Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Bears organization, Bears fans around the world and those who can't remember what it was like to be this excited about a quarterback drafted to Chicago:
It just feels different for the Chicago Bears right now. This team has been to the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, but now it's starting to feel like something special might be brewing. When you factor in the drama that's happening north of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line, it feels kind of nice to be heading into a season where hope -- real hope -- is on the Bears' side.
How the Bears got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.
- Starting the season 5-1. A lot of Chicago fans (myself included) were talking massive amounts of stuff to other fans.
- Beating Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on national TV. The Bears had Tom so flustered in this Week 5 Thursday Night Football victory, he forgot what down it was as the game ended. It became a meme. Dang, what a great time to be alive.
- Taking three straight in Weeks 14 through 16, a winning streak that ultimately punched the Bears' playoff ticket. This was pretty sweet. During this stretch, Chicago knocked off some of the league's best -- you know, like the Texans (who finished 4-12), Vikings (7-9) and Jaguars (1-15).
- Losing six consecutive games from Week 7 through Week 13. This included getting embarrassed by the Rams on Monday Night Football. Losing to the Vikings on Monday Night Football (though the fact that was played in prime time doesn't matter; it would have been embarrassing regardless). Losing to the Packers on Sunday Night Football. But allowing the Lions to score 14 points in 41 seconds to rally for the win in Week 13 was the worst. The worst. No disrespect meant to Matthew Stafford, but that was terrible.
- Mitch Trubisky winning the NVP Award. Making the playoffs was cool and all, but Trubisky winning the NVP Award -- that is, the Nickelodeon Valuable Player Award -- in a postseason loss to the Saints during which Chicago scored 9 total points and just one garbage-time touchdown was the final indignity. I mean, this is the kind of thing you get when you let the internet decide things: one more kick at the end of the Mitch era.
Head coach: Matt Nagy. I really want Nagy to work out for the Bears. As a Bears fan (this will come up again), I personally wanted Nagy to get the job during the search that led to his hiring in 2018, and I still believe he can be the long-term answer for this franchise. After all, Saints coach Sean Payton thought enough of Nagy's play-calling to steal a play that Chicago ran against New Orleans in the playoffs. Nagy has led this squad to the playoffs in two of his three seasons at the helm.
I can also understand why some Bears fans were still calling for Nagy's dismissal after last season. Not only did he finish 8-8 for the second straight year, but the offense has kind of sucked. Don't forget: When Nagy was hired, he had the reputation of being an offensive genius. But Chicago ranked 22nd or worse in points and yards in both 2019 and 2020, only getting into the top 10 in either category in 2018 (ninth in scoring). Did you ever watch a game in the Trubisky era when the Bears were trailing and you thought to yourself, Yeah, Mitch can rally the team here? No. You never did.
Here comes the part where I play peacemaker: While Nagy couldn't fulfill his original mission of making the former No. 2 overall pick into a top-end QB, he did get to the playoffs twice with Trubisky, which might be as impressive as, say, winning a Super Bowl with a dropped-out-of-the-sky Tom Brady. Not quite, but close. And you can argue that having Trubisky as his QB1 makes it tough to fairly judge Nagy. But Trubisky is gone, having signed to back up Josh Allen in Buffalo, and Nagy is out of excuses. He needs to prove he's the coach I believe him to be. It's like when I finally upgraded my golf clubs. I could no longer blame them for my terrible shots -- it was all on me. I'm sure Matt is up for the challenge. (And it doesn't hurt that the Bears have a quarterback.)
Quarterback (for at least one game): Andy Dalton. You ever sit there late at night, looking for something to watch on TV, and you flip through all the channels, exhaust your options on Netflix and Amazon Prime, then finally settle on Friends? It's not The Office, but it's not terrible -- a perfectly fine placeholder to occupy your mind until it's time to go to bed. That's the offseason signee in this situation: not quite what you were looking for, maybe starting to show his age, but still decent enough. And Nagy just reiterated that the Red Rifle's QB1.
Look, we probably all want rookie Justin Fields to open the season under center, but when it comes to the first-round pick, it's like when we first heard rumors of a legit Justice League Snyder cut. You wanted to see it so bad, but you also didn't want to rush it before it was ready. In the meantime, the Bears can roll with the 33-year-old Dalton, a good quarterback who can win games in the right situation.
Projected 2021 MVP: Eddie Jackson, safety. As exciting as things could be at QB and on offense, there is plenty to be psyched for on defense. A lot of that starts with newly promoted defensive coordinator Sean Desai, a disciple of Vic Fangio. Bears fans are no doubt hoping the defense can get back to where it was in 2018, Fangio's final season with the team, when Chicago ranked first in points allowed and third in total defense. And that's what Desai plans to do, saying he wants to perform a "tune-up" and "make sure our players are playing to their strengths on a consistent basis and they're going to buy into the system and the whys and the hows of why we're doing certain things."
