(670 The Score) In dominating the NFL’s worst team in a 41-17 win Sunday in Jacksonville, the resilient Bears celebrated their third straight victory after refusing to let a six-game losing streak define their season.
They scored at least 30 points for the fourth consecutive game for the first time in 55 years.
They saw their beleaguered quarterback continue his late-season resurgence, their feature running back gain his 1,000th yard and their No. 1 wide receiver catch his 100th pass.
They maintained control of their postseason destiny.
So why does much of the postgame enthusiasm seem restrained and optimism about the future feel conditional? And why might a measured approach be the most prudent way for Chicago to process what happened against the Jaguars?
Those who have watched every play of every game this Bears season know why.
Those who rely on the eye test over all the other ways to measure success understand.
Those with their feet planted firmly in reality realize the dangers of letting the second-half success Sunday too heavily outweigh the first-half failures for a team that, through 15 games, still hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. Put another way as so many postseason scenarios begin to clutter your brain: The Bears very well could make the playoffs without ever consistently looking like a playoff team.
And that’s just fine with the NFL, if not Bears fans. That’s even partly by design. Remember, the league expanded the playoffs last April by one team per conference to increase drama and add relevance to middling NFL teams. The coming week would feel much different for teams like the Bears and Cardinals without those changes to the system. But with the reward for mediocrity also came the opportunity to save jobs for coaches and executives whose postseason berth could be used as the biggest reason for embracing the status quo.
So, in the context of Halas Hall, two different conversations will emerge this week — what the McCaskeys are likely to do at the end of this season and what the McCaskeys should strongly consider doing to get the Bears franchise closer to the Super Bowl.
Here’s what the McCaskeys are likely to do: look at coach Matt Nagy’s third straight non-losing season, praise the positive culture Nagy cultivated, overstate the contributions of general manager Ryan Pace’s recent draft picks and overlook his free-agent misses to avoid an expensive overhaul in the midst of a pandemic. Ownership can point to Nagy being the first Bears head coach since 1944 to avoid a losing record in his first three seasons to justify bringing him back for a fourth. That would set up a scenario that isn’t hard for longtime observers to envision: The Bears, with Nagy and Pace returning, finding a way to re-sign quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to a short-term, prove-it contract structured with incentives and escape clauses.
Here’s what the McCaskeys should strongly consider doing: recognize the Bears' flaws exposed by quality teams in a six-game losing streak and the limitations of an incompatible roster that keeps falling further away from championship-caliber status. If ownership reaches the conclusion after this season that the Bears have stumbled back onto their franchise quarterback because they limped into an expanded playoff field after Trubisky’s revival, it risks becoming the latest mistake in misevaluating the position. It risks compounding the organization’s latest quarterback mistake with another one.
Sure, Trubisky has proved in the final stretch of the season he can be a serviceable starter capable of moving the chains and making an occasional play, but good-not-great quarterbacks known most for their moxie seldom lead teams to Super Bowl victories. If the Bears want to remain in NFL purgatory, somewhere in that middle-of-the-pack range of teams that will contend annually for a wild-card spot in a league that legislates parity, then bringing back Trubisky with the same coach-general manager combination makes sense. It would represent a safe, low-risk, low-reward investment, like an IRA.
But if the Bears seriously want to compete for a Super Bowl and believe Nagy is the right coach — a defensible conclusion – then they must take a bolder approach to reflect that ambition. That would require replacing Pace after six seasons with a new chief decision-maker who can work with Nagy and, together, they can reshape the Bears roster, starting over at quarterback. That would mean keeping Nagy and moving on from Pace and Trubisky, a course of action easier to defend than doing nothing.
With every touchdown the Bears scored in a 28-point second half against the Jaguars, the more unlikely such a major overhaul became. Every positive play late made it harder to get too worked up over some of the negative ones early.
Take the series of downs at the start of the second quarter that encapsulated all that makes it difficult for people to fully believe in Nagy.
On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with a 7-3 lead, the Bears inexplicably ran a tight end sweep to Cole Kmet, who hadn’t carried the ball since his St. Viator High School days. But the Bears decided to hand it to him three feet away from a touchdown instead of to David Montgomery, an actual running back who makes a living breaking tackles. The play lost three yards.
“That play looked good all week in practice,’’ Nagy said. “If there’s a play we all look back and say darn … To get the ball at the 1 and come away with three points, that is one you look back at.’’
Before second-and-goal from the 4, the Bears put so many players in motion before the snap it was as if they were stage performers in a Christmas play. All the choreography backfired and the play clock ticked too perilously toward zero, forcing the Bears to waste a timeout. On the ensuing handoff, Montgomery gained two.
Predictably, on third-and-goal from the 2, the team that already openly acknowledged it wasn’t tough enough to gain one yard against the NFL’s softest defense called a pass to Allen Robinson. The usually reliable Robinson couldn’t come down with a catchable touchdown pass, forcing the Bears to settle for a field goal.
Nagy’s overcoaching cost the Bears four points. Against the Jaguars, it meant nothing. In the big picture, it’s not insignificant. After a month’s worth of evidence that convinced us perhaps Nagy had cured himself of the tendency of getting too cute, he did it again – causing many skeptics to wonder if he has learned anything at all. It should be noted that Nagy typically receives blame when things go wrong while play-caller Bill Lazor gets credit for the late-season spurt, but such is the reality for NFL head coaches – especially ones who face a weekly referendum on their jobs.
Does one bad sequence outweigh four weeks of progress?
That’s the same question Trubisky raised with 35 seconds left in the first half and the Bears at the Jaguars’ 13-yard line. Buying time zigging and zagging outside the pocket, Trubisky waited for an open receiver who never emerged. Instead of throwing the ball away on first down, Trubisky for the second straight week made a poor decision by trying to force something that wasn’t there in the end zone. Jaguars linebacker Joe Schobert intercepted the floater intended for Robinson that was thrown recklessly into heavy coverage.
“It was frustrating,’’ Trubisky said. “I knew right away I made a bad decision, trying to do too much. Coach got me right, I was able to lock back in ... Next-play mentality.’’
Trubisky bounced back, but that single, indelible mistake reminded everyone how narrow the margin for error is for quarterbacks like Trubisky who historically haven't made enough big plays to forgive one so bad. No matter how much growth has been evident in Trubisky over the past month as Nagy and Lazor have pared down the game plans and tailored plays more to his talents, all it takes is one egregious error to underscore how underwhelming and unfulfilling his Bears career has been. In the booth, CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon voiced what so many of us were thinking when he called the interception “something you do in high school.’’
Not much criticism followed. The Bears exploded for 28 points in the second half after an uninspiring and unimpressive opening 30 minutes in which the Jaguars pulled them down to their level of competition. At halftime, Dumb led Dumber 13-10, and it felt more like the Jaguars were shutting out the Bears 21-0. Then the worst team in football returned for the third quarter, and the Bears woke up.
Trubisky made smarter decisions after the break, finishing 24-of-35 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a 97.9 passer rating. Montgomery surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau with 95 yards on 23 carries. Robinson became the first Bears receiver in six years to catch 100 passes in a season with 10 more receptions for 103 yards. Linebacker Roquan Smith, accentuating how silly his Pro Bowl snub was, intercepted his second pass of the game. The offensive line dominated, with Chicago possessing the ball for 33 minutes, and the defensive line steadied after a shaky start with former Bears quarterback Mike Glennon doing his part to help his old team.
Now, only the Packers stand between a flawed Bears team and a return to the NFC playoffs.
We soon could find out what that’s worth to the McCaskeys.