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Exit Interview: Chicago Bears

The Bears’ season ended in a heartbreaking metal clang, but the NFC North champs can point to the Khalil Mack gamble that paid off and Matt Nagy’s offensive acumen as signs that they’re headed in the right direction. Will the team be able to keep its defensive talent together this offseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next is the Chicago Bears, whose postseason hopes clanged off the uprights in 16-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

What Went Right

Chicago shocked the football world by sending a package that included two first-round picks to Oakland for Khalil Mack a week before the season and signing the 27-year-old pass rusher to the biggest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. After one season, the trade looks like one of the best moves of the year. Chicago took a defense that projected as above average and transformed it into the league’s most fearsome unit. The Bears defense this year carried on the legacy of dominant Bears defenses throughout history. Chicago ranked as the no. 1 defense in the following categories:

  • Points allowed
  • Touchdowns allowed
  • Points allowed per drive
  • Turnovers
  • Percent of drives ending in a turnover
  • Defensive touchdowns
  • First downs allowed
  • Net yards allowed per pass attempt
  • Rushing yards allowed per game
  • Rushing touchdowns allowed
  • Percent of drives ending in a score
  • Expected points contributed by a defense
  • Defensive DVOA
  • Weighted defensive DVOA
  • Pass defense DVOA

That doesn’t include the Bears coming in second in rush defense DVOA, second in yards allowed per play, and third in total yards and tying for third in sacks. It also doesn’t mention the players’ individual accomplishments. Cornerback Kyle Fuller tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven, and safety Eddie Jackson was one behind him with six while tying for the league lead with two pick-sixes. Khalil Mack was a force in the Bears’ biggest games, including an unforgettably dominant performance against the Packers on Sunday Night Football in Week 1. Nearly every member of the Bears defense seemed to be having one of the best years (if not the best year) of their career under coordinator Vic Fangio in 2018.

Head coach Matt Nagy also took one of the least innovative offenses from 2017 under John Fox and turned it into a far more Chiefs-like offense that brought Mitchell Trubisky and Co. to respectability as Chicago went from being ranked 29th in pass offense DVOA in 2017 to 20th in 2018. Tarik Cohen is one of the best receiving running backs in the league (and isn’t a bad quarterback either), Anthony Miller looks like a promising young receiver, and Trubisky added a new dynamic to his game by rushing for 9.4 more yards per game than he did in 2017. Crucially, Chicago took advantage of a down year for their division rivals. As the Packers and Vikings collapsed, Nagy’s Bears captured the NFC North in a 12-4 campaign that matched his former mentor Andy Reid’s mark in Kansas City this year and led Chicago to the playoffs for the first time since 2010

What Went Wrong

They didn’t take advantage for long enough. After finally vanquishing the Packers and the Vikings in the regular season, the Bears fell to Nick Foles’s magical powers on kicker Cody Parkey’s sixth (sixth!) kick of the year to hit the uprights is an absolute gut punch. It must be even more disappointing for the Bears considering that if Parkey’s kick had doinked in instead of doinking out (or perhaps not doinked at all), the Bears would have played the Rams, whom they manhandled just a few weeks ago.

Chicago’s season was mostly positive aside from one lightly discussed red flag amid their success: the questionable development of Trubisky, who looked better under Nagy but has not exactly looked good. His ability to see the field, diagnose coverages, and play from the pocket are all there at times, but not with any consistency. To call Trubisky a success through two years requires moving the goalposts (though perhaps that’s not an appropriate metaphor to use given Sunday’s circumstances).

Free Agency

It’s hard to keep great defenses humming, and the Bears will face that challenge this offseason. Chicago is projected to have roughly $20 million in cap space this offseason, which is about middle of the road for teams that fancy themselves contenders in 2019. It might not be enough to keep starting cornerback Bryce Callahan or safety Adrian Amos, both crucial cogs to Chicago’s defensive machine who will be free agents this year.

Right tackle Bobby Massie, who played all but five snaps for Chicago this year, may leave in free agency, as might reserve guard Eric Kush and lineman Bryan Witzmann, the latter of whom started seven games for the team. Bears fans will also likely bid adieu to receiver Kevin White, the team’s seventh overall pick in 2015 who struggled to stay healthy as a Bear and would finish with 25 catches across four years (and $657,000 per reception!) in his Chicago career.

The biggest personnel change Chicago faces may not be a player, but rather a coach. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done so well he might get a head-coaching gig, and that would deal a harder blow to Chicago’s 2019 hopes than any other offseason move. Fangio is perhaps the best defensive coordinator in football, and losing him can put a serious dent in Chicago’s hopes to remain the league’s premier defense.

The Draft

The Raiders have Chicago’s first- and sixth-round pick this year, and the Bears sent their second-round pick to New England to trade up for receiver Anthony Miller last year. (The Raiders also have Chicago’s first- and third-round picks in 2020, while Chicago has the Raiders’ 2020 second-rounder.) It’s foolish to project whom Chicago might be taking in Round 3, but it would be wise for Chicago to trade back at some point in the third or fourth round to try to replenish some of the draft capital it spent on the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.