MINNEAPOLIS — Hey, at least this season ended with a made field goal.
That’s about all the optimism you can squeeze out of the most disappointing Bears campaign in three decades. All the hype, almost none of the points.
The 2019 season officially came to a close Sunday in Minneapolis, with kicker Eddy Pineiro making a 22-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining to give the Bears a 21-19 win over the Vikings, who were playing most of their backups.
While the Bears’ 100th season started with promise of a possible Super Bowl, it turned out that the final 8-8 record more accurately reflected the history of a franchise seemingly always stuck in the middle with good defenses and poor offenses.
That’s why head coach Matt Nagy hardly looked like a guy that had won an NFL game as he met with reporters Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. His mind was already drifting to next season.
“For me, 2020 starts right now, literally the second I walk off this stage,” Nagy said.
And that’s how it works in the NFL. There are problems to fix. And it all starts Monday. Here’s what you should be looking for:
It’s hard to imagine Nagy keeping the status quo on his offensive staff. Not after ranking 20th in yards/play (5.4) in 2018 and 30th (4.7) in 2019. Ultimately, Nagy was brought to Chicago to win games and his 20-12 record is respectable, but he was also brought to Chicago to install a prolific offense and that hasn’t happened. The Bears finished 2019 with 280 points — 29th in the NFL.
Since Nagy isn’t going anywhere, changes beneath him seem inevitable. Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand all seem vulnerable based on 2019’s results.
But Nagy isn’t going to make changes just for the sake of change. He needs to have a plan for how to fix his offense and that will likely only come from an outsider who can make the right tweaks to the scheme. Some have speculated that senior offensive assistant Brad Childress could be installed as the offensive coordinator, but that doesn’t really inspire confidence that the results would change in 2020.
One early name to keep an eye on is Pat Shurmur. The former Giants head coach was fired Monday morning, but he is the type of established NFL offensive mind who could bring significant positive change to Nagy’s system. Shurmur comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree and had success with Nick Foles in Philadelphia (under Chip Kelly), as well as Case Keenum in Minnesota. In 2017, the Vikings were 10th in both scoring and total offense after ranking 23rd and 28th in those categories, respectively, in 2016. That jump came with Keenum at quarterback, which certainly caught the eye of Bears general manager Ryan Pace, who interviewed Shurmur for the Bears’ head coach opening that ultimately went to Nagy. Keenum became a legitimate deep passing threat under Shurmur and the Bears’ offense is certainly lacking verticality. Hiring Shurmur could mean Nagy would have to give up play-calling, but it might also be a great fit — potentially tweaking the existing scheme to better fit the quarterback.
As for other possible changes on the coaching staff, don’t expect very much movement on the defensive side of the ball, but inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone was reportedly only on a one-year contract in 2019 and The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman included him on a list of NFL assistant coaches who could make a move to the college ranks. DeLeone did a nice job with Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis this season, so you’d think the Bears would make a strong push to keep him.
This is a crucial offseason as Pace must decide how he wants to spend his salary cap. According to Spotrac, the Bears currently rank 27th in 2020 cap space with just $10.5 million to use. It’s important to know that the cap is always fluid and can be massaged, but the window to win with a quarterback on a rookie contract is closing.
If Pace starts extending key players like Eddie Jackson, Allen Robinson and Tarik Cohen, all of whom are entering the final year of their current contracts, then Pace won’t have the resources available to go out and pay a premier free agent quarterback if Mitchell Trubisky continues to struggle in 2020.
On the other hand, if Pace and Nagy decide they need to strike now in the prime of their competitive window and sign, say, Teddy Bridgewater, then they might not have the resources to keep key younger players longterm.
And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of money that should probably be allocated to upgrading the tight end position and offensive line.
The important question is: can Trubisky effectively run Nagy’s scheme or does Nagy need a different quarterback to run his offense?
If the Bears stick with Trubisky, Nagy must be open to making changes to his playbook and bringing in an outsider to help scheme to Trubisky’s strengths and away from his weaknesses. Quarterbacks like Nick Foles and Joe Flacco have proven that you can win a Super Bowl without a top tier quarterback if everything around the quarterback (including the defense) is in great shape. Still, that remains the exception to the rule over the last 16 years and is a risky road to go down.
Pace and Nagy have some incredibly tough decisions to make in the next four months, none bigger than the quarterback path they choose.
Maintaining The Defense
While those choices are made on offense, the defense cannot be ignored. Fortunately, there shouldn’t be major changes on the coaching staff and the key pieces to the puzzle should all be back. But decisions on veterans Danny Trevathan and Prince Amukamara loom, and Pace has to make sure the defensive window doesn’t close anytime soon.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has to find a way to increase the takeaways in 2020 and unlock Khalil Mack or other pass rushers if Mack is getting schemed out by opponents.
The defense wasn’t the problem in 2019, but it may have to be more of the solution in 2020, especially if the Bears move forward with Trubisky under center.