Haugh: Moribund Bears need to start asking the hard questions

Losers of three straight, the Bears are headed the wrong way and have holes across their roster.
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(670 The Score) Titans defensive back Desmond King met his new teammates Saturday, about 24 hours before kickoff.

The Los Angeles Chargers traded King to Tennessee on Monday, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented the veteran from reporting to work until after a five-day waiting period. Yet King still orchestrated a well-choreographed group celebration Sunday after his 63-yard fumble return for a touchdown like a guy who planned for that opportunity on the end-zone stage.

As if King sensed something and the marquee in his mind started flashing. The Bears are coming.

That’s the effect the anemic Bears offense has; opposing defenses expect to have as good of a chance of scoring a touchdown as they do giving one up. They relish playing a team that can’t throw, run or block with execution as poor as its imagination. They can't wait to share the stage with one of the NFL’s worst offensive productions, because it offers the possibility to, well, perform like King and Co. gleefully did.

While the Titans celebrated a 24-17 victory in Nashville that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, Bears fans commiserated. Again. What a waste of a beautiful autumn afternoon.

“Obviously, a high level of frustration,’’ coach Matt Nagy told reporters postgame.

All over Chicago, it mounts.

Don’t be fooled by the one-score margin or any of the postgame rhetoric. Nobody watching really ever thought the Bears were going to win. It wasn’t losing pretty, not with an offense that was awful and overmatched. Not with a proud defense stretched beyond reasonable limits. Not in a game in which the biggest highlight came from an 11-yard gain from outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo on a fake punt. Or was their best play a Pat O’Donnell punt?

The Bears’ offensive effort in Nashville was sadder than a country music song.

The numbers look deceiving. Nick Foles completed 36 of 52 passes for a season-high 335 yards and two touchdowns. Counterpart Ryan Tannehill completed just 10 of 21 for 158 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher, gained just 68 yards on 21 carries. The Titans managed a meager 228 yards.

Yet the truer story emerges when studying the Bears converting just 2 of 15 third downs against a Titans defense giving up an NFL-worst 61% entering the game. It becomes clearer when seeing the Bears lost two fumbles, the most damning the one that defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons forced from David Montgomery and King returned to make it 17-0. It all compounded the latest evidence of a Bears team that can’t get out of its own way.

The most embarrassing example came after Mingo's clever fake punt conversion when the Bears wasted a timeout before the next snap, as if they surprised even themselves. The spate of costly penalties continued on back-to-back pre-snap penalties that induced a punt instead of a possible fourth-down conversion.

“The ones that bother me are the senseless ones, the drive-killers,’’ Nagy said. “What we have to understand as a mature football team you have to score points early in this league — especially with the defense we have.’’

The margin for error remains too narrow for the Bears to continue to commit such senseless penalties. That dynamic forces the defense to play nearly perfect, an impossible standard. Example: When receiver A.J. Brown scored the Titans’ first touchdown on a 40-yard pass from Tannehill, nickel back Buster Skrine blanketed Brown, but it didn’t matter. Safety Eddie Jackson came over to help a split-second late, Tannehill delivered a perfect throw and the Bears fell behind 10-0 – a deficit that feels insurmountable with this offense.

And that wasn’t just the case Sunday against the Titans. That has been true about the Bears offense since the beginning of the 2019 season. The offense doesn't complement the defense as much as it complicates everything – it's the primary reason the Bears have fallen to 5-4. The Bears couldn’t even get a measly yard on a simple dive play on fourth-and-1 against a defense considered soft.

A month ago, we debated whether the Bears could compete for the NFC’s top seed. A month later, they have their nose pressed to the playoff glass, on the outside looking in. Perhaps over the next month, we'll discover what the future holds for this Bears regime.

When an NFL team loses three straight games – especially after winning five of its first six – somebody in the building must start asking uncomfortable questions. In the context of the Bears at Halas Hall, that someone should be chairman George McCaskey. He can seek advice from team president Ted Phillips or the counsel of his mother, Virginia, but in the end, the responsibility rests with the man ultimately in charge. And, by George, everybody at 1920 Football Drive in Lake Forest knows who that is.

