Bears: Rising To Expectations Will Be Off-season’s Top Objective

By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)

It was quite the ride was the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Bears, lots of high highs and its share of low lows.

Entering the year just hoping to crack the contending window, the Bears wound up completely overturning things in the NFC North and put itself into contention and later locked up the division in December.

In Week 15, against the bane of the Bears existence, the Packers that victorious moment happened, easily the best of the season. The lowest of lows came way too soon after, in the opening round of the playoffs when the Bears fell to the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, and kicker Cody Parkey’s missed field goal (and season really) sketched out the kind of heartbreak that couldn’t be written by Hollywood’s most creative and sadistic elite.

Regardless, the future looks bright and promising with a roster of core players in the early stages of their prime or still have yet to reach their full potential. Pretty scary for a team that is helmed by a rookie head coach and second year quarterback that went 12-4. The problem is that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, with roster turnover and injuries each season is its own.

Even with most of the roster signed positions need improving, key supporting players are no longer under contract and resources are limited. Head coach Matt Nagy won Coach of the Year from the Professional Football Writers of America while general manager Ryan Pace was beat out by Colts’ general manager Chris Ballard for Executive of the Year. This off-season will see Pace and Nagy together in the war room for an entire key period, one in which for the first time in both of their careers, they will have championship expectations after finding success.

Its much easier to win when no one expects you to win than it is when everyone expects you to win.

Lets look at the Bears season and begin projecting what the future may hold for the team.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference and DVOA from Football Outsiders

Offense:

  • 9th in points for (421)
  • 21st in total yards (5,502)
  • 21st in pass yards (3,564)
  • 14th in passing touchdowns (28)
  • 21st in interceptions (14)
  • 14th in net yards gained per pass attempt (6.5)
  • 6th in rush attempts (468)
  • 11th in rush yards (1,938)
  • 7th in rush touchdowns (16)
  • 27th in rush yards per average (4.1)
  • 20th in DVOA (measures efficiency) up from 28th the season prior

Key free agents — Right tackle Bobby Massie and offensive lineman Bryan Witzmann

Off-season Outlook: The Bears were in year one of what will hopefully be a sustainable run of effective modern day offense. The innovation that Nagy brought was excellent and clearly the players on offense improved as the season progressed. It starts and ends with the development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Trubisky showed enough improvement that he earned trust from the fans to believe in his development, making had a Jared Goff-type bounce in year two having been the beneficiary of a Sean McVay-type coaching upgrade. If Trubisky is in line for a similar year three as Goff had this past season, then the arrow for the offense is pointed in the right direction. The team has a lot of good pieces in place but offensive line and running back will be areas of focus.

Trubisky to Play in Pro Bowl (Chicago Sun-Times)

Chicago’s leadership addressed the possibility of ex-Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt being added to the team in the final press conference of the season. Both Pace and Nagy, who coached Hunt as a rookie in Kansas City, wouldn’t rule out adding the controversial star and its likely they are looking into the possibility but they are early in the process. The key free agent on offense as a starter is Massie. The Bears do not have a lot of cap room and the defense has a couple key free agents as well which may make resigning Massie not possible. The draft looks less like an avenue for improvement either since the Bears are without a first and second round pick.

Witzman helped fill in at various times this season when guard Kyle Long went down with injury. Overall, the Bears offense needs to fill the right tackle position and gain more depth but the talent is there for them to improve off of last season. The offense needs to become more consistent and make another jump in their efficiency.

On a side note, it looks like receiver Kevin White, Pace’s first draft pick, will not return to the team as he is a free agent for the first time.

