Haugh: Survival the focus of a Bears team forcing us to put present ahead of future – for now

After improving to 7-7, the Bears sit on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture.
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(670 The Score) Survive and advance.

In an elimination game that amounted to a de facto NFC playoff opener Sunday, the Bears survived and advanced. Period. That was the day's only mission, and they completed it.

They had to wait to exhale until after the final play of a 33-27 nailbiter over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a Hail Mary pass that Sherrick McManis intercepted after Eddie Jackson’s deflection. They had to overcome an unforgivable, unacceptable interception by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky thrown in the end zone with 2:57 left as the Bears protected a three-point lead. They had to suffer through another soft defensive effort and endure an ending more dramatic than necessary.

But none of those details really matter, not in Week 15. Not yet.

Not when the Bears (7-7) found a way to win a football game with their season on the line. Not after the Bears arrived more ready to play from the outset than the Vikings (6-8) did in their home stadium when the urgency was the same for both teams. Not because of what surviving and advancing means in the context of the standings and so many careers at Halas Hall.

A funny thing happened to the Bears on their way to a future supposedly full of major offseason changes. The present tabled the discussion for at least another week, and “if” closed the gap on “when” regarding an organizational overhaul.

Like it or not, whether the Bears make or miss the playoffs figures to weigh heavily on the McCaskeys when deciding whether to bring back general manager Ryan Pace, coach Matt Nagy and even Trubisky in 2021. And the playoffs undoubtedly emerged as a realistic goal as the Bears returned home to Chicago from Minneapolis.

Maybe the McCaskey standard should be higher and the goals more ambitious. Maybe a playoff berth, in the long run, ultimately would delay a return to the Super Bowl for the Bears if it means the same general manager, coach and quarterback return next season. But, face it, if Bears ownership is looking for a reason to avoid an expensive upheaval in the midst of a pandemic, sneaking into the playoffs even as the seventh and final team in the NFC field would provide one.

You don’t have to agree with that reality to accept it. These are the Bears, after all, and you don’t have to be a Grabowski of a certain age to grasp what those words mean.

The Bears’ seventh victory wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Their victories don’t have to pass the eye test to improve the chances to qualify for the postseason. This isn’t college football, where a committee arbitrarily evaluates how good or bad a victory looks and television ratings influence opinions. This is the NFL, which legislates parity and rewards mediocrity by dangling the carrot of a postseason berth in front of flawed teams like the Bears. This is the December drama the league counted on last April when adding a seventh team to each conference’s playoff field.

This was also the first time since 2013 the Bears have scored 30 points in three straight games. You can point out how bad the Lions, Texans and Vikings defenses are as much as you want, but the Bears hanging 30 on anybody still represents progress. There have been days in the Nagy era where you wondered if the Bears could score 30 points in four games, let alone four quarters. On six straight series against the Vikings, the Bears came away with points. Finally, the Bears have established an offensive identity that doesn’t make their fans want to pull a bag over their heads.

Everything starts with a commitment to the run — which Nagy traditionally has resisted. But David Montgomery carrying 32 times for 146 yards suggests Nagy and play-caller Bill Lazor understand what works best for this team. And the Bears allowing Montgomery to become the offensive catalyst has been working well.

“He runs with extreme passion,’’ Nagy said. “The guys love that, and we’re feeding off him.’’

Montgomery sure runs like he’s hungry for more, like on a 14-yard touchdown run in which he refused to be denied. More proof of Montgomery’s sudden impact comes in the Bears running twice as many times as they threw in a must-win game. Four games ago, the Bears reconfigured their offensive line to improve communication and execution, which altered the emphasis on the ground game behind a healthy Montgomery.

Not coincidentally, that’s also when Trubisky returned as the starter. In doing so, the Bears all but conceded Nagy needed to start building game plans around Trubisky’s skills more than Nagy’s scheme. Why it took so long for Nagy to reach that conclusion is the first question chairman George McCaskey needs to ask the Bears head coach whenever this season ends, but it’s irrelevant now. What matters now is Trubisky has responded to the failure of getting benched in Week 3 with a string of success nobody expected.

In going 15-of-21 for 202 yards with a touchdown and interception against the Vikings, Trubisky again appeared comfortable for most of the game in an offense suited for his strengths. A moving pocket allows Trubisky to limit how much of the field he needs to process. A threatening running game leads to play-action fakes that force linebackers to freeze a split second so receivers get open easier. Trubisky's legs – he scrambled eight times for 34 yards – complement his arm when protection breaks down.

"It was great to see the way he ran the offense all day today,’’ Nagy said. “I think he's doing a really good job of just commanding it.’’

The Bears optimist sees a confident quarterback in command finally approaching his potential. The Bears pessimist sees Trubisky’s too-little, too-late productivity as confirmation that Nagy was too stubborn to adapt the offense before the season slipped away. The Bears realist knows better than to complain about improvement because, in the NFL, evaluations remain fluid and context changes weekly.

Consider how quickly Trubisky squandered all the positivity he created Sunday. On third-and-goal from the Vikings' 6-yard line with the Bears leading 30-27 late, Trubisky tried forcing a pass into the end zone intended for No. 4 tight end J.P. Holtz of all people. That can’t happen to a quarterback making his 48th NFL start. It was a bad throw and a worse decision, the type of mistake Trubisky has made too often in earning his reputation as a draft bust. How many Chicagoans muttered at that moment: “Same old #$#$# Mitch” – and were they the same people just complimenting him a series earlier?

“It was more of a throw-it-away situation,’’ Trubisky explained postgame. “It got away from me a little. I thought I could make a little better of a throw and a little better of a decision. Luckily, my defense had my back.’’

Surprisingly, on this day, the Bears defense did. The Vikings got the ball back with 2:57 left but never moved the chains, the key stop coming when defensive tackle Brent Urban forced Kirk Cousins into a fourth-down incompletion.

In a game the Bears’ once-vaunted defense was gouged for 407 yards, unheralded players such as Urban and fellow defensive linemen John Jenkins and Bilal Nichols came up with well-timed clutch plays. How bizarre to see the Bears offense carry their defense lately but welcome to 2020, right? The secondary played without injured starters in cornerback Jaylon Johnson and nickel back Buster Skrine – and it showed – but Nagy credited his defense for stiffening in the red zone. Twice, the Vikings had first-and-goal inside the 10, and twice they settled for field goals. Two fourth-down stops by the Bears also left a deeper impression with Nagy than all the missed tackles and assignments.

“Those were big,’’ Nagy said.

As were the contributions of Cairo Santos, who kicked four more field goals to extend his streak to 22 straight. Whose overall improvement this season has been more surprising or significant for the Bears – their kicker’s or quarterback’s? Isn’t that more fun to debate than some of the other questions the Bears could've been left considering Sunday?

“I’m just so stinkin’ proud of these players and coaches,’’ Nagy said.

His stinkin’ pride was understandable. To borrow from Nagy’s glossary, it had been too freakin’ long the Bears won a game they couldn’t afford to lose.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-9 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.

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