There's no set formula on how to build a modern championship-level organization in the NFL. Football at the highest level is always evolving. Yes, you need a franchise quarterback. You need an elite or solid defense too. Complimentary games mean everything in January. However, how those pieces come together evolve all the time in this league. Examine some of the past few champions.
Four years ago, when the "Legion of Boom" Seahawks won the franchise's first Super Bowl, the copycat fad sweeping the league was physical and lengthy defensive backs broaching the boundaries of pass interference on every play. Led by a brash and young Richard Sherman, a freak in Kam Chancellor, and a swag-dripping Earl Thomas, Seattle smacked around the statistical greatest offense in NFL history in the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. When Sherman famously called out the "sorry receiver" Michael Crabtree after that year's NFC Championship Game, he may as well have applied it to any competition the Seahawks defense faced that season.
Seattle managed to make Peyton Manning, a man who had effortlessly cut through the entire league with 55 touchdown passes in the 2013 regular season, look like he didn't belong on the same field. A 43-8 win for the Seahawks understated how in control of the game, and league, they were.
Two years ago now, the Manning-led Broncos were ironically built on the strength of a relentless pass rush and one of the most well-rounded defenses ever. The 2015 Broncos were No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 against the pass, No. 1 in sacks, No. 3 against the run, No. 4 in scoring, No. 3 in defensive touchdowns, and No. 1 in Football Outsiders' all-important DVOA efficiency rating. Which, in context, is more impressive when you consider that the Broncos' offense was third in the NFL with 31 giveaways. So Denver's dominant defense often played up against a wall at a handicapped disadvantage and still locked teams down.
When it came time for Super Bowl 50 against league MVP Cam Newton, superstar pass rusher and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller humbled the young quarterback like no one else could in a 24-10 Denver victory. All the previously prolific passer turned liability in Manning had to do was manage the game and make sure not to put a transcendent defense in a hole. A big game offense that amounted to Lucy (Manning's Broncos offense) taking the ball away when Charlie Brown (the Panthers and Newton) went to kick it. Unheard of as a plan in a 2010's NFL defined by an offensive passing explosion, but by golly did it pay off.
Finally, just last year (as they did in 2014) the greatest NFL dynasty and run of success in the Patriots once more redefined themselves to contort the best possible means at capturing another championship. Early iterations of Bill Belichick's bunch relied on timely defense led by Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, to go with clutch playmaking from Tom Brady to seal tight games.
The past two New England titles have centered around a dynamic spread offense that creates matchup issues across the board. Brady and Belichick prefer to get their weapons such as Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis in space, and make you make tackles. Sounds simple enough, but not many teams attempt this "ingenuity." Their bet is more than often than not their players will make your defenders miss. That, as has been proven of late, has worked to the utmost degree with one of the league's most prolific offenses.
This Patriots offense is the equivalent of going five wide and five verticals in the video game "Madden". This is done knowing that eventually, more than likely, one of the defensive backs will nonsensically pass off a receiver in a glitch and you can hit him for a huge chunk downfield without effort.
Clearly, the 65-year-old Belichick plays a lot of Madden.
A 2018 Super Bowl match-up of two teams that took similar journeys to get to Minnesota in the Eagles and Patriots, means another model to take inspiration from.
Here is what the Bears should take away from this year's participants in Super Bowl LII.
Pass rush, pass rush, and more pass rush
Football, at it's core, is three key concepts.
1. Having a franchise quarterback.
2. Protecting said quarterback.
3. Getting after the opponent's franchise (or lack thereof) quarterback.
That last point, a pass rush built on both depth and underrated star play, is exactly how Doug Pederson's Eagles made the Super Bowl in his second season as head coach. In comparison to the Jaguars (No. 1 in defensive DVOA) and Vikings (No. 2), Philadelphia was only fifth at the conclusion of the 2017 regular season in overall defense. They still had a field-tilting unit, but it wasn't necessarily as complete as others in this year's final four due to the contrast in secondary play.
Where the Eagles stood out is that pass rush. A team that was only 15th in sacks through the season with 38, was first in pressure rate while also blitzing the least amount of anyone else in the NFL.
What that phenomenal pressure rate displays is that sack numbers are overrated. If you're hitting the quarterback and throwing his timing with his receivers off, your defense is doing it's job regardless of whether you bring him to the ground with the ball in his hands. No one did that better than the Eagles this season. The Falcons' Matt Ryan and Vikings' Case Keenum never had a chance.
To another degree, it also meant Philadelphia could effectively rush four down linemen and generate a disruptive pass rush without sacrificing defensive integrity. Blitzing is useful for defenses, but it's often said that those who have to blitz aren't capable of getting home without taking away someone from their normal, comfortable spot. When that happens, and an offense picks up the scheming, big plays result going the other way. The less you blitz in a predictable manner and allow more players to be in coverage, the better off you are.