Defense:

  • 1st in points allowed (283)
  • 3rd in total yards allowed (4,795)
  • 1st in takeaways (36)
  • 7th in pass yards allowed (3,515)
  • 8th in pass touchdowns allowed (22)
  • 1st in interceptions (27)
  • 1st in net yards allowed per pass attempt (5.3)
  • 1st in rush yards allowed (1,280)
  • 1st in rush touchdowns allowed
  • 4th in average rush yards allowed per carry (3.8)
  • 1st in DVOA up from 14th the season prior

Key free agents — Safety Adrian Amos, nickel back Bryce Callahan and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch

Off-season Outlook: The Bears defense had a successful 2017 campaign where they finished at or near the top ten in every major statistical category. The Bears in 2018 made 2017 look like nothing as they finished at or near No. 1 in the league in every major statistical category.

The defense benefited with the retaining of coordinator Vic Fangio but the biggest difference was the trade for linebacker Khalil Mack. The team went on a tear for most of the year and produced three all pros in Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. Star defensive tackle Akiem Hicks received his first Pro Bowl selection and the “Monsters of the Midway” description was renewed in honor of the longstanding Bears tradition of great defenses.

2019 will be a different season for this unit of the team, Fangio has departed for the Broncos head coaching position and replacing him will be ex-Colts coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano will bring in a slightly different scheme and system, already the Bears coaching staff on defense is seeing some turnover with the defensive assistants.

Bears to Play Raiders in London in 2019 (chicagobears.com)

Its unclear whether the turnover will lead to a step back in performance or how difficult it could be replacing Amos and Callahan if they aren’t resigned. The core of the Bears defense is very strong with arguably the best front seven in the league and a secondary that performed brilliantly leading the league in interceptions. What will be key for Pagano is bringing in good teachers for the open positions on the defensive staff and use the strengths of his players.

The Bears were the most efficient defense in 2018, back in 2011 when Pagano took over the Ravens he brought them up to first in efficiency, time will tell if he can keep another heralded defense at No. 1.

Special Teams:

  • 1st in punt return yards (411)
  • 2nd in yards per punt return (12.5)
  • 30th in kick return yards (440)
  • 32nd in yards per kick return (19.1)
  • 27th in field goal percentage (76.7%)
  • 24th in extra point percentage (93.3)
  • 20th in yards per punt (44.3)
  • 12th in punts inside the 20 (28)
  • 26th in DVOA up from 29th the season prior

Key free agents — Receiver Joshua Bellamy, punter Patrick O’Donnell and running back Benny Cunningham.

Off-season Outlook: The Bears special teams wasn’t quite the unit the team needed last season. Some positives included the selection of All-Pro punt returner Tarik Cohen and better overall coverage units but continued problems with place kicking was stamped with an obvious “bad” mark.

The Bears signed Parkey to a four-year, $15 million deal but after the bad season he had including not making the game-winning field goal in the playoffs followed by a Today Show appearance that didn’t sit well with Nagy. It seems like Parkey is on the way out but that is speculation at this point.

If the Bears do not resign O’Donnell then the team could be in the market for a new punter and kicker. The team also must decide if special teams ace, Bellamy, is worth keeping on the team, Cunningham is another key teams player as well. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor improved the Bears unit in efficiency a little but not the jump the team was hoping for.

Special teams is filled up by backups and key role players, the bottom third of the roster needs to be filled with more talent for the unit to improve. Since Pace is left with so few draft picks its possible the team will try to acquire some other free agents as a way to get more talent.

Either way, Tabor is going to have to review the film from last season and figure out a way to get his units playing better.

Coaching — Chicago ends the year with a brand new future after the addition of Nagy and his staff. The offense should benefit from another year working together and the plethora of players progressing from Bears offense 101 to 202 this off-season.

The Bears defense benefited from the cohesiveness last year, its fun to imagine the different variations Nagy will try to add to the offense. As for said defense, if the offense is the main coaching storyline in the off-season, the defense is right behind it with a new staff.

Pagano is expected to be a more aggressive play caller than Fangio, it will interesting to see how Pagano blends his defense with what worked last year. This is the second year in a row that it seems like the Bears coaching will be one of the strengths of the club. The question is, can the coaching be as good or better than last year?

This Bears season comes with a lot of promise and now its in the hands of Pace and Nagy to set the Bears up for another great year.

Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR
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