LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Eight months later, the Chicago Bears have a question mark at kicker and tight end Trey Burton has a groin injury.
Yes, going into Thursday night’s opener against the Packers, it seems like the storylines are the same as they were when the Bears played the Eagles in the playoffs in January. And we all know how that ended.
And yet, it is a new season, and this Bears team is different. For one, the kicker is literally a different human being. And while Eddy Pineiro is unproven (he’s never kicked in a regular season NFL game before), he does boast a big leg and brings hope that the Bears may have found a long-term solution at a position that has been a problem for four years now. And while Burton’s groin issues have not gone away, the Bears are better equipped to play without him than they were in January.
I’ll expand on that thought in this season-opening edition of “10 Bears Things” — always one of my favorite editions of the year. We’ll take a look at reasons why the Bears will be better (or worse) in 2019, preview Thursday’s game against the Packers, and make 10 random predictions for 2019 — including the Bears’ record and my Super Bowl picks.
1. For Better Or For Worse
After making a big leap in 2018 before losing at home in the wild card round (just like the Rams and Chiefs did in 2017), I figured the Bears would be a darling Super Bowl pick entering 2019. After all, the Rams made the Super Bowl last year and the Chiefs would have been in the Super Bowl if not for a boneheaded offsides penalty in the AFC Championship Game. The Bears certainly seem to be molded similarly — a young team on the rise with a quarterback still trying to prove himself.
And yet, some are very pessimistic about the Bears’ outlook. Athlon Sports has the Bears in the Super Bowl (losing to the Chiefs), but Sports Illustrated created waves by picking the Bears to finish dead last in the NFC North at 7-9. Meanwhile, Football Outsiders — a very respected analytical web site that tends to be pretty accurate with its predictions — projects the Bears to only have 7.9 wins. And Las Vegas has set the over/under at a surprisingly low 9.5 wins.
So what is the reasoning? Well, there are some interesting arguments for why the Bears could regress in 2019, so let’s take a look at three of those, as well as three reasons why they could be better.
Why the Bears Could Be Worse
1. “They lost Vic Fangio and there’s no way the defense can amass 36 takeaways again.”
Losing Vic Fangio is a big deal. He might be the best defensive play caller in the NFL and his scheme is very hard to prepare for (which Matt Nagy will have to deal with in Week 2). While Fangio didn’t acquire the defensive talent, he developed it and his players loved him. Chuck Pagano was a great hire, but it will be really hard for him to be as good as Fangio and his schematic changes could lead to less takeaways. I don’t expect drastic changes, but if he does dial up the aggression and play more man defense, it’s possible the Bears’ interception total of 27 will dip because they’ll be looking more at their man and not the football. That being said, it’s not like 36 takeaways is some astronomical number. The team record is 58 takeaways and the 1985 Bears had 54. Last I checked, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson will still be on the field. Talent creates takeaways too. Take a look at what the Bears sustained from a takeaway standpoint under Lovie Smith, partly due to scheme, but also because of the players who insisted on taking the ball away:
The Bears should be able to get back in the 30s this year.
2. “The offense won’t get better.”
If you don’t believe in Mitchell Trubisky, then you probably don’t believe that the Bears’ offense will get better. And there are plenty of national pundits who don’t believe in Trubisky.
3. “The schedule is harder.”
There’s no denying this. The schedule is loaded. But let me ask you this: which teams on the schedule are undoubtedly better than the Bears? As of right now I would think the Bears would be betting favorites in all but four games (Saints and Chiefs at home and Eagles and Rams on the road).
Why the Bears Could Be Better
1. Improvement from within
The biggest reason why I don’t see the Bears regressing in 2019 is because there is too much young talent that should be better. Roquan Smith was already good in 2018, but he has a real chance to emerge as an All-Pro this season. James Daniels is moving over to his more natural position at center and is still only 21 years old. Anthony Miller impressed as a rookie even though he was playing with a torn labrum and couldn’t really use his hands/arms at the line of scrimmage. He was open a lot more than the numbers suggest. If the end of last season was any indication, Allen Robinson — somehow still only 26 — is going to have a monster year. Tight end Adam Shaheen is finally healthy and could be a red zone nightmare. Cordarrelle Patterson is on this team. People forget that. I forget that. Bilal Nichols is only 22. Roy Robertson-Harris is going to get paid by someone in the offseason. These are all players who should be better than they were last year, and I didn’t even mention Trubisky.
