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Can the Bears Find Their Way Out of No-Man’s-Land?

Chicago is in a precarious position: A best-case scenario season likely doesn’t end with a Super Bowl win, and a worst-case scenario season means another year of mediocrity. How will they get out of this rut?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For most NFL fan bases, spring is a time for optimism. As winter ends and the flowers bloom, teams around the league get the chance to start anew. Fresh talent and fresh ambitions bring fresh hope for the coming season, whether it’s earned or not. But for a handful of unfortunate franchises, that hope is harder to find. And this year, the Bears are among those unlucky few.

Chicago’s path to this point is a familiar one. Like other recent success stories like the Jaguars (and to a lesser extent, the Rams), the Bears got too good too fast. A series of bold but risky additions in the 2018 offseason helped propel the team to an out-of-nowhere 12-4 finish in head coach Matt Nagy’s first season. But the moves that got the Bears to the top of the NFC North—and the subsequent ones designed to keep them there—were made under false pretenses. Like Jacksonville did with Blake Bortles, the Bears hitched their future to a quarterback that didn’t deserve the stake. When it became obvious that Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t the answer under center and that Chicago’s offense couldn’t make up for the predictable decline of its excellent defense, the cracks that lurked in the foundation started to show. Nagy’s team went 8-8 last season and fell 20 spots in points scored. Multiple offensive coaches were fired as Chicago continued to follow the road map long used by floundering teams.

No one gamble doomed the Bears. Their fall in the past couple seasons is the result of losing two first-round picks in a trade for Khalil Mack and dealing second- and third-rounders away for Anthony Miller and David Montgomery. It’s the weight of Eddie Goldman’s sizable salary and an ill-advised contract for slot cornerback Buster Skrine; Trey Burton’s disaster of a deal and the knee-jerk reaction to overpay for replacement Jimmy Graham. Several of general manager Ryan Pace’s decisions were celebrated in the moment (and as a Bears fan, I still support the Mack trade, even in hindsight). But all together, those moves have left the franchise short on resources and without any clear path forward. The Bears have been relegated to no-man’s-land, and the journey out might be a treacherous one.

Plenty of mistakes from years past continue to haunt this team, but rather than rehashing Pace and Nagy’s missteps or reliving a frustrating 2019 season, let’s focus on what’s happened so far in 2020—and how it may influence Chicago’s future. The most important question facing the franchise this offseason was how Pace would address the quarterback position. By May 3, Pace had to decide whether to pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option or flip the hourglass on Trubisky’s time with the Bears. Anyone who watched Chicago’s offense last season could see that Trubisky was not the long-term answer, but that hasn’t always stopped stubborn and self-interested GMs from sticking with the wrong QB.

If Pace did want to bring in competition for Trubisky (or replace him outright), he wasn’t short on options. The Mack trade left Chicago without a first-round draft pick, but the 2020 class of free-agent quarterbacks was the strongest group in recent memory. Even discounting expensive options like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers who weren’t feasible for the cash-strapped team, guys like Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, and even Marcus Mariota made this year’s slate more appealing than usual. Throw in potential trade candidates like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Nick Foles, and for the first time in a long time, it seemed like there was a surplus of available starting-caliber QBs.

Pace eventually declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option and sent a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville in exchange for Foles, who had a robust $21 million guaranteed remaining on the deal he signed with the Jags last offseason. We could debate the value of adding Foles versus signing Newton or Dalton—both of whom were eventually released by their respective teams—but let me step into Pace’s shoes for a second. Locker room dynamics are always an important consideration when making a QB change, and Foles has plenty of experience navigating complicated quarterback rooms. In a matter of months, he went from Super Bowl hero back to his old job as Carson Wentz’s backup, prompting rumors of locker room discord and motivating Philly sports radio callers to demand that Foles regain the job. Last year in Jacksonville, Foles and his $45 million in guarantees were sent to the bench in favor of sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew II. The guy knows his way around a strange QB setup.

Whether motivated by finances or optics, Pace and the Bears’ coaching staff clearly weren’t ready to bring in a certified new starter and relegate Trubisky to the bench. When speaking with The MMQB’s Albert Breer earlier this month, Nagy said that Trubisky will still get the first crack as Chicago’s starter. “It’s been loud and clear with those guys—again, we’re over communicating clarity—Mitchell’s gonna be in the huddle for Day 1, Play 1,” Nagy said. It’s an awkward situation no matter how you slice it, but with Foles, the Bears have a guy who should make dicey circumstances a little more palatable.

Foles also has history with multiple members of the Bears’ coaching staff. His rookie season with the Eagles overlapped with Nagy’s final year in Philadelphia as a quality control coach, and new Bears quarterbacks’ coach John DeFilippo served as Foles’s position coach during the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl run. Even if that doesn’t make up the difference between signing Dalton to a paltry deal and giving up a fourth-round pick for Foles, plus handing him more than $20 million guaranteed, it’s easy to see how Pace arrived at his final conclusion.

Pace and Nagy knew what they were getting into with Foles and his deal, but there’s no way they could have foreseen the fallout that COVID-19 would have on both the Bears’ quarterback competition and the team’s roster makeup in subsequent seasons. If fanless stadiums lead to a decrease in the salary cap in 2021, teams like Chicago that tinkered with deals to create immediate cap relief (most notably with cornerback Kyle Fuller, who’s now set to carry a cap hit of $20 million in 2021) could be in serious trouble.

