DECATUR, Ill. — The drive through central Illinois can be a reflective one, mainly because there isn’t much to distract you. Thunderstorms provided the only scenery between Joliet and Decatur, and they rolled in one after another.
Your mind tends to wander. On Route 51 south of Bloomington, I was reminded why there are so many St. Louis Cardinals fans in Illinois. You eventually reach the point where you are closer to St. Louis than Chicago.
I’m certainly guilty of being the stereotypical Chicagoan who barely knows his own state. Other than going to college in Wisconsin, I’ve lived in Illinois my entire life, yet Bourbonnais is the only town I’ve ever spent a full night south of Interstate 80. Even when I go to Champaign for football or basketball games, I always drive home when I’m done working.
I’m not proud of this, so driving to Decatur was at least informative, even if it wasn’t exciting. As you mercifully arrive into town, you’re greeted by a sign that says, “The original home of the Chicago Bears.”
And even though it’s easy to think to yourself, “This is where the Bears were born?,” you are reminded that the reach of the franchise extends well beyond other Chicago sports teams. The Bears have always had a connection with towns well south of Chicago. George Halas played at Illinois. Red Grange and Dick Butkus did too. The Bears played their home games in Champaign in 2002.
That’s at least part of the reason why the Bears continue hold training camp in Bourbonnais and why they felt it was right to kickoff their 100th season with an event in Decatur on Sunday. The Bears — then called the Staleys — were actually only in Decatur for one season, but that’s where Halas was recruited by A.E. Staley to run a football team for his starch company. By 1921 the Staleys moved to Chicago and by 1922 they were renamed the Bears.
The history of this great franchise is certainly worth examining throughout the 100th season, but as training camp opens this week in Bourbonnais, it’s also important to focus on the 2019 Chicago Bears — a team that is talented enough to add to the legacy of the franchise. Part of the Bears history is the frank reality that while the team has won nine championships, they’ve only won one of 53 possible Super Bowls and only have two titles in the last 72 years.
I am among those who think that could change this year. This 2019 season will be my ninth covering the Bears and this will be the fifth season that I’ve had the pleasure of writing my “10 Bears Things” column for you. With quarterbacks and rookies reporting to Bourbonnais Monday and the rest of the team on Thursday, this marks the return of the weekly running of this column. Let’s get started with everything you need to know from Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy’s press conference in Decatur.
1. A Shorter Camp
Much of the talk in Matt Nagy’s first training camp a year ago was about how much extra time he had to get the team ready for the Bears’ Week 1 game in Green Bay. Because the Bears played in the Hall of Fame Game, they had an extra preseason game and were able to report to training camp a week early. In total, the Bears had 52 days to get ready for the Packers from their report date on July 19.
This year, not only do the Bears not have the luxury of an extra week, they also start the season on Thursday night, cutting off an extra three days. In total, the Bears have just 42 days from their official report date to get ready for the season opener against the Packers — 10 less than last year.
This isn’t necessarily an obstacle, however. Last year’s situation was more of a luxury for a first-year head coach than a necessity and in some ways the extra practices made it more difficult to manage the work load for a team trying to stay healthier than it had in recent seasons.
As Nagy pointed out Sunday, the only true obstacle of the Thursday night opener is the turnaround time from final cuts on Aug. 31 to kickoff on Sept. 5.
“You’re getting into your cuts and now you have some practice squad guys and you’re using them in practice, and we turn around right away,” Nagy said. “For us as coaches, there’s not that weekend off where you can kind of regroup and come back at it and now you have a normal week.”
Practice squads won’t be determined until Sunday, Sept. 1, which is the same day the Bears will hold their first “game-week” practice to prepare for the Packers. Typically that practice isn’t held until the Wednesday of that week, allowing new practice squad players a few days to get acclimated to their team before being thrown into practice.
With the quick turnaround from their last preseason game to the opener on Sept. 5, it would not be surprising to see the Bears jump into their Packers preparation even earlier than normal. Last year, Nagy didn’t play his starters in the final two preseason games and it would be fair to expect that again.
