Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: Thomas Graham’s development pays off

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Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: Thomas Graham’s development pays off originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

After a 17-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Monday, the Bears are now 4-10 and will be saved from the primetime window the final three weeks of the season. But with less of a spotlight on the team, there’s still some important individual development that can happen. 

With that in mind, let’s jump into this week’s 10 Bears Things:

1. Thomas Graham took advantage of time on practice squad

After rookie cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. broke up three passes in his first NFL game, the easy thing to do is criticize the Bears for keeping him on the practice squad all season when the No. 2 cornerback position has been a major weakness.

The harder thing to do is to credit the Bears for understanding the rookie wasn’t ready and developing the sixth-round pick properly.

“I didn't want to be on the practice squad, (but) I had to sit more,” Graham said after the game. “This is the moment for you to get better. I'm going against Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Marquise Goodwin every day. They come to me, they tell me what I need to work on and stuff like that. It was just a great opportunity to be able to do that, being in the room seeing Jaylon (Johnson), Kindle (Vildor). There's so many more people I can name, seeing them work everyday and setting the standard. I had to match it. And that was able to allow me to come out here and be the next man up and make the plays I made.”

Getting cut out of training camp is never a good thing for a draft pick and since these rookies are coming from a heavy-transfer college world, it would have been easy for Graham to handle it the wrong way. 

“Personally, once I got cut, I was just kind of butt hurt, but I knew that I didn’t show everything that I needed to in camp,” Graham said. 

The young corner out of Oregon credited general manager Ryan Pace for providing him with film of other similar cornerbacks to study. He said defensive quality control coach Ronell Williams helped him study after meetings too. Remember, Graham sat out his last college season because of COVID-19 concerns, so his up-and-down play in the preseason wasn’t particularly surprising.

“It was a rollercoaster for me and I’m not going to act like it was easy. It wasn’t an easy moment for me. But eventually my confidence started growing, and I started making more plays in practice and I just knew whenever your opportunity comes, you gotta take advantage of it because God is only gonna give you this chance once,” Graham said. “It’s about what you do with it.”

Graham took advantage of the opportunity and was rewarded with a spot on active roster Monday. Now it will be interesting to see if he remains a starter Sunday against the Seahawks with cornerbacks Artie Burns and Duke Shelley returning from the COVID-19 list. We’ll see if Jaylon Johnson returns by Sunday too. You’d think the Bears would want to see more of their sixth-round pick in these final three games, and if Graham continues to get playing time, he knows he has to build on Monday’s performance.

“It’s time to do the same thing, act like I’m still that hungry dude on the practice squad because that’s something I remember. Everybody’s story is different, but this is where my journey’s going and I need to take advantage of it,” Graham said. 

2. Potentially promising 2021 draft class

It's still too early to make conclusions about the Bears' 2021 draft class, which is why I left it out of last week's lengthy evaluation of general manager Ryan Pace. But you at least have to like what you've seen so far.

There's not much to criticize about the Justin Fields pick, even if there's plenty of criticism about the development so far. And while things haven't been smooth with Teven Jenkins' back issues, there are still some early positive signs despite way too many penalties. The later picks are where things get interesting though. Fifth-round pick Larry Borom Jr. has looked solid at right tackle, while sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert was more than capable of filling in for David Montgomery earlier this season. We've also seen really good things from seventh-round pick Khyiris Tonga, who was starting to receive more playing time than Eddie Goldman before missing Monday's game with a shoulder injury. 

I don't want to go too far overboard with Graham's debut because it was just one game, but it at least was a positive development for a team that hasn't had much, well, development. Jaylon Johnson has been a huge exception, looking like he could become one of the best corners in football, but the Bears really need someone else to emerge on the opposite side. If Graham becomes that guy -- and again, we're far from finding that out -- Pace's 2021 draft haul could look pretty impressive when it's all said and done. 

