By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
If you told Chicago Bears fans months ago that by the turn of the new year their favorite team would acquire arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, finish the coming season with 12 wins, win the NFC North and make the playoffs with a rookie head coach many of even the most devoted would have told you how crazy you are.
Fortunately for Bears fans, what could have been considered a far away vision of the future has fast become a touchstone of the present.
Last week, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick went on ESPN’s morning show “Get Up” and laid out his belief in the Bears unlike any other national observer of the NFL. The former safety and front office executive acknowledged the Bears success and stated them not just to be a favorite to go to the Super Bowl, but as his favorite to win it all.
In the days since the team has only looked better, winning convincingly in Minneapolis to end the season and eliminate the once-thought to be dangerous Vikings from the postseason race entirely.
Still, in the immediate wake of Week 17’s playoff-setting action, most seem to be playing up the abilities of the Bears’ first playoff opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, even though the defending Super Bowl champs haven’t at all looked like their winning selves from 2017 and had to back into the postseason in large part because of the Bears eliminating Minnesota.
It may be taking the national media longer than a 16 game season to catch up to what’s really changed in Chicago, but many of those closest to the transformation are on board and not just for allegiances sake.
Former Bears defensive end and current Fox 32 Bears analyst and co-host Corey Wootton played in two recent but separate eras of the Bears, he’s spent this season on TV outlining the team’s areas of growth while being careful to note where improvement was needed. Few analysts can better highlight the difference between the sinking of the Bears under the leadership of its recent coaches and the revival of the team under new coach Matt Nagy and his boss, general manager Ryan Pace.
“The Bears from the offseason seemed like a different team than years past,” Wootton recently told We Are Regal Radio. “I really didn’t know exactly how it would translate to wins or losses, but as time has went on, it has paid dividends…this team has some of the best chemistry in the NFL. Things like this build championships.”
Pace set a continued tone of activity from last January’s hire of Nagy through the early September acquisition of current defensive captain Khalil Mack to acquire arguably the biggest pickups in Bears history while in between filling the roster with several high profile free agents and well-scouted rookies to compile as successful an offseason as the franchise has ever had.
Just as it was visible that in the John Fox era the team was not in a position to win and a dying or at least stagnant vibe persisted in the locker room, the presence of Nagy and his staff and the new young on-field talent has shifted the culture of the team entirely and the players have shown that they are buying into the system with win after win coming as a result.
Wootton played for the Bears and Vikings during his six years in the league, his career coming to an end in 2016, the New Jersey native has seen various ups and downs — from being part of the 2010 team that made it to the NFC Championship game (the last Bears team to make the postseason) to being on a team that won only six games.
Having been a part of those different locker room cultures, Wooton understands the importance of having quality chemistry in the locker room. For Nagy to accomplish the establishment of such a winning chemistry in under a year makes him a deserving Coach of the Year award winner
according to Wootton.
“[Coach Nagy] deserves Coach of the Year because of the way he helped turn this franchise around in not even a year.”
Pace and the Bears improved an already promising young defense from last year by acquiring a former defensive player of the year award winner in Mack and adding him along with the addition of rookie Roquan Smith, finalizing what’s become the most talented and versatile linebacking corps in the NFL.
Chicago’s defense also benefited from no real transition having to take place as the same leadership of defensive coordinator Vic Vangio, the lone coaching positive by the end of the Fox era, continued pushing the current Monsters of the Midway to excel at a high rate.
Wootton mentioned the early December game against the high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense, which was the No. 1 team in the NFC at the time, as being a breakthrough. The Bears held Todd Gurley to 30 yards rushing and forced 4 interceptions from Jared Goff while also holding the Rams to their lowest point and yard totals of the season.
“The game against the Rams was the game that sold me on their defense,” Wootton said.
This season the Bears are a top 10 defense in opponents’ points per game (18.2), yards per game (309), passing yards a game (228) and rushing yards a game (81), while also recording 36 takeaways and 27 interceptions. Behind the leadership of Mack and their opportunistic and strong front seven, it is almost suffocating to run any type of offensive system against them.
However, the questions remain of the offense, and more specifically, the consistency of quarterback Mitch Trubisky? Wootton believes that if Trubisky can be consistent, the Bears have a chance of a long playoff run.
“Their one question mark is offense,” Wootton said. “Trubisky has been pretty inconsistent at times. If they can run the football and eliminate turnovers while playing great defense, they can make it all the way.”
Joshua M. Hicks is the lead columnist of WARR