“We’ve discussed it. There’s a plan,” Nagy said. “For a lot of us, we really care about what happens Week 1 (of the regular season) and not Week 2 of the preseason, or Week 3. At least that’s the way I think, but maybe I’m wrong. But we have a plan.”
2. Handling of the Kickers
Part of the reason why kicker questions dominated the start of Sunday’s press conference is because Pace hadn’t talked publicly since the NFL Draft. That means he hadn’t commented on the crazy kicker competition held at rookie minicamp or the trade for kicker Eddy Pineiro.
Thus, his scouting reports on both kickers coming to Bourbonnais was noteworthy:
On Pineiro: “Eddy’s got real natural leg talent. He’s got a strong leg. It’s just developing consistency as he goes forward. He’s a young kicker.”
On Elliott Fry: “Elliott, a little different. Elliott’s got a pretty consistent stroke. As he gets stronger, you know he had a year away from football, as he gets stronger, we anticipate some of that leg strength improving as well.”
I’m certainly interested to see how the two kickers handle the pressure of kicking in front of fans in Bourbonnais, as well as the wrinkles Nagy is bound to throw into the competition. But I’m also fascinated to see how Nagy handles kicking situations in the preseason games. I even asked him Sunday if we might see some field goals on third down just to make sure the kicks get in.
“We’re not going to kick on third down, but we need to figure out this position, right? We need to understand it’s a crucial spot we’ve got to get right,” Nagy said. “I think the more opportunities that you have for these guys to prove who they are and what they could do, we’ll take ‘em. So there may be some questionable play-calls in the preseason. I’ll just leave it at that and we’ll go from there.”
3. Three To Watch
The Bears’ roster is loaded with intrigue and Pace is right to be excited about the amount of youth that still has room to improve between now and Sept. 5. That’s one of many reasons why I’m not buying the idea that the Bears will regress in 2019 just because their schedule will be tougher. There’s a ton of improvement that is happening from within.
Roquan Smith comes to mind every time I discuss this topic. He may be an All-Pro six months from now. That’s how good I think he can be. Remember, after holding out half of the preseason last year, he’s never even been to Bourbonnais. He’ll benefit from it.
There are other obvious players like rookie running back David Montgomery and former first round pick Leonard Floyd who can greatly impact the amount of success the Bears have in 2019 based on what they can accomplish over the next six weeks. Heck, even Khalil Mack brings a level of intrigue in Bourbonnais — we haven’t seen him in a training camp practice yet.
But I’ll give you three players to watch that I consider to be a little more under the radar. The Bears can probably get by without them, but the team’s Super Bowl chances would certainly be bolstered if these players emerge as legitimate weapons:
Running back Mike Davis
The signing of Davis took a backseat to the drafting of Montgomery, but don’t forget the Bears guaranteed him $3 million in a offseason where they weren’t spending a ton of money. Even Pace thinks Davis is getting overlooked.
“We were really excited when we signed him, obviously,” Pace said. “I feel like he’s a little bit under the radar right now. Mike’s had a great offseason and we’re fortunate to have him. That’s a strong room … and Mike Davis is a real important part of that.”
Tight end Adam Shaheen
We knew the former Division II star was going to need time to develop, but it’s now time for the third-year tight end to perform. The Bears were really excited about what Shaheen was showing last year in the preseason before a foot injury derailed his progress. Nagy’s offense would really benefit from another tight end weapon, especially one as big as Shaheen.
Center James Daniels
Now that Daniels and Trubisky are both more comfortable with Nagy’s offense, the Bears have moved Daniels from guard to his more natural position at center. Changing the battery for Trubisky is an underrated preseason storyline and it will be interesting to see how Daniels handles it when the pads go on. He held up pretty well at guard as a rookie last season, but he now has more responsibility in the middle of the offensive line. Count me among those who believe the entire unit can be improved with Daniels and Cody Whitehair playing their more natural positions, but Daniels’ performance in the preseason will determine if this becomes a permanent switch.
