In the NFL, it's more difficult to sustain winning than start winning. The Bears have been reminded of that in a 2019 season that's been marked by more adversity than 2018 brought. The Bears have been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies that coach Matt Nagy avoided during his first season leading the way.
Sunday afternoon may offer a sample of where this season is going for the Bears (3-2), who host a model of consistency in the Saints (5-1) at Soldier Field. Beating the Saints appeared to be a likely proposition when future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees suffered a right thumb injury in September, but backup Teddy Bridgewater has led New Orleans to four wins in a row. Nagy credited the Saints' structure under coach Sean Payton as a big key to their success.
For the Bears to win Sunday, Nagy needs to better set up quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for success -- even if that means scaling back his offense from the 202 level that he has often referenced. That means simplifying the system by aiming for quick strikes and efficiency and accepting Trubisky's limitations.
Of course, simplifying the offense also means putting more trust in a stagnant running game and relaying on a strong defense returning to dominant form. But if the Bears fail in that regard, they aren't going to the playoffs anyway.
What awaits is the Bears' litmus test: a home game at Soldier Field against a beatable opponent after a week of rest.
It's the start of a stretch in which we will find who the Bears truly are.
The referendums of Trubisky as a franchise quarterback are about to resume.
Barring a setback, Trubisky is expected to start Sunday after recovering from a left shoulder injury that he suffered on Sept. 29. When he does, also returning will be the intense spotlight that comes with being the second overall pick in 2017 and the draft classmate of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. For Bears general manager Ryan Pace, Trubisky's return will mean the continuation of the evaluation of whether he fits in the organization's future.
Now in his third season, Trubisky has failed to live to the billing of his arrival. While Mahomes and Watson have lifted up their respective franchises, Trubisky has left more to be desired. Will this stretch produce evidence that he can be great?
If Trubisky can prove himself this season, he would be in line for a mega-deal awarded to top quarterbacks. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, signed an extension in June worth up to $144 million and with $107.9 million guaranteed. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who shares an agent with Trubisky, signed an extension in September worth up to $134 million and with $110 million guaranteed.
The Bears traded up for Trubisky with the hope that he could be elite and have put the pieces in place for him to be successful.
If Trubisky is incapable of elevating the Bears, he simply may not be good enough.
The latest developments have overshadowed the dominance that Long once displayed on the field. He made three consecutive Pro Bowls before landing on injured reserve for four straight seasons.
While the Bears attempted to keep their focus on moving forward, many were willing to reflect on Long at his best.
Among them was tackle Charles Leno Jr., a close friend of Long's since Leno was drafted in the seventh round back in 2014.
"He was dominant," Leno said. "He was dominant. When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player.”
New Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino joked back in August that his lone job with star pass rusher Khalil Mack was to not screw him up.
Mack has 17 sacks in 19 games in a Bears uniform, the most in franchise history in that span. That includes Mack having 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in five games this season. So, what does Monachino think of coaching Mack?
"He's a rare person," Monachino said. "He's a great, great teammate. Study habits are off the charts, cares about all the right things and does everything that we ask him to do. This is one of those guys that's a rare warrior that does everything he can to help his team win and doesn't care who gets the credit."
Don't expect the Bears to hold back to Trubisky if and when he's cleared to play Sunday.
Though Trubisky suffered his non-throwing shoulder injury while scrambling, Nagy doesn't intend to limit his running abilities in any way.
"Never," Nagy said of that notion. "Run as much as you can. Just don't take extra hits. His legs are a huge weapon for us. I'm an idiot if I take his legs away because there are a lot of quarterbacks that don't have his legs. Trust me, 31 other defensive coordinators, ask how concerned they are about him running the football. It's a weapon."
As coach of the Colts, Chuck Pagano offered his player "GRIT coins" for their play. Now as defensive coordinator for the Bears, he has a new currency.
Pagano is giving his players "Chuck bucks" -- dollar bills featuring Pagano's face. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix presented a stack of Chuck bucks to the media Thursday but declined to discuss how they were earned.
However, Clinton-Dix believes they will be worth a fortune years from now.
"His words, he said he’s a Bear for life." -- Charles Leno on Kyle Long
QB Mitchell Trubisky (left shoulder) -- Trubisky has passed every test this week, leaving the Bears encouraged for his status Sunday. Barring a surprise, he will return to action.
G Ted Larsen (knee) -- The Bears have a decision to make in replacing Long at right guard. This lingering knee issue for Larsen may eliminate him from consideration. He has been limited in practice this week. Rashaad Coward could get the nod at right guard.
DL Bilal Nichols (hand) -- A month removed from a hand fracture, Nichols is practicing in full and in line to fill the void of Akiem Hicks, who was placed on injured reserve this week.
WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion) -- Another weapon is returning to the Bears offense, as Gabriel has been cleared from the concussion protocol.
LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe (hamstring) -- The Bears are set to return a key special teams player in Iyiegbuniwe, who's practicing in full.
The Bears bounce back after the bye week as the defense responds with a strong effort against Bridgewater and the Saints.