Along with the long-term financial consequences of COVID-19, restrictions caused by the pandemic could also influence how the Bears’ lineup looks in the short term. With a truncated, virtual offseason now in the books and a strange version of training camp on the horizon, Trubisky may have a bigger edge in Chicago’s QB race than he would have under normal circumstances. Trubisky has two years of starting experience in Nagy’s system and history with most of the Bears offense. The best possible outcome for the franchise would include Trubisky finally figuring it out in his fourth year, developing into a quality starting quarterback worthy of extending, and leaving Foles on the bench as an insurance policy. And based on this offseason’s strange circumstances, it seems like Trubisky will get every opportunity to make that happen.

If we limit the possible timelines to outcomes that seem feasible, though, the ideal end game would probably involve Foles wrestling the starting job from Trubisky in training camp and entering the season as Chicago’s undisputed starter. Earlier this spring, another NFL executive with his eye on the QB market brought up an interesting point in the Foles vs. Dalton debate. Both guys struggled in 2019, and Foles has been brutal in the regular season. But can also get red-hot when it matters most. The allure of catching that wave is real.

Even if we play out that timeline, though, and Foles taps into some magic and transforms into the guy he was in 2017 for an entire season, I’m not sure it takes the Bears any closer to where they want to go. Sure, with Foles at the helm, the Bears offense would finally hit its stride. Anthony Miller would break out in his third season. The offensive line would return to form. Allen Robinson would finally get to show the world that he’s one of the most talented receivers on earth. Nagy would regain his gifted play-caller status. Pair that with a top-five defense fueled by a resurgent Mack and newly acquired Robert Quinn, and the Bears would win double-digit games and claim an NFC North that’s very much up for grabs. A fan base devastated by the letdown in 2019 would be invigorated, and the Bears would be headed to the postseason. But in that scenario, Chicago is still probably not a viable Super Bowl contender. Going up against a loaded Saints team on the road in the NFC championship game or an AFC favorite like the Chiefs or Ravens in the Super Bowl doesn’t bode well for the Bears. Anything less than a championship would leave the Bears with another round of difficult questions about what happens next.

If Foles somehow does have a great season as the Bears’ starter, it would present some complications for the franchise’s future at QB. As part of the contract restructure that coincided with his trade to Chicago, Foles is set to have a $9.3 million cap hit in both 2021 and 2022. That’s a cheap deal for a quality quarterback, and one that would push the Bears to keep Foles as their starter. The problem is that Foles’s contract includes an opt-out clause that allows him to void the final two years of his deal if he hits certain incentives—incentives that would likely be reached if he earns the starting job and leads Chicago to the playoffs. Should Foles decide to parlay a productive season into a lucrative deal elsewhere, it would leave a Bears team picking in the late 20s and potentially low on cap space without an obvious way to find a replacement.

I’m sure most Bears fans are probably fine with that particular timeline. If Foles gives Chicago enough juice to make the playoffs, it’d be worth dealing with the fallout. But that’s the best-case scenario. The more likely outcomes for the 2020 Bears have similar drawbacks but none of the rewards. If you played out Chicago’s season a few thousand times, the Bears (whose Vegas over/under win total is eight) probably go close to .500 most of the time. The defense may not be as well coached or complete as it was in 2018, but there’s still too much talent on that side of the ball for Chicago to completely bottom out. A more realistic version of the Bears’ next six months involves a prolonged QB competition that begins with Trubisky as the Week 1 starter and ends with Foles taking over well into the regular season. Chicago winds up being a capable but unspectacular team, and the front office realizes that an injury-prone, 31-year-old quarterback who’s never started more than 11 games in a season isn’t a viable long-term answer. And that’s where the Bears get stuck.

High-end starting quarterbacks aren’t typically available in the back half of the first round. Franchises hoping to find their version of Lamar Jackson in the coming years are going to be sorely disappointed. To secure a quality prospect, teams usually have to maneuver into the top 10 or even higher. Organizations like the Chiefs and Texans have been able to find their QBs of the future without bottoming out, but in those cases, it’s taken a future first-round pick to move up and snag their guy. Before taking big swings with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, Houston and Kansas City both had solid rosters in need of one last push. Even if we put the Bears in that category (which is a stretch), the lack of young talent in the pipeline makes an aggressive trade-up difficult to justify. After dealing two first-round picks for Mack and other high selections to trade up for Miller and Montgomery, the Bears are bereft of homegrown prospects. Throw in the looming complications of a salary-cap decrease and the win-now financial moves that the Bears have made in the past few offseasons, and the idea of trading away more draft capital becomes even riskier. Pace has been playing Jenga with this roster for years, and if he continues to yank away the foundation, the entire structure is going to come crashing down.

If a playoff berth and an average season are both unappealing results, the only other option is a terrible season that ends with the Bears picking in the top five. And I’m not sure who could possibly deem that a success. A 5-11 or 6-10 finish could potentially bring the Pace-Nagy era to an end and cause a full-scale teardown similar to the one happening in Jacksonville—one year after the Jags turned to Foles to right their franchise. If all of this sounds unnecessarily pessimistic, I understand. But this is the reality for rudderless teams just trying to stay afloat in the NFL. The Bears will probably be just good enough to stay bad. They’re fine, which often means they’re anything but.

An earlier version of this piece misstated that Mitchell Trubisky’s fifth-year option would be fully guaranteed under rules set by the CBA. That rule kicks in for the 2018 class.