Life may be as unconventional as it’s ever been, but through it all, we’re somehow still getting professional football on time and as advertised, save for the fans in the stands in some cases. And just as certain as the football season itself, our beloved Chicago Bears enter yet another season without a standout under center.
One of my favorite quotes from late broadcasting legend Harry Caray is, “Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are gonna be in the World Series.” Harry, of course, ended up being right about that, but not even the most optimistic Chicago sports fan could make such a guarantee about the Bears ever having a franchise quarterback.
The dead horse has been beaten into the ground that the Bears passed up on both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in favor of Mitch Trubisky. Missing on a guy happens in this league, especially at that position. Less than half of the league’s Super Bowls have been won by teams with a first-round pick at quarterback anyways, so don’t mistake this for yet another prose about how badly the Bears missed with Trubisky.
At this point, it’s just kind of comedic that the Bears have had such bad luck with the position. Jay Cutler is the best quarterback they’ve had in my lifetime, and he’s known most for not caring and throwing interceptions (full disclosure, not many people love Jay Cutler as much as I do).
So here come our beloved Bears, entering 2020 with a consensus bust leading the offense. Nick Foles, a Super Bowl winner himself, was brought in for some competition, with the team saying they hoped to light a fire under Trubisky. Reports out of training camp have indicated that Mitch really hasn’t looked much better than his less-than-pedestrian 2019 that saw him finish 28th in the league in quarterback rating.
Foles taking over during the season is more of an inevitability than it is a possibility. I still understand Foles was brought in over a guy like Cam Newton because he already knows head coach Matt Nagy’s offense — his championship came while playing in a similar offense in Philadelphia — but to act like bringing in Foles as a backup and competition igniter is a better call than bringing in a former MVP is as laughable as it is crazy.
There is plenty of talent on this roster that I will look at here, enough to compete for a postseason spot and beyond. And I’m not saying Foles can’t lead this team to glory if he is inserted midseason, especially since his title came when he did the same thing with the Eagles. But will he get the chance in time?
Almost as rare as a good quarterback rocking the orange and blue is that person having capable wide receivers to throw to, but the Bears’ strongest offensive group this year comes at the wideout position. Allen Robinson II is arguably the most underrated pass-catcher in the league.
Not counting a 2017 season in which he tore his ACL in the first game, Robinson has averaged more than 800 yards a season and hauled in 33 touchdowns. And whenever Foles throws him his first pass this year, he’ll by far be the best quarterback Robinson has played with.
Anthony Miller is a healthy season away from a huge ascension. Ted Ginn Jr. may be older than the dirt that holds the Soldier Field grass, but he’s still a speedster that can take the top off a defense. Riley Ridley has serious boom potential and Cordarrelle Patterson has shown a knack for playmaking potential as both a receiver and running back (and don’t forget he’s the best kick returner in the league).
And Patterson may see serious time in the backfield this year. David Montgomery has already spent a couple weeks in the trainer’s room, and as skilled and exciting as Tarik Cohen is in space, he’s far from a three-down running back. Practice squad legend Ryan Nall is the only other back on the roster and it will not be a promising sign if he’s asked to see more than a handful of reps.
The hope is that Montgomery, a second-round pick in 2019 whose profile fits the bill of a prototypical back in Nagy’s offense, can stay healthy enough to find his footing and give the Bears the best all-around back they’ve had since Matt Forte. But if he can’t stay on the field, the lack of ability to sign Leonard Fournette last week will be felt almost as much as the lack of quarterback play.
At tight end, Jimmy Graham is a long ways away from his All-Pro form he once had, but he can still be a friendly red zone target, something Trubisky (and eventually Foles) will need to rely on. Cole Kmet is going to be awesome, but the tight end learning curve usually seen in the NFL suggests that won’t happen right away.
To say the line play was pedestrian last year would be putting it kindly. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 25th in the league last year, and the line did allow one of the quickest pressure rates in the league. Kyle Long saw injuries derail him, and while what was left of his talent won’t be missed much, his leadership will.
James Daniels had a much better sophomore season after moving from center to guard, but the rest of the line needs to be better. Cody Whitehair, who moved from guard to center, wasn’t his usual self, and Charles Leno Jr. simply needs to be better in pass protection when squaring off against premier pass rushers.