General manager Ryan Pace is approaching the end of his sixth season in charge. The Bears have been to the playoffs once in that span. Pace proudly can point to the consistency of the Bears defense as proof he that he understands how to build that side of the football. Pace’s impactful draft picks on defense include Jackson, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Jaylon Johnson. His smart free-agent signings include lineman Akiem Hicks and linebacker Danny Trevathan. Of course, Pace also pulled off the trade for All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack that made the fun of 2018 possible. Congratulations, but that’s only a half-job well-done.

The Bears’ continued offensive ineptitude outweighs the defensive consistency, and that falls on Pace more than Nagy.

Pace gave up all that draft capital to move up in 2017 to No. 2 overall to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who failed to live up to expectations after 44 NFL starts. That leaves a blot of Pace’s resume impossible to ignore in a football city. It accentuates the other draft misses -- receiver Kevin White and linebacker Leonard Floyd and tight end Adam Shaheen to name just a few. It underscores how badly the Bears had to overpay for a Trubisky replacement, as they did in trading a fourth-rounder to the Jaguars for Foles and guaranteeing him $21 million. It raises questions about all the other needs Pace neglected along the way, like an offensive line that was suspect even before injuries and COVID-19 offered an excuse by knocking out three Week 1 starters.

More than anything, it exposes how the offensive line was designed to fail.

The Bears started the game Sunday with two seventh-round draft picks on the left side of the offensive line: tackle Charles Leno Jr. and guard Arlington Hambright. The center, Alex Bars, was an undrafted free agent who never had snapped in an NFL game. The right guard, Germain Efedi, was a Seahawks castoff for reasons that become more apparent every game. The right tackle, Rashaad Coward, is a converted defensive lineman realizing how hard it is to learn on the job in the NFL.

“They played as hard as they could and gave me everything they had, so I’m proud of them for that,’’ Foles said.

That’s admirable and what makes Foles a popular teammate, but the gap between resolve and results remained too wide for an NFL offensive line.

Coward committed an illegal use of hands penalty and struggled in pass protection against a Titans rush that had three sacks after entering with seven all season. Ifedi whiffed badly on one of those sacks. Hambright and Leno had false starts. Bars botched a center-quarterback exchange. Overall, the line played like a group playing its first game together.

No question the Bears missed center Cody Whitehair and guard James Daniels – both Pace second-rounders out with injuries – but was the Bears' offensive line good enough to be among the top half even when healthy? Doesn’t a team built around its defense need a stronger commitment to a powerful offensive line?

Yet the lack of playmakers consistently blurred the picture. The Bears needed to draft a quarterback. Then they needed to find a playmaker for the quarterback. Then they needed to draft a running back that fit the offense. Then they needed a new free-agent tight end to replace the former free-agent tight end who couldn’t stay healthy. Meanwhile, the offensive line was pieced together with hope, faith and modest financial investment. As Mike Ditka might say, in life you get what you pay for. And the Bears historically have gone on the cheap under Pace when building an offensive line.

That’s on the general manager more than the coach.

That hardly excuses Nagy, who's now 25-16 in his third season. But not even the most innovative of play-callers could look smart with an offensive line as bad as the one the Bears lined up against the Titans. Nagy needs to adapt, adjust and stop being so stubborn with personnel groupings and play sequencing. He needs to improve on clock management and reduce the number of inexcusable penalties that earn his team the "undisciplined" label. He needs to realize being the best head coach might involve relinquishing the role of offensive coordinator because, after the past season-and-a-half, the process is broken and badly needs fixing. He needs to sound more open to embracing the concept of complementary football, a power-running, ball-control approach that’s most conducive to winning with a defense like the Bears'.

Maybe Nagy will need to go along with Pace once the Bears begin the thorough re-evaluation that looks necessary. Maybe not. Maybe McCaskey will determine that Nagy deserves some input into choosing a young quarterback a potential new general manager will draft next spring. Maybe it’s too early to know all the answers about the Bears’ future.

But somebody must start asking the hard questions before it’s too late.

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.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images