It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today, it’s the Bears, who fell to 7-7 and were mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with a 21-13 loss to the Packers and the Vikings’ win over the Chargers.
What Went Right
Chicago’s defense is still one of the league’s best. Elite defensive performances like Chicago’s last season are largely tied to turnovers, which are often random, so maintaining the top defense year to year is tough. The Bears’ defensive coordinator last season, Vic Fangio, left to coach the Broncos this year, and the team hired Chuck Pagano to replace him, so the team had an even bigger challenge than overcoming the normal dropoff in performance. The Bears didn’t repeat as the league’s top defense this year, but they remained excellent. Through 14 weeks, they had allowed the third-fewest points and were in the top eight in defensive DVOA. Eight of their first 13 opponents scored 17 points or fewer, and the only team that scored more than 24 points on Chicago this year was the Saints in Week 7. They did this despite losing Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan in free agency and losing defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to an elbow injury for much of the season.
On the other side of the ball, Chicago’s skill players look great. Receiver Allen Robinson II has 83 catches with 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns through 14 games, already enough for his best season since 2015. Second-year receiver Anthony Miller has 59 catches for 649 yards and two scores in 14 games and has flashed enough to suggest he could have a big year in 2020. On special teams, kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson was the league’s best. He led all returners with 799 yards, tied for first with one touchdown, and ranked second with 29.6 yards per return.
What Went Wrong
General manager Ryan Pace’s vision for this team, which begins and ends with Mitchell Trubisky. Three seasons into Trubisky’s career, he is not even an average passer, and his lack of progress suggests that won’t change in the future. Trubisky still struggles with basic aspects of pro quarterbacking. He doesn’t consistently see open receivers, trust clean pockets, or keep his eyes dowfield amid a pass rush. His surrounding skill talent is excellent. His offensive line is below average, but his lack of awareness exacerbates this problem. Head coach Matt Nagy has all but bent over backward to accommodate Trubisky to little avail. Trubisky does not see the chessboard, and it hampered this Bears season.
Pace tried to prop up Trubisky by spending lavishly on Robinson (worked out great) and tight end Trey Burton (not great). The Bears used the most 2019 cap space on receivers and tight ends in the NFL ($41 million), but they ranked 27th in points per game (18.7) entering Week 15, barely ahead of the Dolphins (17.0), and were tied with the Jets, Giants, and Bengals for 26th in net yards per pass attempt. Considering how good the defense has been the last two years, no quarterback has had a lower bar for success, but Trubisky has been unable to clear it.
The rest of the Bears’ season was not perfect. Their kicking is still a problem, and Eddy Piñeiro is making three out of every four field goals, not a reliable number. Chicago’s offensive line needs to be rebuilt. But these problems are dwarfed by Trubisky, and they have been since Week 1, when the Bears defense held the Packers to 10 points but lost because Chicago scored only three. Most teams have a lot of little problems. Chicago has one massive one.
The Bears need to decide whether to pick up Mitchell Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021 by May. They would be wise to decline it and find a new starter for 2020. If they don’t, the blame goes to Pace and Nagy, not Trubisky.
Chicago doesn’t have a ton of key impending free agents. The most notable players who could leave are linebacker Danny Trevathan, guard Kyle Long, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Trevathan has missed a month with an elbow injury and turns 30 in March, so he may be gone. Clinton-Dix was a one-year rental, and his production could likely be replaced. Long was proudly overpaid on his previous contract.
Chicago would be wise to focus on finding a competent veteran to hold down the ship while the Bears try to return to the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill will likely be franchise-tagged or re-signed by the Titans, but Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Philip Rivers, and Josh Rosen could all be available. If Pace wants to save his job, he can start working the phones for those guys when free agency begins.
Chicago traded its first- and third-rounders to Oakland in the Khalil Mack deal but has Oakland’s second-rounder plus its own. The Bears also dealt their fourth-rounder to the Patriots last year, so those two second-rounders are their only two picks in the first four rounds of the draft. With little capital, they’d be wise to trade down. If they stand pat, they could try to strike gold in one of the deeper receiver classes in years. ESPN’s Todd McShay has an astonishing 15 receivers in his top 64 prospects, so if the Bears want to get a first-round quality player with their second-round pick, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, LSU’s Justin Jefferson, or Alabama’s DeVonta Smith could all fit the bill. If they stick along the offensive line, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood or Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho could be much needed upgrades at offensive tackle.