ATLANTA — The Bears may not have reached the Super Bowl this year, but they still had a strong showing in Atlanta, a sign of the remarkable step forward the franchise took during the 2018 season.
Some of the Bears’ business at the Super Bowl was more official than others. Head coach Matt Nagy had to cut a vacation short to accept the AP Coach of the Year Award. Tight end Trey Burton was one of 32 finalists in town for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had a major sponsorship appearance with Gatorade. Cornerback Prince Amukamara was participating in community events around town with the NFLPA. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was in Orlando the week prior for the Pro Bowl and just wasn’t in a hurry to go home. I ran into him in the bathroom.
Other players in town included Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard. Coming off a 12-4 season, the Bears were well represented in the center of the football world. And all have visions of playing in the Super Bowl a year from now.
All told, WGN Radio conducted 23 interviews on Radio Row, many of them with current and former Bears players, and countless others at various media availabilities around town. Here’s what I learned while in Atlanta:
1. “He may have changed the league more than anyone else in the last year.”
Those are the words of longtime NFL reporter John Clayton, who cast one of the 24 votes for Nagy in the AP Coach of the Year race.
“The reason I say that is because he has two products that he has been able to turn. One is Patrick Mahomes and two is Mitchell Trubisky,” Clayton said.
While Nagy didn’t coach Mahomes during his breakout MVP season, he did play a major role in the young quarterback’s development as Mahomes sat out the first 15 games of the 2017 season. And in 2018, Nagy made major strides with Trubisky, who ended up in the Pro Bowl alongside the Chiefs’ quarterback.
Nagy’s affection for Trubisky was well documented when he accepted the Bears job over a year ago. The two got to know each other during the 2017 draft process and stayed in touch during Trubisky’s rookie season. It was a major reason why the Bears job was attractive for Nagy.
But Nagy also loved Mahomes and his influence on the Chiefs’ decision to move up to No. 10 and draft the Texas Tech product was larger than you might think. In fact, Clayton told a story I hadn’t heard before:
“I know this story. I heard it from (Chiefs) coaches. What happened was, Matt Nagy had a man crush on Patrick Mahomes. So what he would do is that he would make every coach watch every Texas Tech game that they could. They’d be in meetings on Saturday and Texas Tech games were going to be (on), and he was watching Mahomes. And then all the sudden the assistant general manager became a big fan, the assistant coaches became a big fan. They talked Andy Reid into becoming a big fan and they stunned everybody by trading up with Buffalo to the 10th pick and getting Patrick Mahomes and changing the world.”
I don’t know if Mahomes is changing the world, but he’s certainly changing the NFL. Clayton, who worked for ESPN for years and now writes for the Washington Post while hosting a daily radio show in Seattle, still gives a lot of the credit to Nagy.
“Matt was the first one on that staff to recognize it and he pushed it. They all agreed and now they’re thriving on it,” Clayton said.
Nagy’s infatuation with Mahomes gives him immense credibility when it comes to developing Trubisky. Part of Clayton’s job responsibilities include covering the opposing sidelines for the Seahawks’ radio broadcasts. That means he was on the Bears’ sideline for their Week 2 game against the Seahawks.
“Considering how Trubisky went from Week 2 to Week 10 was remarkable and that’s a credit to Matt Nagy,” Clayton said.
What is often ignored is that Mahomes was drafted into the perfect situation in Kansas City — developing behind Alex Smith with Andy Reid and Matt Nagy as his coaches. Trubisky was “developing” behind Mike Glennon with John Fox in charge.
But Mahomes’ performance in 2018 was unforeseen even by those very close to him. His own agent didn’t expect to see this level of success so quickly.
“It takes time, which is why the Mahomes situation is miraculous because he got it so quickly,” longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg said.
Steinberg knows a little something about representing quarterbacks. He has three of them — Warren Moon, Steve Young and Troy Aikman — in the Hall of Fame. He knows the impact Nagy had on Mahomes as a rookie and he believes Trubisky is headed for more success next season.
“It takes time and before you throw the quarterback under the bus, you haven’t seen the full potential yet and if you’re not willing to live through that process, then a team will go endlessly looking for a franchise quarterback and never get one. So you have to be patient,” Steinberg said.
And speaking of Hall-of-Famers, Kurt Warner was also among many respected football voices in Atlanta voicing his support for the Nagy-Trubisky pairing.
