BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — If you knew nothing of the Chicago Bears’ revival last season and the Super Bowl expectations that are coming on the heels of a 12-4 season, you might not have been surprised by what you saw had you dropped in on Monday’s rainy training camp session.
The majority of the highlights came from one side of the ball — the defense — which is the way it has been in these parts for many years. A franchise defined by defense lived up to that billing in the sloppy, wet conditions at Olivet Nazarene University.
Entering last season, the Bears were the only NFL team with 10 or more losses for four straight years; not even the Cleveland Browns could claim that ugliness. Now they’re following up their first playoff berth in eight years by aiming to reach the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
The optimism is palpable. Even on a rainy morning, a good crowd was on hand after training camp attendance had dropped off significantly in recent years amid the constant losing. Over the weekend, the Bears drew an estimated 17,000 fans for their first padded practice of the summer.
“That first day, there’s so much energy because it’s so new. You’re back at it, football’s back. And now here we are in our third day of pads,” Nagy said Monday. “The other part too that no one sees is that in training camp we give them a lot of volume in plays ...
“That starts to compound a little bit. What you’ll eventually start seeing is some separation with these players — players that can handle it physically and players that can handle it mentally.”
What it will take for the Bears to become elite
For the Bears to truly become that Super Bowl contender that Chicago is craving and starting to expect again, this offense must build off what second-year head coach Matt Nagy installed in Year 1. That puts quarterback Mitch Trubisky, entering his third NFL season and second running Nagy’s offense, into the crosshairs as one of the league’s most scrutinized players in 2019.
Trubisky graded Monday’s practice as “a solid day,” but it was clear the weather and that defense had its effects. This was a unit that took another major step up following the preseason trade for Khalil Mack, and it finished last season ranked first in the NFL in yards per play allowed, turnovers forced, first downs allowed, interception rate and rush yards allowed, and in the top five in several other categories, including points allowed.
So Trubisky and the offense — which returns nearly every key contributor from last season — are receiving a great daily test in camp again as they try to raise their effectiveness and become one of the league’s best all-around teams. There were encouraging signs last year, even if the majority of the offensive rankings wallowed in the middle to lower-middle class.
Still, Trubisky believes in this group — and in himself. And he’s not afraid to set the bar quite high.
“When all 11 guys on our offense are on the same page and doing their job, it gets to a point where we can be unstoppable,” Trubisky said, “and that's just flat-out execution [and] belief in one another.
“And it doesn't matter how big the stage is — if all 11 guys are on the same page and we believe in what we're doing and we execute it, then plays are going to work. So it's really as simple as that, just being on the same page with your brothers and executing the plays.”
You had to squint a bit to find the positives Monday, or perhaps take on a sunnier outlook than the weather was offering. There were dropped passes, receivers slipping in and out of breaks, missed connections and a general lack of rhythm.
The offense struggled to string together much in the way of sustained success, even with some individual highlights, including a pretty deep ball by Trubisky dropped into the hands of speedball Taylor Gabriel and a nice red-zone connection with tight end Ben Braunecker, who has been an early standout.
Mitch Trubisky now squarely in the crosshairs
Daily camp observers have described the start of Trubisky’s camp as being a bit slow. The QB drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson already is swimming upstream, reputation-wise, compared to his draft-class mates, fair or not. And the added pressure that comes with the Bears’ return to power is undoubted.
But there’s no one with the Bears who appears to be giving any immediate or outward signs of concern yet. The next several weeks will be earmarked toward nailing the timing and precision of the passing game.
“I keep reminding our players and coaches that we have not done anything yet,” Nagy said. “Expectations — we don’t use that word in our building, but we have a process. Trust the process and day-to-day they need to understand that we will do everything we can to get there but we’re just going day by day right now.”
Nagy understood that the process of installing his offense last year was going to be a work in progress. Constructing an offense in an offseason is like building a ship in a bottle; there is a lot of delicate, patient, precise work going on. All the little details — line splits, stances, route precision, timing — it’s all installed meticulously, knowing that it could collapse at a moment’s notice.
Last season the Bears were an unpredictable, trend-breaking group. There were trick plays littered into almost every game plan. The skill-position talent started making plays. The offensive line found its footing at times. And yes, the defense put the offense in some great field position and covered up some of the mistakes along the way.
Now it’s Year 2 for Nagy, Trubisky and the rest of the offense together, and Trubisky believes that will go a long way this season.