3. For every Graham, there a few more Horsteds

One of the reasons why it’s easy to jump on the Bears for not playing Graham earlier is because they haven’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt. Not when players like Breshad Perriman are catching game-winning touchdowns from Tom Brady after being inactive for the Bears for eight games this season. 

Look at tight end Jesper Horsted, who seemingly makes a big play every time he actually gets a ball thrown to him. He just rarely gets the opportunities. 

Forget targets. Horsted has two touchdowns on only six offensive snaps this entire season. Considering he secured his spot on the 53-man roster with a three-touchdown performance against the Titans in the preseason and then delivered a tough touchdown catch in Las Vegas earlier this year, you’d think he would be playing more.

Yes, the touchdown at the end of Monday’s game was a product of garbage time, but it was still a tough catch in traffic. And when Jimmy Graham drops a touchdown and Cole Kmet continues to struggle to make tough catches, you wonder why a guy like Horsted has been inactive seven times this year. Graham only has two touchdown catches this season, while Kmet has zero. 

Even as a rookie in 2019, Horsted made a huge touchdown catch in Detroit on Thanksgiving on a pass from Mitchell Trubisky. He then spent the entire 2020 season on the practice squad and didn’t play a snap after the team drafted Kmet. With only three games to go in a lost season, shouldn’t Horsted be the type of player who gets a longer look?

4. The insufferable officiating

For all the awful officiating calls in Monday night’s game, two plays in particular highlight how games are being over-regulated by the officials and the NFL’s competition committee. 

Everyone agrees player safety is important, but when safety Deon Bush gets flagged for contact with a “defenseless” player when he made contact with the actual football first, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do. And the second it happened, you knew the NFL’s officiating office was going to tweet out a video defending the call, which is precisely what they did.

Then, later in the game, safety Teez Tabor was flagged for an illegal low block — on defense — while he was literally making a tackle and blocker didn’t even fall down. I sarcastically commented on Twitter that everyone knows you can’t go through blocks to make a tackle anymore. Duh.

Except you actually can’t go low through blocks to make a tackle anymore. For real. Here’s the explanation from everyone’s favorite Twitter account:

So in a sport in which every youth player is constantly drilled on how “low man wins,” you now get penalized at the highest level for winning. 

And that’s my biggest problem with this rule. Imagine the defensive film review on Tuesday had Tabor just let himself be blocked instead of trying to make a (great) tackle. Because that’s what this rule is implying he should’ve done — just get blocked.

So you’re either getting penalized by the refs or downgraded by the coaches. As one current NFL defensive back texted me Monday morning: “We either get fined or don’t make plays for the next contract. Either way, it costs us money.”

Titans linebacker Joe Jones just went ahead and shared his thoughts on Twitter:

And the usually reserved Robert Quinn wasn’t having any of it after the game:

“Honestly, some of these calls are starting to get a little crazy,” Quinn said. “These refs seem like they're controlling the game a little too much … I mean, let guys play ball.”

It got better. 

“They got so many stupid rules,” Quinn said. “I think they need to check the refs they hiring and not our coach.”

That was in reference to Matt Nagy earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the call on Bush. 

"I saw what happened. I explained my opinion on it. And I don't regret it,” Nagy said.

The Bears have seen horrible officiating all season, but especially in their two games on Monday Night Football. They’ll probably all be fined for their penalties and comments, but it’s not surprising that they’ve had enough. 

NFL fans across the world have had enough too. 

5. The argument for keeping Sean Desai 

While Matt Nagy likely coaches his final few games in Chicago, it’s fair to wonder if two of his three coordinators end up getting retained. A new head coach should have the freedom to hire his own coordinators, but that person would be smart to consider keeping defensive coordinator Sean Desai and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor.