“I think Matt did a great job this year of creating opportunities for his young quarterback, a quarterback that still has a long way to go and growing into a complete guy,” Warner said. “Matt did a great job of creating those big opportunities for him and allowing him to grow, while at times making the game easier for him.”
2. “My wife and I definitely at some point in the near future would like to get back towards the Chicagoland area to play.”
By now, you’ve probably read or heard a little bit about Robbie Gould’s desire to come back to the Bears. He made it clear in an interview with WGN Radio on Radio Row that, at a minimum, he would like to retire as a Bear and have a post-playing career with the organization.
But he also happens to be due to hit free agency in March and his best chance of winning a Super Bowl might be with the Bears next season. Of course, it’s not all in Gould’s control. The same general manager that released Gould in 2016 is still in control of the Bears’ roster. And, technically, the 49ers could place the franchise tag on him to prevent the kicker from hitting free agency.
“Obviously I’d like to be in the place that I’m going to play for longer than one year again if it does work out that way, but if not, it’s the business of football,” Gould said. “And if (the franchise tag) does happen for some reason, then the CBA does grant me opportunities that I can stay around my family for a long time. So those are things I have to take into account.”
Some could interpret that as an early threat of holding out should the 49ers use the franchise tag, but given that his family continues to live in the northern Chicago suburbs year-round, the collective bargaining agreement does allow him to stay in Chicago during voluntary offseason workouts. As a longtime player rep for the NFLPA, Gould certainly knows his options.
As for whether or not the Bears are a realistic option, that remains to be seen. It won’t be cheap to eat Cody Parkey’s $5-plus million cap hit and then turn around and sign one of the better kickers in the league. But Gould doesn’t believe there are any personal issues standing in the way of a Chicago reunion.
“I don’t think there are any fences that need mending,” he said. “It’s a business, right? That’s the hardest part for fans and players to understand. Some things you can control, some things you can’t. But I’m grateful for my time in Chicago. My heart still lives in Chicago. I still have a lot of affinities to the family and want Mrs. McCaskey and her family to hold up a Super Bowl trophy one day.”
Insert “thinking” emoji here.
3. Bears could kickoff NFL’s 100th season at Soldier Field
With the NFL and the Chicago Bears both celebrating their 100th seasons in 2019, there have been some rumors flying around about the Bears hosting the first game of the season in the fall.
Here’s what I know: While the season traditionally kicks off on a Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion, the league already has ownership approval to do something different for their 100th season. And with the Patriots winning Sunday night, it increases the likelihood of a different opening game because the Patriots have been a part of the season-opener so many times.
Nothing has been finalized yet, but one option that is being seriously discussed is the Bears hosting the Packers. As two of the league’s oldest teams, it’s a natural matchup to kick off the NFL’s 100th season. The Bears would get the nod as the home team partially because they will also being celebrating their 100th season, but also because the NFL hopes to host an “NFL 100” festival during its opening weekend and Grant Park serves as a perfect location, especially after successfully hosting two NFL Drafts.
At this point, I’d be surprised if the Bears did not host the Packers to start the 2019 season and in one way or another, that game will be featured as part of a bigger NFL 100 celebration to start the year. I think what still needs to be decided is if that game will kickoff the season on Thursday night or if it will culminate a big weekend celebration on either Sunday night or Monday night. Stay tuned.
4. “Top moment of the season? Finishing Aaron Rodgers.”
Akiem Hicks didn’t have to think too hard when I asked him about the top moment of the season. The Bears beat the Packers 24-17 at Soldier Field on Dec. 16 and clinched the NFC North title in the process.
“It made it everything that it was supposed to be,” Hicks said. “(Rodgers) built the excitement up leading up the game and Chicagoans have a way of never forgetting anything, right?”
Hicks was referring to what Rodgers said in November when the quarterback was detailing an unlikely Packers’ run to the playoffs. While going through the schedule, Rodgers said the Packers would have to “go to Chicago, a place we’ve won a number of times, beat them.”
“People were in my mentions on Twitter saying, ‘Remember what Aaron said?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I do. I didn’t forget either,’” Hicks said. “And so for him to come there and play that game — nothing taken away from the guy, he’s a great player in this league, one of the greatest quarterbacks that we’ve seen in this league in a very long time — it was great. It was very fun to beat him.”
