LAKE FOREST, Ill. — While making a radio appearance on “The Mike Heller Show” in Wisconsin this week, I was asked a question that caught me off guard for a second.
“What is the ceiling for the Bears this year?,” Heller asked me. “What would be deemed a success, winning a playoff game? Is this a Super Bowl year? Getting to the NFC Championship? What would that be?”
The first part was easy. The ceiling is the Super Bowl. The Bears’ defense proved that last Sunday night against the Rams.
But the second part is more complicated. To spin the question around, I was basically being asked, “What would have to happen for this season to be viewed as disappointing?”
The answer to that question is always engrained in what the expectations were at the beginning of the season. I could make a pretty easy argument that the 2018 Bears season is already a great success. The only disappointing outcome would be losing at home in the Wild Card round.
But that won’t be the case in 2019. Because the expectations will be different. Bears fans will be thinking Super Bowl. And that’s it.
That’s completely understandable, but why shouldn’t that be the expectation now? Instead of resetting the season, with new pieces and new circumstances that will undoubtedly change in a year, why not have the Super Bowl in mind now? It’s Week 15. The Bears are here. You don’t know what it’s going to look like a year from now.
With that thought in mind, let’s dive into this week’s “10 Bears Things.”
1. Why Not This Year?
With success comes new challenges. Players want to be rewarded with new contracts. Coaches get offers from other teams. Just look at the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. You think they miss Frank Reich and John DeFilippo right now?
How about the Vikings? You think they miss Pat Shurmur? I believe Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than Case Keenum, but that offense sure looked better in 2017. And the window on the defense is closing.
And what about the Jaguars? They were the up-and-coming team with the great defense that had no shame in losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship last year. They would be back better than ever in 2018, right? The Jaguars are currently 4-9.
I’m not here to kill your Bears buzz. I witnessed the downfall of the previous regime and have consistently praised general manager Ryan Pace for the methodical way he has built up this young and exciting roster. In fact, I think the Bears are in a great position to have sustained success over, say, the next six years (the length of Khalil Mack’s contract).
But I also know that this is a year-to-year league and history tells us that the Bears will more than likely miss the playoffs at least once or twice while Mack is a Bear. You build longterm success with Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, not elite defenses. And right now, the Bears’ quarterback is still a question mark.
The point is, embrace 2018 while it’s here. I’ve heard some fans compare this team to the 1984 Bears — the team with so much promise that was a year away from winning the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s the case, and losing in the NFC Championship Game might not be viewed as a major disappointment, but that doesn’t guarantee anything for 2019.
Consider this: if the Bears make it to the NFC Championship Game, how many teams will want to talk to Vic Fangio about their head coach openings? It will already be hard to replicate the lack of injuries next season, but losing Fangio would almost automatically result in at least a little bit of a drop off in success on the defensive side of the ball.
I understand the comparisons to the 1984 Bears, but I actually think this team is more similar to the 2018 Eagles. It’s a similar-style offense, with an even better defense and a question mark at quarterback. Last year at this time, the Eagles weren’t considered a lock for the Super Bowl. In fact, most (including me) were bailing on them after they lost Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury. But with great coaching and a good defense, they caught lightning in a bottle with Nick Foles and won it all.
I feel confident that Mitch Trubisky is better than Foles, but I’m not so confident that he can play as well as Foles did in the playoffs last year. Still, it’s possible that with great coaching — which the Bears appear to have — Matt Nagy can get Trubisky to play at a high enough level to make a run in January.
Yes, it’s possible. Sunday night’s win over the Rams proved that the Bears’ defense will give this team a shot in any playoff game, no matter where it is played.
It’s no guarantee the Bears will be a real Super Bowl contender in 2019. They are now, though — in 2018.
2. Reverse The Rivalry
The Packers are 15-2 against the Bears in their last 17 games. They’ve won eight straight at Soldier Field.
And Matt Nagy has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t care.
“I don’t care. I won’t care. I care about us and our history and our tradition,” he said Thursday. “I don’t care about what’s happened here in the past as far as streaks and wins and losses. To me it means nothing.”
That’s the right message for Nagy to send to his team. He’s all about starting a new history, one that might reverse the Packers’ utter dominance of this rivalry over the last 27 years. Since Brett Favre became Green Bay’s quarterback in 1992, the Packers are 40-14 against the Bears.