That's exactly what the Bears need. I know a lot of people will say Chicago needs to get something out of Robert Quinn, a huge free-agent signing last year that, to put it mildly, didn't work out very well. While Quinn was working toward a measly 2.0 sacks, the dude he replaced, Leonard Floyd, was out there killing it with the Los Angeles Rams. But for me, the biggest need is for Eddie Jackson to play like he did in 2018, when he earned first-team All-Pro honors with six picks, two forced fumbles, a sack and three defensive touchdowns. Hopefully the jersey switch to No. 4 and that "tune-up" in defensive philosophy will help Jackson regain the form that made him one of the best safeties in the game.
2021 breakout star: Darnell Mooney, wide receiver. Well, Darnell has already broken out in the heads of at least two prominent defensive players. Witness the lengths to which Rams corner Jalen Ramsey went last month to let Bears fans know just how unbothered he was by their championing of a move Mooney made against Ramsey last season. And then Packers safety Darnell Savage also got his feelings hurt by some fans, too. Chicago surely hopes the 2020 fifth-rounder provides even more fuel for online beefing between Bears backers and opposing DBs this season.
Another 2021 breakout star: Cole Kmet, tight end. There are two things that will always stick with me as a Bears fan:
- The ridiculous trade of a pre-breakout Greg Olsen in 2011. Criminal. I mean, I hope they don't let Mike Martz -- the offensive coordinator whose system left no room for Olsen -- into the city anymore. Don't even let him try to sneak in through Rockford.
- Drafting Adam Shaheen in the second round in 2017, when George Kittle was still available. That was kind of awful, too, though not on the Olsen level.
Well, I have high hopes that Kmet will finally set things right at this position after a rookie season in which, like Kittle as a first-year pro, he recorded two TD catches. Now, in his second pro season, Kittle set an NFL tight end record with 1,377 receiving yards. Kmet is not going to do that (stand back; that is a hot take), because there are a lot of receiving options for the Bears. But he's going to have a big year, mostly in the touchdown department.
New face to know: Justin Fields, quarterback. Bears fans have been rather exuberant about Fields this offseason. My Instagram account is basically just a Justin Fields stan account at this point -- even my friends who don't follow football know Fields, because I'm posting about him so much. And you have to understand why. The best Bears quarterbacks of my lifetime are: Jim McMahon, Jay Cutler and Walter Payton on the halfback option. That's the list. (Erik Kramer will always be a Lion to me.) So forgive my excitement, because the No. 11 overall pick seems like the real deal.
I never wanted to draft Trubisky in 2017. I knew Cade McNown was never going to be the answer. But Fields, well, this just feels so much different than any other quarterback situation the Bears have ever been in. (No, I haven't forgotten the trade that brought Cutler to town in 2009.) This is kind of like the first time you went from a tube TV to a flat screen. A lot of you young kids will never know that feeling. Especially if you've grown up with your team bouncing from one Hall of Fame quarterback to the next -- you just can't understand the jubilation of finally landing The Guy. Which, make no mistake, Fields is. He's not the high-upside prospect getting by on his measurables or the raw talent who hasn't played a lot of football but is athletic; he's someone we've watched crush it on the field the last couple of years, even outplaying the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft the last time they were on the field together.
And this dude already hates the Packers?? And he was wearing a Chicago Blackhawks hat at the Women's College World Series?? Make this guy the mayor!
Another new face to know: Teven Jenkins, offensive tackle. Heading into the draft, I feel like most Bears fans would have been content taking Jenkins -- one of the top offensive linemen available, a pretty pick who fills a need -- 20th overall. I really like his attitude and demeanor on the field; he's like a young Trent Williams. So for the Bears to trade up, land Fields and still snag Jenkins in Round 2? It's unbelievable. Like going to Portillo's and getting the Italian beef and a cake shake. What have I done to deserve this wonderful bounty?
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Nobody is expecting the Bears to go to the Super Bowl or anything, but they need to win football games or, at the very least, prove they can develop a young quarterback. The jobs of Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace depend on it.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 at Los Angeles Rams. As mentioned above, Nagy doubled down this week on the idea that Andy Dalton is Chicago's starting QB. But one thing is for sure -- nobody is going to get more screen time than Justin Fields, whether he's in this game or holding a clipboard.