I pointed out the symbolic “changing of the guard” nature of that victory, and Hicks also felt that the Week 17 win over the Vikings was also symbolic because of how they ended their 2016 and 2017 seasons in Minnesota with nothing to play for. And for those who think the Bears should have lost to the Vikings on purpose, Hicks had this to say:
“If I were the head coach of the Chicago Bears, looking at Minnesota and saying, I’m going to play this team another two times next year. I want them to remember us,” Hicks said. “I think Nagy did a great job of getting us ready for the playoffs and finishing off the Vikings. So I had no trouble with that move whatsoever.”
5. “Sometimes it takes a coach to challenge you a little bit.”
Since retiring from football in 2015, former Bears cornerback Tim Jennings has remained close friends with Kyle Fuller and he was able to offer some insight into Fuller’s rise to All-Pro status after getting called out by former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2016.
Jennings had a similar experience during his career, getting benched in Week 15 of the 2011 season. The following year, Jennings led the NFL with seven interceptions and went to two straight Pro Bowls after the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
“Coach Lovie Smith did that same thing to me back in 2011,” Jennings said. “Sometimes it takes that just to add a little bit more fire to a player, just to give everything you got.”
Fangio seemingly questioned Fuller’s motivation to get back on the football field when the cornerback opted to sit out the entire 2016 season after an arthroscopic surgery on his knee in August. Fuller and Fangio ended up bonding on the golf course the following offseason and the cornerback went on to earn a 4-year, $56 million contract extension after the 2017 season before becoming an All-Pro in 2018.
“It says a lot about Kyle’s maturity level,” Jennings said. “At lot of people don’t know this, but Kyle’s been like that since he first stepped into the league. And we knew Kyle was going to be special. In his second year, he was banged up, and a lot of players wouldn’t have taken the third year off like he did. They would have just fought through it and maybe had an OK season, or maybe a bad season. But Kyle being mature, and coming from the football background that he comes from, he knew that it would probably be best for him to just sit out and let this knee do what it is supposed to do. And it says a lot about the organization in Chicago. They’ve been very patient with him. Coach Fangio challenged him a little bit, but it worked out. It worked out for the both of them.”
6. “There was probably some miscommunication.”
A number of Bears players have walked a fine line while discussing kicker Cody Parkey’s decision to go on the Today Show five days after missing the would-be game-winning kick against the Eagles. Parkey is still a teammate so they want to support him, but it’s also fairly obvious that the Today Show appearance didn’t help his status within the locker room.
Cornerback Prince Amukamara was the latest Bear to chime in on the topic, making it clear that he wouldn’t have done the interview without approval from the Bears’ public relations team and he thought there was “probably some miscommunication” between Parkey and the organization. But the cornerback also voiced support for Parkey’s message in the interview.
“I feel like he said some great things,” Amukamara said. “One of the things that I highlighted was, he said, ‘Football is what I do, it’s not who I am,’ and I feel like that’s true because if football was truly who he was, I mean, all jokes aside, he would be on suicide watch. Like, he wouldn’t be in the great state that he was, so I’m glad that he’s able to disconnect.”
Still, Amukamara also said he understood why the Bears — and specifically his head coach — took issue with the interview.
“There are different perspectives. So, from Nagy, I think he could say, ‘Hey you missed (the kick), we nipped it in the bud, no more (need) to go on and talk about it,” and probably when he went on (the Today Show) and talked about it, it looks like you want more pity, you want more gratification or whatever,” Amukamara said.
Here’s more with Prince Amukamara:
7. “We think it’s a sign of weakness, but it really isn’t.”
While many have speculated that Bears tight end Trey Burton missed the playoff game against the Eagles because of anxiety, the reality is that Burton has been open and honest about his issues, so there’s really no reason for him to lie about it.
“Oh yeah, way overblown, for sure,” Burton said when I asked about him about the speculation. “I have dealt with anxiety in the past and when I have had that problem, I’ve openly spoke about it. I don’t think this had anything to do with anxiety. It’s just something that happens with my body. It’s happened in the past, where I just locked up and there’s nothing I can really do about it.”
Burton was surprisingly added to the injury report with a groin injury the Saturday night before the game. It was an odd occurrence, which helped fuel the anxiety speculation, but Bears general manager Ryan Pace later insisted an MRI showed the groin injury. And when you consider that the Bears were playing the Eagles, there’s little doubt he wanted to play.