4. The First Notable Injury
It’s pretty common for there to be a least one unexpected injury revelation before training camp begins and that tradition continues this year with new safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Pace revealed that Clinton-Dix suffered a knee sprain at the end of the offseason program and will begin training camp on the Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list. Offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings, who is coming off a torn ACL, and defensive lineman Jonathan Harris, who has a hamstring injury, will also start camp on PUP. The team made those moves official on Monday.
“They’re all going to be short term, we expect,” Pace said.
With Clinton-Dix out, that means more opportunity for fourth-year safety Deon Bush, who did a respectable job filling in for Eddie Jackson in the playoff game in January, but has never emerged as a full-time starter. Longtime special teamer Sherrick McManis will also get more reps to show he can be a reliable backup at the safety position as he tries to make a position switch from slot corner in his 10th NFL season.
There was some good injury news, however, as Pace said tight end Trey Burton (sports hernia surgery) and wide receiver Anthony Miller (shoulder injury) will not start camp on PUP.
“We’ll be smart with those guys and how we ramp them in, like we always are,” Pace said. “But we expect to go into this training camp in a pretty healthy state.”
5. The Young Veteran
On the list of players who should only improve: wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is already entering his sixth NFL season, but is still only 25.
“The funny thing is that he’s young for his experience in this league,” Nagy said. “Some of our rookies are a year or two younger than him.”
Robinson was still coming off a torn ACL last season, but started to emerge as a very good No. 1 wideout for the Bears and was downright dominate late in the playoff game against the Eagles.
“I think you saw last year at the end of the season, I know I could see it, is you get a feel of our quarterback, Mitchell, and there’s a comfort level with (Robinson) and I expect nothing but that thing to get stronger and stronger,” Nagy said.
Robinson’s legs should also be stronger this season, another year removed from the knee injury.
“I think you see it in his route running, just more explosive in his breaks and in and out of his cuts,” Pace said. “For his size, he’s a really natural route runner.”
And then there’s the importance of Robinson in the Bears’ locker room. He quickly became a quiet leader on that offense last year and there are few players in the NFL as professional as Robinson. Nagy went as far as saying, “he’s one of the top players I’ve ever coached.”
“It’s important for our guys in that room to see how he does things,” Nagy said. “When you have players that treat the game and respect the game the way he does every day in practice, during the game — he’s not a ‘me’ guy. He doesn’t care what his stats are. He just wants to win, but he really helps you get good stats. And it’s so crucial for our guys to see that. And he doesn’t say a lot in the meeting room but when I call on him or our coaches call on him with a question he always has the right answer and it transpires on the field.”
6. The 18-Game Solution
With the NFL and NFLPA engaging in early bargaining sessions (the current CBA still has two years on it), the 18-game schedule discussions have emerged again. And this time, it included reports of a ridiculous proposal in which teams would play 18 games, but each player would be limited to 16 games.
“We’d have to see what the proposal amounts to, what it would detail, and we’re waiting for more information from the league,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said Sunday in Decatur. “We haven’t had any discussion about that in league meetings in quite sometime. So I’d be interested to see what the particulars are.”
I found it interesting that McCaskey said the 18-game schedule hasn’t come up in league meetings in awhile. That tells me that whatever came up in CBA negotiations was just an early bargaining chip thrown out by the owners. At this point, they know the NFLPA is very unlikely to agree to adding two more games to the schedule. Even McCaskey said that “player health and safety” is the most important factor when it comes to discussing an 18-game schedule, and frankly, there’s no scenario in which player health and safety would improve by adding two more games to the schedule.
So this is where I once again bring up a solution I’ve discussed before: adding a second bye week. Personally, I think it is in the NFL’s best interest to keep the schedule as it is, but if the league is intent on milking every dollar out of their next television contracts, lengthening the NFL calendar by one week is the best solution. The league would profit from getting an extra week of primetime games and they can claim they are improving player health and safety by giving players an extra week of rest. One of the major concerns with an 18-game schedule is that it will lead to more injuries, and thus, more diluted rosters. Everyone wants to see the best players on the field as much as possible and adding a second bye week would help accomplish that goal.