2. The offense should be better.
This is the counterpoint to item No. 2 above. I detailed last week why the tape suggests Trubisky will improve, but I also think too much of the offensive expectations are being pinned on the quarterback. A big reason why the Bears’ offense ranked 21st last season was because of an inconsistent running game, and while Jordan Howard is not a bad player, rookie David Montgomery should be an immediate upgrade and is a better fit in Matt Nagy’s system. Like him or not, it’s a fact that the Bears’ offense was more predictable when Howard was on the field.
3. Khalil Mack
That’s all. The dude is still on the team. There have been a ton of regression comparisons to last year’s Jaguars. Last I checked, I don’t see anything close to Khalil Mack on that roster. People also forget that he missed two games last year and was limited in two others. If Mack stays healthy, he’s going to have an even bigger season in 2019 — which is scary.
2. Better Equipped
When it comes to an improved Bears offense, let’s get even more specific with a player whose status is in doubt this week: Trey Burton.
The Bears missed him in the playoff game. A huge part of Nagy’s offense runs through Tarik Cohen’s route-running ability and without Burton in the middle of the field to pull attention away from Cohen, the Eagles were able to hold Cohen to just four touches. Nagy and Trubisky took too long to adjust (it didn’t help that they prepared all week as if they had Burton), but eventually they did and Trubisky was able to have a huge fourth quarter by making accurate throws downfield to Allen Robinson, the one wide receiver the Bears have who is open even when he’s covered.
So let’s fast forward to this week and I’ll explain why the Bears are better equipped to stomach the loss of Burton if he can’t play Thursday:
- This isn’t a last minute injury so Nagy and Trubisky have been able to prepare as if they won’t have him.
- Adam Shaheen is healthy and should be more of a factor.
- With David Montgomery also serving as a reliable route-runner out of the backfield, Nagy can use different personnel packages to keep the Packers from taking Cohen out of the game. This is where Cordarrelle Patterson can be valuable too.
That last one is key. With more weapons at his disposal, a more consistent running game and more time to prepare, I don’t expect the loss of Burton to be as noticeable as it was last January. And hey, he might even play.
3. The Opponent: Green Bay Packers
While the Bears are being pegged as a team ready to regress, the Packers are getting a lot of love as a rebound team. Part of that, of course, is because Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback and he’s supposedly healthy again. Frankly, I give him a ton of credit for playing 16 games last season with a tibial plateau fracture, which he suffered when Khalil Mack sacked him in Week 1. That said, Rodgers is 35 years old now and already dealt with a back issue in the preseason. Can one reasonably expect him to be fully healthy all season?
The biggest question with the Packers is how Rodgers gels with new head coach Matt LeFleur, who at 39 years old, is only four years older than Rodgers. LeFleur comes from the Mike Shanahan/Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay systems, which means the Packers are expected to rely on more of an outside zone running scheme. At this point in Rodgers’ career, running the ball more should help him, but it’s fair to wonder if any friction will develop when Rodgers inevitably opts to throw the ball, checking out of runs. Running back Aaron Jones is good, but has struggled to stay healthy. And while left tackle David Bakhtiari is among the game’s best, the rest of the Packers’ offensive line is average. Rodgers was sacked 49 times last year.
Defensively, the Packers improved last year under Mike Pettine and could take another small jump this year. They’re still having to pay up for past draft mistakes, spending money on pass rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith (not unlike the Bears did with Pernell McPhee when they were building their defense back up). Defensive tackle Mike Daniels was let go, but Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry are both dependable players on that line. Former Bear Adrian Amos is now on the Packers and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his level of play with lesser talent around him. Kyler Fackrell is underrated as an edge rusher, while inside linebacker Oren Burks is out with a pec injury.
4. The Pick
Bears 31, Packers 24
I’m expecting to see some offense in this game. I think the element of surprise will help Rodgers early and the Bears’ defense will be tested. This may even be a game that the Bears have to come back in. But I also expect Matt Nagy’s offense to come locked-and-loaded. David Montgomery could have a big debut, not unlike Kareem Hunt had two years ago against the Patriots in the Thursday night NFL kickoff game. Mitch Trubisky will have the opportunity for some big shots downfield, and don’t forget about the Bears’ own element of surprise, specifically with Cordarrelle Patterson. This will be a fun, exciting game, ultimately won by the better team.
