Paul Allen, the very entertaining and blunt radio voice of the Minnesota Vikings, delivered a brilliant call in the third quarter Sunday that perfectly summed up what the shorthanded Bears were doing to the Vikings as they thoroughly beat their divisional rival 16-6 at Soldier Field.
“Chase Daniel, 11th year from Missouri, takes the high snap. Straight drop, pumps, feels good, fires right, Wims there on Waynes. Caught. First down. In Vikings territory. That was Javon Wims who ran by Trae Waynes to the 42 yard line. It’s a 37-yard connection. You know that famed fantasy football connection you worry about each week? Chase Daniel to Javon Wims? First down Bears.”
The sarcasm was palpable. Imagine the frustration Vikings players must have felt as a cast of characters that included backup quarterback Chase Daniel, reserve wide receiver Javon Wims, backup right guard Ted Larsen, backup-to-the-backup right guard Rashaad Coward, reserve linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, and reserve defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams outplayed a much healthier Vikings team from start to finish. The Bears’ defense played without Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks and promising second-year linebacker Roquan Smith but suffocated Dalvin Cook and the Vikings’ running game, which came into Sunday’s game ranked No. 2 in the NFL. After averaging 193.7 rushing yards in their first three games, the Vikings only managed 40 at Soldier Field.
“It’s definitely for sure top three, top four (favorite games) for me,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s a division game at home against a really good football team. That’s number one … Our guys, they just stick together … There are times when things happen and you feel like, man, OK, I’m going to feel sorry for myself. That’s not how I work, and I hope it permeates into our building.”
While Smith’s absence (personal reasons) was both mysterious and unexpected, the bigger adjustment came when Mitchell Trubisky suffered a significant injury to his non-throwing shoulder on the sixth play of the game. Yet, true to Sunday’s theme on both sides of the ball, Chase Daniel came in and executed nearly flawlessly, hitting Tarik Cohen for a 10-yard score on the opening series of the game. It was the only touchdown the Bears needed.
The play Paul Allen described came later in the third quarter, when Daniel hit Wims for a 37-yard completion down the right sideline. Wims beat Waynes, then adjusted and came back to the ball as the throw was slightly short, perhaps by design. It helped set up Eddy Pineiro’s third field goal of the game, giving the Bears a 16-0 lead that provided plenty of cushion.
“I wanted to go out there and just act as confident as possible because I felt confident, and I felt confident in the huddle,” Daniel said. “I’ve been in with those guys before in the huddle, and I think they’ve felt the confidence from me, and we were able to go out and for the most part move the ball.”
What the Bears accomplished Sunday was encouraging because it displayed the kind of depth that serious Super Bowl contenders have on their roster. Down six starters, Matt Nagy’s group did exactly what a legitimate team should do to a divisional opponent at home. The Bears could not afford to fall to 0-2 at home with both losses coming within the NFC North — and the victory put them atop the division with the Packers at 3-1.
On the other hand, the Bears only scored one touchdown, marking the third time in four games the offense has managed one score or less. That’s a trend that must change if the Bears expect to make a serious run in January.
“I’ll never get to a point where I’m frozen because I don’t know what to do,” Nagy said. “We’re still not anywhere close to where we want to be offensively, but the arrow is still up, we’re getting slowly better, and I’m confident in our guys that we just keep growing in this thing.”
The good news is that teams want to be peaking in January, not September, and the Bears have both plenty of room and time to improve on that side of the ball. The question is, which quarterback has the best chance to deliver that improvement?
Trubisky’s status is unknown at this point, but Nagy did not seem to think the injury was season-ending and even mentioned “next week” when discussing his status. Considering it’s his non-throwing shoulder, a return in Week 7 after the bye doesn’t seem far fetched.
In the meantime, the Bears proved Sunday they can win with Chase Daniel. It didn’t take long to notice how comfortable he seemed running the offense, seeing the field well and showing poise in the pocket. With a few exceptions, Daniel was more accurate than Trubisky has been so far this season.
“Listen, I’ve been in this offense for a long time and Coach Nagy knows what I like, and we sort of got toward that and we sort of did some no-huddle, kept them off balance, off tempo, still ran the football even though it’s a really good run-defense,” Daniel said.
But that doesn’t mean Daniel is the better option to lead the Bears the rest of the way. As good as this defense is, the team’s Super Bowl chances have always hinged on Trubisky making a significant leap forward. That jump still needs to occur and it’s more likely to come from Trubisky than Daniel, who is now in his 11th NFL season and would only be making his fifth career start if he gets the call in London against the Raiders.
That said, Daniel showed glimpses of how Nagy’s offense is supposed to operate, making accurate throws and getting the ball into the hands of the Bears’ playmakers. If the quarterback can correctly read the defense and make the right decision, there’s usually an answer on every snap, with calculated deep shots available when the offense is in rhythm.
Perhaps Sunday’s version of Chase Daniel was better than the version of Mitch Trubisky we’ve seen so far this season, but the key to the Bears’ season remains the same: an improved, developed Mitchell Trubisky.
Unfortunately, that development might be on hold for a couple of weeks.