- Week 4 vs. Detroit Lions. A lot of savvy Bears fans feel like this will be the perfect opportunity for Fields to make his first start, in a winnable game at home. And let's not forget the Lions could have theoretically drafted Justin if they hadn't eschewed the QB class altogether in favor of veteran Jared Goff. So, yeah, I like this. Another date for Fields to make his debut could be Week 11 against the Ravens, coming off the bye.
- Week 6 vs. Green Bay Packers. I mean, Bears fans are sick of losing to these guys. I have some (delusional) relatives who still act like Lynn Dickey is the Packers' starting quarterback and Chicago is dominating this matchup. But in reality, the Bears have beaten Green Bay just four times since 2010. It's time to swing the winning back to the side where it belongs.
Will the Bears be able to …
Hold Justin Fields back if he's the overwhelmingly better quarterback in preseason? Dalton is reportedly promised to be the Week 1 starter. Which is a dangerous game. It's like telling my 5-year-old that we are going to Disneyland in September. Because a lot can change between now and then. We've already heard glowing reports on Fields from his first practices with the team. What if he keeps killing it this summer? There is going to be a LOT of pressure to get the 22-year-old on the field. And coach Matt Nagy is already bragging about the things Justin can do. Feels like he's already setting up a loophole to get around this whole "Dalton starts Week 1" thing.
Motivate Anthony Miller? Miller is very talented. And he's made some big plays over the past few years. But dude makes a bunch of bone-headed plays, too. Taunting the Rams during a loss two years ago was bad. Throwing punches against the Saints got him ejected from January's wild-card game. Look, there was a reason the Bears were trying to trade away this talented receiver. But there was also a reason why a lot of teams weren't trying to bring him on board. If Miller takes this offseason as a sign that he needs to work on some things and comes out motivated to play his best football, Chicago could have one of the best receiving groups in the NFL.
Get the ball to David Montgomery enough? Bears fans still love running the football. Mostly because, well, were you paying attention when I was talking about the quarterback history, right? Still, even with better QB play, the Bears need to make sure Montgomery gets his touches. He topped 1,500 scrimmage yards last year with 10 total touchdowns. He's a good running back, even if some fantasy enthusiasts are trying to talk you out of drafting him. One thing that could work to his benefit is an improved offensive line -- especially considering the unit started to come together down the stretch last year. Now, second-round pick Teven Jenkins should start at left tackle. And don't be surprised if Larry Borom becomes the right tackle, barring a free-agent signing of Morgan Moses.
One storyline …
... people are overlooking: Robert Quinn isn't as bad as you think he is. Yes, even though I took a shot at Quinn's lackluster sack total earlier. You see, our own Nick Shook used Next Gen Stats to determine the most consistent disruptors from last season, and surprisingly enough, Bobby Quinn still ranked in the top 10. Statistically, Quinn should have ended up with more than two QB takedowns. Kind of like if you keep hitting greens in regulation, you're going to eventually get pars and birdies. Pressure's a valuable thing, even though fans love the simple sack stat. What's interesting is that Quinn made the Next Gen top 10, but Khalil Mack didn't. That said, Mack led the league in getting held. Which isn't an official stat. But good lord, just watch the film.
... people are overthinking: The Ohio State quarterback thing. I'm so sick of people on social media disparaging Justin Fields with snappy commentary like, "Ohio State quarterbacks, amirite?" Because it's dumb. How many Texas Tech quarterbacks killed it in the league before Patrick Mahomes. Oh, that's right -- none of them. And it's not like Ohio State has a long history of first-round busts at quarterback. Sure, Dwayne Haskins looked terrible in Washington. But he was the first Ohio State quarterback drafted in the first round since the early 1980s. So find something original to bash Fields with.
For 2021 to be a success, the Bears MUST:
- Confirm that Justin Fields is indeed their franchise quarterback. Like the Chargers did last season with Justin Herbert. I mean, no one wants a botched pregame injection to clear the way for the rookie. And Fields himself doesn't have to turn in one of the greatest debut seasons ever en route to winning to Offensive Rookie of the Year. If the Ohio State product shows he can play quarterback at the NFL level, that's enough. OK, Bears fans will take 14-3 and an NFC North title, sure. But that would just be piling on.
Forgive Bears fans if they (we) are spending too much time talking about Justin Fields. Just imagine if your friend hadn't watched Breaking Bad, and you finally convinced him/her to do it. Well, there's no doubt that person would eventually be RAVING about the show, to the point where you'd probably be sorry that you ever suggested it in the first place. Bears fans are that friend right now. We've been in the quarterback wilderness forever. This kind of intrigue at the position is completely foreign to Chicago. Cut us a break.