5. A Sentence On Every Opponent
Here’s a quick nugget on all 13 of the Bears’ opponents in 2019:
Weeks 1 & 15: Green Bay Packers — Solid, but not great defense will give Aaron Rodgers a shot at the playoffs again, but will Rodgers still be healthy when these teams meet at Lambeau on Dec. 15?
Week 2: at Denver Broncos — Vic Fangio will immediately fix the Broncos’ problems with stopping the run and getting off the field on third down, but Denver’s offensive line has a matchup problem against the Bears’ front-seven.
Week 3: at Washington — The combination of a coach on the hot seat and a rookie quarterback means Dwayne Haskins will be playing sooner rather than later — maybe even by Week 3.
Week 4 & 17: Minnesota Vikings — The Vikings should be thanking the schedule makers after getting September road trips to Chicago and Green Bay while spending cold December in Seattle and Los Angeles.
Week 5: Oakland/Las Vegas/London Raiders — Derek Carr has some help on offense now, but the Raiders’ pass rush still has a ways to go after registering just 13 sacks in 2018 (Khalil Mack had 12.5).
Week 7: New Orleans Saints — Drew Brees might be slowing down, but his numbers aren’t because he fits Sean Payton’s scheme like a glove and always makes the right decisions.
Week 8: Los Angeles Chargers — The Chargers have a really good roster, but their season is already off to a rough start with Derwin James’s foot injury and Melvin Gordon’s holdout.
Week 9: at Philadelphia Eagles — The Bears will have playoff revenge on their minds, but this very well could be the toughest game on the schedule
Weeks 10 and 13: Detroit Lions — The analytics say the Lions will improve, but common sense says things not going well for Matt Patricia in Detroit and it’s more likely that the Lions will just be the Lions.
Week 11: at Los Angeles Rams — On paper, this team is just as good as last year, but will there be more Bears fans than Rams fans at the Coliseum on Nov. 17?
Week 12: New York Giants — The Giants had an odd offseason and likely won’t factor into the playoff picture, but there’s enough talent left on this team that they won’t be a pushover in late November.
Week 14: Dallas Cowboys — The second of back-to-back Thursday night games brings the Cowboys to town in what will likely be a high-profile game between two teams trying to make the playoffs.
Week 16: Kansas City Chiefs — The schedule doesn’t slow down as Matt Nagy faces his mentor in a game that could get the same hype that Chiefs-Rams got last year — just without 100-plus points.
6. The Record: 13-3
While some are predicting regression, I’m going the opposite way. I think the Bears’ roster stacks up with the best in the league and Matt Nagy is too good of a coach to let this team fall into the kind of rut that would result in a disastrous 7-9 season. I’m not predicting Trubisky will silence all of his doubters, but just moderate improvement would result in a big jump for this offense. Couple that with a defense that is too talented to struggle, and the Bears are simply a really good football team. Yes, the schedule is hard, but they are better than almost all of the teams they play. They also get most of their toughest non-divisional opponents (Saints, Chargers, Cowboys, Chiefs) at home. I have them going 3-1 in those games, losing to the Eagles on the road, and getting upset in one other contest to account for their third loss (perhaps in Denver in Week 2). I’m not even going to apologize for predicting 13 wins. This is a good football team and I’m all in on a big season.
7. Quote Of The Week
“You say unconventional and what I would tell you is: we’re trying to find a kicker and if we would just do the same thing over and over again and expect different results I think that’s the definition of insanity.” — Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor on the criticism of how the team went about its kicker search
8. Tweet of the Week
In case you missed it, The Hoge & Jahns Podcast is now on The Athletic too. We’ll have a bonus episode exclusively for Athletic subscribers every Tuesday all season long. If you are not a subscriber, you can get 40 percent off your subscription here. And how sweet is that logo?
