The Bears head to Green Bay this weekend clinging to slim playoff hopes, knowing they need to beat the Packers and get a lot of help. In fact, even with a win against the Packers, it could still be the last meaningful game the Bears play in 2019.
At least when it comes to the postseason.
Playoffs aside, all three remaining games matter. This is a team that underachieved this year, but appears to be hitting its stride, likely keeping the competitive window wide open in 2020. But tough decisions are going to be made this offseason, and general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy need as much information and evaluation as possible.
That’s why every snap in December is important. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who has the most to gain or lose in these final three games:
QB Mitchell Trubisky — After a rough first half of the season that included a shoulder injury he’s still playing through, Trubisky has now put together five positive games in a row, with two outstanding performances the last two weeks. He’s finally delivering the “steady, incremental progress” the Bears have been looking for, but can he keep it going against the Packers, Chiefs and Vikings?
Trubisky’s confidence took a hit when he struggled against the Packers in Week 1and it took awhile to recover. Don’t underestimate the impact a strong game at Lambeau Field could have inside the organization. Beating the Packers still matters and if Trubisky plays well at the same time, you can pretty much lock him into the starting role next season.
Asked Wednesday how he’s grown since the Week 1 loss to the Packers, Trubisky said: “I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside. Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence. And then just going out there and, over the last couple of weeks, just putting this team in a position to win.”
If Trubisky keeps his recent positive trend going through Week 17, then it will be become a virtual lock that he receives his fifth-year option or even a long-term extension. On the flip side, if Trubisky struggles in these final three games, then the Bears have to seriously consider bringing in legitimate competition at the position and any talk of an extension must be tabled.
Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy — These two are tied to the quarterback, especially Pace, who drafted Trubisky. But beyond that position, a strong finish to the 2019 season would do wonders to the confidence Bears fans will have in this GM-head coach combo going into the offseason. Without a playoff appearance, 2019 will always be considered a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean Pace and Nagy aren’t the right people to lead the organization going forward. Pace now has a 33-44 record in nearly five seasons, but that number isn’t nearly as bad as it looks when you consider he executed a full rebuild that resulted in an NFC North title in 2018 and a competitive window that is still wide open.
Nagy, meanwhile, is 19-10 in two seasons and already has an NFL Coach of the Year award on his resume. Nagy took plenty of warranted criticism during the Bears’ four-game losing streak this season, but he’s still a young head coach learning on the job. A strong finish would support the idea that Nagy may end up being the “silver lining” to this tough season.
“We all want to be completely great and win the Super Bowl — that’s what we want,” Nagy said. “When that doesn’t happen, you’re presented with challenges and adversity and I think for myself — mentally more than anything — it can help you grow and I think that’s what it’s done to me. I feel like a better coach going through this for the players, for my coaches and just the way we communicate.”
As for Pace, Trubisky’s success or failure will end up defining much of his tenure as Bears’ GM, but there’s plenty more to the story than that. Which brings us to…
The 2018 draft class — This was an instant-impact class as linebacker Roquan Smith, left guard James Daniels, wide receiver Anthony Miller and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols all played significant roles on a division-winning team as rookies. And considering that most young players make significant jumps between Year 1 and Year 2 of their careers, it was reasonable to expect the Bears to have significant improvement from within this season. A big reason why the Bears struggled through the first half of the season is because that didn’t happen. Roquan Smith dealt with a personal issue. Anthony Miller struggled with the details. James Daniels didn’t take to the center position like the Bears had hoped and eventually was moved back to left guard. Bilal Nichols suffered a hand injury that cost him three games and slowed him down in others.
And then, like many pieces of this Bears team, last year’s draft class suddenly took a turn for the better. Smith, in particular, was outstanding over the last month before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last week.
“I’m heartbroken for him because I thought the last four weeks, he’s played his best ball of the season,” Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said.
Unfortunately, Smith’s season is done, but there is still plenty to gain for the rest of the 2018 draft class in these final three games. Miller and Daniels are especially important pieces for this franchise going forward. Miller has been better with the little things lately and is earning the trust of Trubisky and the coaching staff.
“He’s done a lot from the learning standpoint about where he belongs within each spot, within each concept, and even when he’s not getting the ball, where he’s blocking, who he’s blocking,” Trubisky said. “And he’s earned that trust and he’s been busting his tail to get on the same page with me.”
Over his last four games, Miller is averaging six catches and 78.25 yards per game and finally found the end zone for the first time this season against the Cowboys.
James Daniels, meanwhile, has been better in recent weeks since switching back to left guard and overall he’s having a solid season. There’s little doubt he’s a starting-caliber offensive lineman, but there’s also no doubt that the communication on the offensive line has been better with Cody Whitehair at center.
Nichols is also an important depth piece going forward and he’s starting to make more and more impact plays as he puts the hand injury in the past.
“What you’re seeing right now, the last few weeks, is production,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “He’s in on plays. The one thing about Bilal, and I told him this last week, he may make some mistakes out there, but he’s always around the football. He has a knack for getting around the football.”
The “backup” inside linebackers — While Smith is out for the final three games, it’s unclear whether or not Danny Trevathan (elbow) will return. In the meantime, Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis are two mid-20s linebackers in contract years who appear very motivated to show they can be regular starters in the NFL. Both are playing well and could potentially be a cheaper option than Trevathan, who is also set for free agency. The Bears should be careful about moving on from Trevathan, who is an excellent player, a team leader and will still only be 30 years old next season, but there’s no doubt Kwiatkoski and Pierre-Louis have a lot to play for the rest of December.
This is hardly an exhaustive list. Leonard Floyd is under contract for 2020, but could be in line for a longterm extension if he finishes this season strong. Prince Amukamara and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are playing for their futures. Rashaad Coward has a chance to claim the right guard position for 2020. J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted can help themselves at the tight end position, which will almost assuredly get upgraded in the offseason.
Of course, there’s still a chance the Bears make a significant push for the playoffs. But either way, they have plenty on the line as they look ahead to 2020.