I suspect he will be, which means that the left side of the line should be solid, along with Daniels. But what about the right side? First-round bust Germain Ifedi was brought in to play right guard, but his past doesn’t indicate he’ll ever live up to his potential. Bobby Massie has never been above average. Yeah, Kmet was a nice snag in the draft, and I’m sure I’ll change my tune on this in a few years when he develops into a Pro Bowler, but in the mean time, the lack of an offensive line addition early in the draft could plague the team.
It’s sort of difficult at times to break up linebackers and defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense, so we’re just going to throw them all in here. This defense, a year removed from being the NFL’s best, starts with Khalil Mack. Last year was the first since his rookie season in 2014 that he didn’t record double-digit sacks, but part of that was by design, as new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano moved Mack inside more often than we’ve ever seen from Mack, something we probably won’t see as much this season. With more snaps lining up as a true outside linebacker pass rusher, expect that pass rush to return.
Akiem Hicks, whose spot Mack often filled in for between the tackles, is another elite talent, but was held to just five games last season. His return will boost the numbers of everyone else, from himself to Mack to the linebackers who will have more room to fly with Hicks demanding double teams.
Robert Quinn has come in replacing the departed Leonard Floyd via free agency. Unlike Mack, who is a tremendous all-around defender on the edge, Quinn is almost exclusively a pass rusher. Four of his nine career seasons have ended with double-digit sacks, and with guys like Hicks and Mack demanding attention, there may be more opportunities for Quinn to make that five in 10 seasons.
In the middle, nose tackle Eddie Goldman opting out due to the coronavirus is a hole that needs filled, but Bilal Nichols was one of the best backup noses in the league. Roy Robertson-Harris, who lines up like a defensive tackle from his end position, has also developed nicely.
Middle linebacker is as strong this year as it’s been since Brian Urlacher retired. Roquan Smith is going to be a bonafide superstar, something he’s shown spurts of in his first two seasons. The decision to bring back the older Danny Trevathon over a younger and emerging Nick Kwiatkowski is questionable, but Trevathon’s leadership and comfort with both the system and his teammates can’t be questioned.
There might not be a position group in the league that has such a talent discrepancy between all of its different starters. Cornerback Kyle Fuller and free safety Eddie Jackson are both All-Pro players. On the other end of the spectrum is an injury-prone-but-talented rookie in Jaylon Johnson at the other corner spot and the replacement-level strong safety Tashaun Gipson Jr., with nickel corner Buster Skrine firmly in the middle.
Jackson’s playmaking ability is as big of an x-factor as Mack’s. Fuller isn’t a shutdown man-to-man guy that will totally take the other team’s top receiver out of the game, but one could argue he’s the best zone corner in the league. How well Johnson develops and how quickly that happens is a question, but he will almost surely be helped by the increased pressure we can expect to see from the front end of the unit.
The kicking position is still a sore spot for most Bears fans, and it literally is a sore spot for the team, as kicker Eddy Pineiro is currently out with a bad groin. He’ll likely get another chance when he’s healthy, but Cairo Santos is likely to replace him until then. As it’s been almost every year since Robbie Gould left after 2015, the kicker position is less stable than a Kardashian relationship. Punter Pat O’Donnell is fine, just another punter.
Between Patterson returning kicks and Cohen returning punts, the Bears have the best returning duo in the league, and maybe the best there’s been in the league since Devin Hester did both for the Bears.
Predicting a season that could be stopped or undone at any given moment due to the fact that there’s a global pandemic going on kind of seems like an exercise of futility, but it’s always fun.
The Bears are in what should once again be a tough NFC North Division, and being scheduled to play against the entire NFC South the year Tom Brady comes along is kind of a cruel joke. But on the flip side, they also get the chance to feast on a porous AFC South, as well as a Rams team far removed from their Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago and a Giants team that has Saquon Barkley and nothing else.
The defense could return to the championship-caliber pedigree it was in 2018, and whoever takes the snaps at quarterback will have plenty of weapons and a playbook that has shown it can be lethal. The questions are who takes most of those snaps and how often the line can support them.
I’d love for Trubisky to prove his ever-growing list of doubters wrong and play to the very, very brief glimpses he showed he can play at two years ago. But if he’s not going to consistently have time to find his weapons, I just don’t know that it can happen.
But this team has too much talent to not go at least .500. For the sake of optimism, I’ll say Trubisky and Foles combine to tread enough water to lead the Bears to nine wins and a wild card appearance. But I’m not making plans on a Bears Super Bowl.