And since we’re plugging the podcast, make sure you come out to Houndstooth Saloon Wednesday night for our kickoff party and live recording of the podcast:
9. Emptying The Notebook
After the Eagles gave Carson Wentz $107.8 million guaranteed in a contract extension, the Rams topped that by giving Jared Goff $110 million guaranteed. Both of those numbers are relevant to Trubisky, who could be signing an extension at this time next year … It wouldn’t surprise me if Montgomery is the only Bears rookie active on Thursday night. Riley Ridley, Duke Shelley and Kerrith Whyte Jr. all seem like candidates to be inactive … If Shelley is inactive, you would think Sherrick McManis would serve as the backup nickel, even though he’s been practicing at safety all offseason … It was breezy at Soldier Field when Eddy Pineiro practiced there on Sunday and the wind was howling at Halas Hall on Tuesday. Only light winds are expected Thursday night at Soldier Field … Tabor referred to Pat O’Donnell as Pineiro’s “caddy,” adding that the kicker asked O’Donnell to help him with his line last week against the Titans and the punter/holder got him lined up properly … It appears Bilal Nichols’ knee will once again be something monitored when the team practices indoors on the field turf. That was the case last year and he was limited in Tuesday’s practice when the Bears went inside. Nichols still played in 14 games as a rookie … Pagano discussed Roquan Smith’s blitzing ability, saying, “We’d probably be smart to bring him,” before catching himself and adding, “We’ll probably just drop him back into coverage anyway.” … Matt Nagy’s reaction to Khalil Mack’s debut against the Packers last year: “Holy hell.”
10. Final Thoughts: 10 Random Predictions
We’ll end this kickoff edition of “10 Bears Things” the same way I did last year, with 10 random NFL predictions. The first one might interest you.
1. The Bears will win the Super Bowl. Even after 108 years of futility, 2016 just seemed like it was finally the Cubs year. I followed their rebuild closely, trusted the process, and was ready to go all-in, predicting they would win the World Series. This year feels the same for the Bears. They have the roster, they have the coaching and they have the right chemistry in the locker room. Plus, the storyline is just too good to pass up. I wrote this back in February in Atlanta and I’m sticking to it: 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.
(For the record, I had last year’s Super Bowl participants correct, I just got the result wrong. I had the Rams beating the Patriots.)
2. Frank Reich will win Coach of the Year after leading them to the AFC South title. Reich was in the conversation last year and will win it this time around after pushing his team through Andrew Luck’s retirement. Ron Rivera and Matt Nagy will also be in the conversation.
3. The Carolina Panthers will emerge as this year’s surprise team. Seven of their nine losses last season were close and people forget they were 6-2 before Cam Newton’s shoulder became a big problem. If he’s healthy, there’s too much talent on this roster for them not to be competitive. Ron Rivera might be on the hot seat, but he still has the respect of his players and I love that he has switched up the defensive scheme, realizing that the league was identifying the Panthers’ tendencies. A healthy Cam Newton and improved pass rush will get this team back in the playoffs.
4. The Houston Texans will miss the playoffs. This is more of a gut feeling than anything. It’s well documented that I like Bill O’Brien as a coach, but I don’t like the vibe (and incompetence) that they’ve shown in the front office this offseason. Deshaun Watson is excellent and gets a big boost on his offensive line with Laremy Tunsil, but something is just telling me this thing is going to go south this year.
5. The Cleveland Browns will make the playoffs. I’ve looked for every reason not to put the Browns in the playoffs and the truth is I had the Texans in there as my last wild card team until this week. So which team is next up? It’s the Browns, who have a young, talented roster ready to make a leap. In some ways, they’re like the Bears last year, just with a bigger question mark at head coach and more drama. Still, I think they slip into the playoffs. If they don’t, believe it not, I think the Jaguars have a chance.
6. The Seahawks will unseat the Rams in the NFC West. You probably shouldn’t trust my Seahawks predictions because I picked them to finish last in the division last year, but they proved me wrong and I really like what they’ve done this offseason. They were already a playoff-caliber team before trading for Jadeveon Clowney, but I think that will put them past the Rams, who could be the latest Super Bowl loser to miss the playoffs the following season.
7. Patrick Mahomes will repeat as MVP and Khalil Mack will win Defensive Player of the Year. Watch out for Carson Wentz and Cam Newton to challenge Mahomes as they both have bounce-back seasons. Mack will just barely edge out Aaron Donald as he pushes for 20 sacks and the Bears outplay the Rams in 2019. Also, David Montgomery will be the offensive rookie of the year, while Jaguars’ rookie pass rusher Josh Allen wins those honors on the defensive side.
8. NFC Playoff Teams: East — Eagles; North — Bears; South — Panthers; West — Seahawks; Wild Cards — Saints, Cowboys
9. AFC Playoff Teams: East — Patriots; North — Steelers; South — Colts; West — Chiefs; Wild Cards — Chargers, Browns
10. Final Four: Bears over Eagles. Chiefs over Colts. Bears over Chiefs.
Let’s get this season started.