40-14. Think about that.
Going into the 1992 season, the Bears held a significant 80-57-6 edge in the all-time series. Now the Packers have a 97-94-6 record against the Bears.
Nagy might not care about these numbers, but it still matters to the McCaskey Family — and Nagy’s future job security. History tells us that if you don’t beat the Packers, you don’t keep your job.
Just take a look at the last seven Bears’ head coaches and their records against the Packers:
Mike Ditka (1982-92) — 15-5
Dave Wannstedt (1993-98) — 1-11
Dick Jauron (1999-2003) — 2-8
Lovie Smith (2004-12) — 8-11
Marc Trestman (2013-14) — 1-3
John Fox (2015-17) — 1-5
Matt Nagy (2018—) — 0-1
The only coach since Ditka to have any success against the Packers was Lovie Smith. In fact, at one point he had a 7-3 record against Green Bay. Unfortunately, he only went 1-8 against the Packers in his last four seasons as Bears head coach, including a loss at home in the 2011 NFC Championship Game. Make no mistake, his six-game losing streak to the Packers played a role in his 2012 dismissal, even though the Bears had a 10-6 record that season. Sure, new general manager Phil Emery wanted to hire his own head coach, but Smith was still a beloved figure in the organization and the struggles against the Packers made it easier for ownership to accept the change.
Nagy and Ryan Pace appear to have the Bears headed in a new direction. But Nagy still has an 0-1 record against the Green Bay in a game they led 20-0. Pace is 1-6 against the Packers.
These numbers don’t really matter right now. But they eventually will if the Bears don’t start beating Green Bay.
3. Trubisky Embracing The Rivalry
Perhaps it’s part of Nagy wanting his players to feel the “sting” from the Bears’ Week 1 loss at Lambeau Field, but Mitch Trubisky wasn’t in the mood to throw bouquets at Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this week.
Asked Wednesday what he admired about Rodgers, Trubisky basically took a hard pass on the question, saying he hadn’t “really watched much on him this year” and was just focused on his own job.
A few minutes later, he was asked about his “Favre” nickname in high school. Trubisky quickly shut that down too:
“I’m done with that nickname. No one calls me that anymore. I’m just focused on playing this week and doing my job. That was back in high school. I don’t play for Green Bay. It was just a nickname. It was back in the day. I’m a Chicago Bears quarterback now.”
Nothing about either answer was remotely disrespectful, but Trubisky made it pretty clear: He doesn’t want to be associated with the Packers and isn’t very interested in complimenting them.
4. Long Way Back
While the Bears lost one key player in Bryce Callahan this week, they might be getting another one back for the playoffs. Right guard Kyle Long is out of the boot on his right foot and was working out on the stationary bicycle during the portion of Wednesday’s practice that was open to the media.
Long has missed the last six game with the injury and is eligible to come off of injured reserve in Week 17.
“He’s coming along well,” Nagy said Thursday. “He is out of his boot … he’s progressing the right way. He’s in good spirits and that is a positive for us.”
Long’s return is not a sure thing, but you have to think he’ll be doing everything in his power to come back for the playoffs. This is the first winning season the Bears have had since drafting Long in 2013 and he has been through some really tough injuries the last three seasons. The Bears are also missing his presence on the field and could use a boost at right guard.
5. A Lot On The Line For Philbin
The Packers’ head coach opening is fascinating right now with everyone from Josh McDaniels to Vic Fangio to Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald being mentioned as candidates. No one seems to know exactly what type of coach Packers’ president Mark Murphy is looking for, as opposed to the Bears last year, who were destined to hire a younger, offensive mind.
But after talking to a number of media colleagues in Wisconsin this week and two sources more embedded in league affairs, one thing is clear: interim head coach Joe Philbin has a chance to keep the job.
Perhaps the strongest part of Philbin’s candidacy is that he has Aaron Rodgers’ support. The growing divide between Rodgers and Mike McCarthy was so evident this season that it was even showing through on television during games. Finding a coach to pair with Rodgers for the last four to five years of his career should be priority No. 1 and if Philbin can prove that he’s the right guy to lead the Packers through the end of the Rodgers era, they may keep him.
Thus, beating the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field would be a big boost for Philbin’s candidacy. If the Packers somehow run the table and make the playoffs, it would be hard not to give Philbin the permanent gig.