“Horrible timing, man,” Burton said. “If there was ever a game that I wanted to play in — even if it was a preseason game against my former team, I would want to play the whole game. To make it even worse, it was a playoff game. It was just tough.”
It’s unfortunate that Burton’s honesty about anxiety worked against him this time, but he still plans on talking about it in the future because he wants to help others.
“As men, we don’t like to talk about what we’re going through and the struggles that we have, but in reality, all of us have a lot of similar problems and a lot of similar struggles, so I kind of just want to break the stigma,” Burton said. “Listen, I need someone to talk to. I need a counselor, I need whatever, I need my wife, someone I can be honest with, so you should be able to seek and look for help as well … We think it’s a sign of weakness, but it really isn’t.”
8. “He’s a young me. A young London Fletcher.”
Roquan Smith might not have racked up all the rookie of the year awards, but is still earning plenty of respect in NFL circles, especially from fellow linebackers.
Former Rams, Bills and Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was particularly impressed with the rookie this season:
“He’s a young me, a young London Fletcher. (He’s) not the big guy, but he wants to make every single tackle, sideline-to-sideline. Plays with great instincts. You can tell he’s a student of the game. I’m just going to marvel and watch his play, what he turns into.”
When I ran those comments by Brian Urlacher, the Hall-of-Fame linebacker responded:
“I thought he had a good year. Your rookie year is tough because you got a new defense, there’a lot of eyes on you. I mean, he’s athletic. He makes plays. That pick he had in the playoff game was unbelievable. Just a great play. He’s just going to get better and better. I don’t think he’s going to slow down at all. Just stay healthy, stay on the field. He makes plays, he’s very intellectual out there. He sees things coming. His pass drops — he fits in the right places. And he seems like a good teammate, more importantly to me. The guys seem to like him.”
9. “Even in late March he was thinking about walking away rather than play for Belichick one more time.”
In many ways, I think the latest Patriots Super Bowl victory is their most impressive. I’m not sure if people understand how close Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were to breaking up last spring.
ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, who wrote the New York Times bestselling book on Belichick, explained the nature of the very successful Brady-Belichick relationship:
“It’s amazing that it took 18 years for there to be a public fracture in that relationship, but it’s always been transactional, never a lot of love or warmth. When Brady has needed that, he’s gone to Robert Kraft. That relationship is about love and affection. They’re really close. They live right next to each other.”
O’Connor explained that often times it has been “Tom and Robert vs. Bill.” Brady was upset with how his personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, was treated, and he and many teammates were upset with the benching of Malcolm Butler in last year’s Super Bowl. Brady sat out the voluntary portion of the Patriots offseason workouts before he and Belichick were able to patch things up for another Super Bowl run.
Given that Belichick and Brady essentially are the Patriots’ dynasty, it’s amazing that they were able to get through that drama so quickly and win again. Especially when you consider that they lost Butler, left tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis in free agency. They also dealt with Julian Edelman’s suspension and their first round pick, Isaiah Wynn, tore his Achilles. Josh Gordon helped for a little while, but he wasn’t available in the playoffs. Frankly, the Patriots’ roster isn’t that impressive. Yet Belichick and Brady keep winning in a league that is built for parity, not dynasties.
Love them or hate them, the Patriots were incredibly impressive in 2018.
10. Final Thoughts
- Well, I came as close as I ever have to nailing a preseason Super Bowl prediction. I had the Rams beating the Patriots in Atlanta, but I should’ve known better than to go against Belichick and Brady. Respect.
- While Bears coaches were given last week off, I’m told new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was busy at Halas Hall working on his new defense.
- A couple more 2019 schedule nuggets: the NFL is aware that the Bears have played eight straight night games at Lambeau Field. Expect this year’s game in Green Bay to be a day game — unless it’s flexed, of course. Meanwhile, while nothing has been finalized, the Bears-Raiders game in London is currently slated for Wembley Stadium and not the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
- As I reporter, I never complain about good storylines, so how’s this: the Bears return to Miami, the site of their last Super Bowl appearance, and play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020. Matt Nagy vs Andy Reid. Mitchell Trubisky vs Patrick Mahomes. Nagy’s 18th wedding anniversary. George Halas’ birthday. The NFL’s 100th season. The Bears’ 100th season. I mean, the story writes itself.
This was fun. Let’s do it again next year.