“Yeah, for sure, just being in the offense for a whole year already I know what he expects out of each play and what we're kind of thinking mindset-wise,” Trubisky said, “so it's just going through that, continuing to work on the details, going through all the adjustments of each play and kind of just being an extension of him and doing exactly what he wants within each play.”
Putting Trubisky’s past and present into focus
Trubisky’s final 2018 stat line was moderately impressive to the eye. In 14 starts last season, he completed 66.6 percent of his passes (up from 59.4 in a baptism-by-fire rookie season), threw for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 picks. Throw in his ability to escape sacks (24 in 2018, down from 31 as a rookie) and scramble (421 yards rushing, three TDs), and Trubisky put up numbers that weren’t too different from those of, for instance, Steve McNair during his co-MVP season of 2003.
This is a different era than it was 15 years ago, of course, clearly paling in comparison to Mahomes’ MVP numbers. Besides, the Bears aren’t asking Trubisky to be what the Chiefs ask Mahomes to be. They just need to see the incremental improvement they believe Trubisky to be capable of. The room for growth is clear.
But that also doesn’t mean that the Bears don’t have to change their path and not be so reliant on their defense to bail them out weekly. There were enough breakdowns on that side of the ball — in all four regular-season losses, plus the home playoff loss to the Eagles — plus the coordinator swap out of Chuck Pagano for Vic Fangio to know that this must be a more balanced team overall.
Still, that defense holds the edge now in the training camp iron sharpening. It got the best of the offense in the two-minute settings, with both the first- and second-team units earning “wins” in those periods. It also did a good job containing the offense for the most part in the red zone, as well. Trubisky still took some positives from Monday’s work overall.
“It's all about that positive mindset, putting the last play behind us and doing better the next play, and we did a lot better job of that today than we did yesterday,” he said, “so I would say that's growth for us.”
Allen Robinson is another year removed from his 2017 ACL injury and is starting to resemble a true No. 1 receiver, even with a drop Monday. Anthony Miller also had a quiet practice for the most part (with Trubisky overthrowing him once in 7-on-7s), but he’s healthy now following shoulder surgery and, Nagy said, is starting to “really dive into that playbook.”
Tight end Trey Burton also returned to practice Monday, and he has been a player the coaches believe is due for a jump in his second season in Chicago. The offensive line looks strong, even with an interior-position swap with James Daniels shifting to center and Cody Whitehair kicking out to guard.
“The communication so far has been outstanding,” Daniels told Yahoo Sports. “I make the calls, but if anyone else up front sees something, they’ll help me out with the calls. That has made the transition so much easier.”
Daniels also is excited about the additions of running backs David Montgomery and Mike Davis, who join Tarik Cohen in what should be a shared-role backfield. Factor in Gabriel, Braunecker and new addition Cordarrelle Patterson — whom Nagy singled out Monday — and the Bears have a deep lot of pass catchers and runners. Don’t forget that Patterson lined up in the backfield for the New England Patriots last season at times and had 35 rush attempts in his final eight games.
“We have a lot of toys we feel we like, but we've got to make sure that we use them right,” Nagy said of his offense’s diversity.
If all goes well, Trubisky could become the Bears’ first 4,000-yard passer. But better yet, he can still cut down on his turnovers (15 in his 14 starts) and add both juice and consistency. The Bears ranked 19th in the league in 20-yard pass plays with 47 last season, and they had only four that went for 40 yards or more, which tied for 30th in the NFL.
Trubisky’s biggest individual inconsistencies came in the second and third quarters. Some onlookers felt that he struggled to gain rhythm when the Bears got past their early-game scripted portion of game plans. He also struggled to throw consistently outside the pocket and wasn’t great when the Bears went no-huddle. The hope is that another year of familiarity with the offense and his weapons will help level those numbers out a bit.
“I’m more just seeing the [open man] and throwing it,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a pretty good rapport with my guys so I know how each guy runs certain routes, where they like the ball and how they’re coming out of cuts and what their speed is and what their favorite route is.”
He’ll have 38 days before he and the Bears host the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 NFL season opener. It’s a Packers defense that could be moving in the right direction, kicking off a spate of difficult opponents. Fangio and the Broncos are up the following week in Denver, and half of the Bears’ opponents this season could reasonably claim to be in the Super Bowl hunt.
But they also believe they’re a team capable of making such a run.
“That’s been our mindset — Super Bowl — pretty much ever since [the loss to the Eagles],” Daniels said. “That’s what we’re gunning for.”
And if the Bears’ offense comes close to reaching that “unstoppable” level Trubisky believes it has in them, those goals might not be so unreasonable.
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