6. The Opponent: Green Bay Packers
It’s been written and said that the Packers aren’t the same team they were when these two teams met in Week 1. I disagree. Their flaws were on display in the offseason and just grew more obvious as the season went along. It’s why I predicted the Bears would win 27-17 at Lambeau Field in Week 1.
As it turned out, I was right about the season-long prospects of both of these teams, but obviously wrong about what transpired on that Sunday night in Green Bay. I expected the Bears to use the element of surprise to jump out to an early lead and the defense to protect that lead. I was right until I wasn’t. The defense failed to protect that lead and the offense was ineffective once the element of surprise was gone.
The problem in this matchup for the Bears is that Rodgers showed the blueprint for having success against this defense. As soon as he went to a quick passing game and hurried the offense up in the fourth quarter, the Bears suddenly broke down fundamentally. When the pass rush is negated, passes are completed and the tackling — this defense’s only flaw — gets tested.
7. The Pick
Bears 27, Packers 22
Everything in this matchup tells me the Bears are the better team and will be highly motivated to not only win the division, but do so convincingly against their rival.
The problem is, Aaron Rodgers will still be on that field. And he’s getting six points in a series he has completely dominated?
The tape tells me the Bears will win easily. My experience covering these games tells me otherwise.
8. Quote Of The Week
“I tried to do a cartwheel, but I couldn’t.”
— Vic Fangio when asked if he managed to enjoy the win over the Rams
9. Tweet Of The Week
What if Cutler’s best season as a Bear ends up being Trubisky’s worst season with Nagy?
10. Final Thoughts
— I may be in the minority, but I believe the Bears can stomach the loss of Bryce Callahan. Sherrick McManis’ previous opportunities to play on defense haven’t gone perfectly, but he also got those chances with defenses that weren’t nearly as complete as this one. The Bears have linebackers who can cover and a possible All-Pro at safety. Fangio can mix and match coverages to help McManis out. He possesses good enough quickness and is a sure-tackler who had already earned a blitz special blitz package. The Bears are thin in the secondary, but they’ll be OK as long as no one else goes down.
— Earlier this week I ran a Twitter poll to find out which potential Wild Card opponent Bears fans fear the most.
The answer was clear. Fans are most concerned about the Seahawks. I’ve been very impressed with what Pete Carroll has done with that team this year and they have a good defense that created some confusion for Trubisky back in Week 2. But I also can’t envision that offense scoring much on the Bears’ defense at Soldier Field. The Bears were clearly the better team back in September when they won 24-17 and I don’t think much has changed. I think it goes to show that the Bears will likely be significant favorites against any opponent in the Wild Card round.
— Call me crazy, but I would have voted for the Giants in that poll. They also have a pretty decent defense and they’ve won four of their last five games, including 30-27 overtime victory over the Bears. I just feel like they have the most dangerous weapons with Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. to go along with a quarterback with proven playoff success. At 5-8, the Giants’ playoff chances are slim, but that’s the team I think could give the Bears the most trouble. It wouldn’t be too hard to make an argument that they are actually the sixth best team in the NFC right now.
— It feels like the list of serious Super Bowl contenders is down to six: the Saints, Rams, Bears, Chiefs, Chargers and Patriots. Cowboys and Texans fans will likely take offense, but I just think those other six teams are operating on a different level with their personnel. I guess you can never rule out the Steelers, but that’s based on reputation and not on what they’re actually showing on the field right now.
— From my 2017 scouting report on Patrick Mahomes: “You’re either drafting one of the most fun quarterbacks to watch in the entire league or a guy who can’t put it together enough to trust as a starter.”
I’m still not sure I’d trust the no-look passes and the left-handed throws, but there’s no question he’s the most fun quarterback to watch in the NFL right now. What a talent.
— With fan voting ending on Thursday, the NFL announced that Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos and Tarik Cohen (return specialist) finished as the leading vote-getters at their positions. The final two-thirds of the voting will be done by players and coaches and the results will be announced Tuesday.
With that in mind, Akiem Hicks better make it as a Pro Bowler. It’s not surprising to see Aaron Donald lead NFC defensive tackles in voting, but Hicks deserved to be in the Pro Bowl last year and is even more deserving this year. Considering the enormous of amount of high-impact plays he has put on tape this season, I don’t think coaches and players will ignore him, but if he somehow doesn’t get in, it will make the entire process look like an embarrassment.