Desai has done a pretty good job managing a defense ravaged by injuries, and Monday night’s performance was the best example yet. With the entire starting secondary unavailable due to COVID-19 and injuries, the Bears held Kirk Cousins to just 87 passing yards and a 50 percent completion rate. Meanwhile, Dalvin Cook only managed 89 rushing yards on 28 carries and Justin Jefferson managed only four catches and 47 yards on 10 targets, although he did score a touchdown. 

The Bears’ defense will have a lot of new faces next season, but the scheme works and Desai, 38, will almost certainly be coordinating a defense elsewhere if it’s not in Chicago. He’s also been with the organization since 2013 so he could be a valuable resource for the next head coach when it comes to fixing problems with the culture and knowing what not to do. 

Again, retaining Desai is not something that should be forced on a new head coach, but it is something that should be strongly considered and discussed in the interview process. The Bears’ best season under Matt Nagy came in 2018 with a stellar defense led by Vic Fangio, who was retained after John Fox was fired. When Fangio left to be the Broncos’ head coach, the Bears should have hired from within by either promoting Brandon Staley or Desai in 2019. 

There’s something to be said for stability on that side of the ball. And the Bears can’t afford to lose another good, young assistant. 

6. The argument for keeping Chris Tabor

No one has dealt with more juggling this year than Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who also served as acting head coach for a game and prepared his unit from home last week as he dealt with COVID-19. 

In his last job, Tabor kept his job as Browns special teams coordinator under four different head coaches, which is remarkable. It’s a testament to the job he did with a roster that lacked depth over the eight years he spent in Cleveland. 

The same can be said about Tabor’s time in Chicago. He’s done a good job and continues to do a good job despite moving pieces all over the special teams depth chart. 

And wherever Tabor goes, kick returners go to the Pro Bowl. He has coached Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, Cordarrelle Patterson and now Jakeem Grant.

If possible, Tabor should probably be kept around under a new head coach. 

7. Robert Quinn deserves consideration for NFL Comeback Player of the Year

Needless to say, Robert Quinn deserves a ton of credit for the season he is having as he is now just 1.5 sacks away from tying Richard Dent’s single-season record for the Bears.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable is that Quinn seemingly got better once Khalil Mack was lost for the rest of season. No one can slow him down right now.

“I guess it is a decent individual season,” Quinn said sheepishly Monday night.

The pass rusher isn’t one for self-promotion. That’s the extent you’ll hear from him bragging about his strong season, which officially resulted in a Pro Bowl nod Monday. He was quick to point out that it’s hard to celebrate his success on a losing team. 

While Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will almost certainly win NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Quinn should be in the conversation. He had just two sacks in 15 games last year while playing through injuries. Internally, Quinn also struggled mightily off-the-field with not having his family around due the strict COVID-19 protocols in place. 2020 was a bad year for a lot of people, Quinn included.

But 2021 has been a much different story for Quinn, even though he missed one game on the COVID-19 list. He’s second in the league in sacks, only trailing Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt (17.5). You could argue no player in the NFL has had a more dramatic turnaround this season than Quinn.

8. Tuesday’s COVID-19 update

The Bears were probably hoping for more better COVID-19 news Tuesday morning than they received, but they did get cornerbacks Artie Burns and Duke Shelley back.

Unfortunately, no one else was removed from the protocols, and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list. 

In other words, the Bears aren’t out of the woods yet and this week could bring more surprises. They travel to Seattle Saturday.

9. Seahawks on a short week

While it’s a short week for the Bears, it’s an even shorter week for the Seahawks. Their game against the Rams in Los Angeles was moved to Tuesday night, which means they’ll be scrambling to prepare for the Bears after landing back in Seattle early Wednesday morning. 

The Seahawks are also wandering through a terribly disappointing season and could see significant changes in the offseason, but there’s a reason why they are still early 7-point favorites against the Bears. They have Russell Wilson and are still a well coached team under Pete Carroll. 

10. Final word

Good question asked by NBC Sports Chicago’s Ryan McGuffey on Twitter Monday night.

My answer: Directionless. 

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