Now, there are some drawbacks from adding a second bye week. For one, fans don’t like Sundays in which their favorite team isn’t playing. And fantasy football would get more complicated as more bye weeks would have to be juggled throughout rosters. But these issues can both by chalked up as annoyances that won’t result in fans watching less football overall. Of greater concern would be further diluting the Sunday slate of games, which could have an impact on the next Sunday Ticket contract, as well as the RedZone experience.
As The Ringer pointed out last week, the NFL tried the double-bye experience in 1993 and it didn’t go well. Ratings went down because of the depleted Sunday schedules and teams felt like they were losing momentum with an extra bye week in their schedule. That was 26 years ago though — before Thursday Night Football existed and before early morning games were being played in London. The Sunday schedule has been diluted since 1993 anyway and the ratings have continued to go up across the sport. Plus, the extra bye could be more helpful now if scheduled the week before a team plays on Thursday night. It wouldn’t be quite as long as the first bye week (easing momentum concerns), but would still accomplish the goal of extra rest and stretching out the NFL schedule.
This isn’t the perfect solution to the NFL’s quest to maximize every dollar it can, but it’s still better than an 18-game schedule.
7. Quote of the Week
“Every conversation with a fan this entire offseason has concluded with some comment about (the kickers). I tell them, thanks for the reminder, we’re working on that.” — George McCaskey
8. Tweet of the Week
Amos might be a Packer now, but this was a great tweet in response to Kenny Clark commenting on his Madden rating.
9. Emptying The Notebook
Ryan Pace said third-string quarterback Tyler Bray still has a practice squad exemption, which is important because he’s a valued part of the Bears’ quarterback room and Trubisky’s weekly preparation … Nagy said the Bears’ first padded practice will be Sunday in Bourbonnais … McCaskey said that the renovations at Halas Hall should be completed by the time the Bears return home from Bourbonnais.
10. Final Thoughts
- Personally, I’m disappointed the Bears won’t have joint practices with another NFL team this preseason. I’ve come to enjoy those because they break up the monotony of training camp, spice up practices and give you a close-up look at another NFL team. Since Pace became general manager in 2015, the Bears have held joint practices with the Colts, Patriots and Broncos, but they’re at the mercy of the preseason schedule because they logistically can’t host another NFL team in Bourbonnais. Realistically, the practices need to happen during Week 2 of the preseason, which means the Bears need a road game that week, ideally against an AFC opponent. This year the Bears play the Giants on the road during the second week of the preseason and my understanding is that the scheduled regular season game between the Bears and Giants on Nov. 24 is among the reasons why the teams won’t practice against each other.
- Vic Fangio’s Broncos were the first team to open up training camp this year and I’ve enjoyed some of the early reaction coming out of Englewood, Colo. Fangio is already being lauded for his (sometimes brutal) honesty and being an NFL head coach will allow the rest of the country to see his dry, yet entertaining personality. It will be interesting to see what Fangio can do with Von Miller and that Broncos defense, but I think the offense is going to lag behind. The Bears visit Denver in Week 2.
- I’m looking forward to watching the Oakland Raiders on Hard Knocks. Love him or hate him, Jon Gruden is perfect for that show. Mike Mayock is always entertaining too. And there’s bound to be two or three references to the Khalil Mack trade. Also, don’t forget about Amazon Prime’s “All Or Nothing.” It’s just as good as Hard Knocks, if not better, because it includes footage of the regular season. This season focuses on the Carolina Panthers and is available now.
- I absolutely had to take my 5-year-old son to see The Lion King before training camp started. I was 8 when the original movie came out, so it was naturally a big part of my childhood. I thought the new version was great. First, the computer-animation is stunning and Jon Favreau did a great job of respecting the original film while also adding new wrinkles to help separate the new movie. I also appreciated that Rafiki didn’t dangle Simba quite as far over the ledge on Pride Rock. And please stop with the non-sensical takes that remakes “ruin” original movies. If the remake sucks, the original movie is still good. Fortunately, this remake is really good. Go see it.
- Next up: Top Gun