few others. But I'm hard-pressed to find a team in the conference that is more balanced top-to-bottom than the Bears. Chicago should accept nothing short of a Super Bowl run. This feels like the mid-2000s again, only this time with a better quarterback.