The Eagles are able to maintain that construct because they have multiple guys on both the interior and on the edge that are capable of pinning their ears back. The front seven depth they possess with Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Tim Jernigan, and Vinny Curry is unmatched amongst the current landscape of the league. This is a defense that can throw the kitchen sink at you by playing straight up and taking names. You can count on a few fingers, not one hand, the amount of teams capable of playing this brand of defense. It's why the Eagles will be playing in front of the country in U.S. Bank Stadium in two weeks, even without an MVP-caliber quarterback in the injured Carson Wentz.
When it comes to the Bears here, they're almost there in finishing their pass rush like the Eagles have.
Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, and Jonathan Bullard is a nice foundation, but it's not enough. If Vic Fangio is going to bring back the "Monsters of the Midway", this team needs one of Robertson-Harris or Bullard to become a consistent difference making starter at defensive end, and the edge needs to be supplemented. Floyd is a good, freakish football player at outside linebacker, but he's all the Bears reliably have at the position. Chicago's defense desperately needs a starter next to him, and a swing third pass rusher on the outside.
Whether these players come in free agency or the draft, it doesn't matter. A dogged pass rush helps teams win championships. The Eagles are the latest example for the Bears to follow in that regard.
Stay flexible, adapt or die
What both New England and Philadelphia do better than anyone else offensively, is tailor their offensive schemes to the talent they have. They don't try and fit square pegs into round holes. Everyone on the field is put into a position to succeed based on their ability.
Take the Patriots against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game this past Sunday.
Brady and company have lived on those previously mentioned routes in the flat that get Dion Lewis and James White into space against mismatched linebackers all season. Against the prominent athleticism of the Jaguars' studs in Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, that plan went out the window. It doesn't work when the linebackers can beat your running backs and smaller targets to the spot. When Jacksonville's defense as a whole is well-schooled in effort and pursuit, multiply that neutralizing effect ten-fold.
So what do Belichick and company do while down 20-10 in the fourth quarter with the season on the line? Instead of smashing their heads against the wall with a game plan that wasn't working and wasting time, they went and attacked the Jaguars' athletic studs in the slot with dynamos like Danny Amendola: who had seven receptions for 84 yards, two touchdowns (including the game winner), one completion for 20 yards, and was arguably the player of the game.
Through three quarters, the Patriots had 220 yards of offense, punted five times, and had only 10 points. They didn't convert a third down until their first possession of the second half. In the fourth quarter alone, New England had 207 yards of offense and closed out the AFC with two touchdowns to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. The Patriots flipped the game on it's head once they realized they could go to their smaller weapons in Amendola, Brandin Cooks, and Phillip Dorsett: who had nine targets between the trio on those fateful touchdown drives.
The same goes for the Eagles against the Vikings in the night cap NFC Championship. Minnesota had the NFL's overall best defense statistically in 2017, and on paper should've ransacked a backup quarterback like Nick Foles. The narrative going into the game was that Philadelphia was going to miss Wentz desperately because of the titanic opposition.
In retrospect, it didn't matter because the Eagles' offensive staff read the Vikings' defense like a book and was prepared for every pitfall. Pederson deployed run-pass options for the athletically underrated Foles that diced up Minnesota as if hadn't seen them before. Then with eight receptions for 93 yards, star tight end Zach Ertz became the story. No matter what the Vikings did to slow him down, he was a matchup issue they had no answer for. Not even All-Pro safety Harrison Smith could keep up with him in coverage.
That opened up the offense altogether for others like Alshon Jeffery (two touchdowns), Torrey Smith, and Nelson Agholor. All of these players received the ball in short space - to mitigate the pass rush - or downfield for backbreakers after Minnesota began taking risks i.e. blitzes. It allowed Foles - who once threw seven touchdowns in a game - to enjoy easily the best performance of his career considering the stage and competition. The Vikings defense was essentially on its' heels all game, taking haymaker after haymaker, and head coach Mike Zimmer was thoroughly out-coached in what is supposed to be his guru specialty.
Perhaps in that way, Minnesota missed Carson Wentz. They missed him in that it wouldn't have been as embarrassing to lose by 31 points to a better passer.
Anyone who watched the 2017 Bears and the John Fox Dowell Loggains joint turtle offense need not be reminded of what ugliness transpired.
You had a coaching staff who overall elected to slam Jordan Howard into eight-man boxes over and over instead of running out of the gun: his strength.
A game plan that was often predicated on naively taking the ball out of Mitchell Trubisky's hands (who had a game with seven pass attempts) while simultaneously sitting on leads that felt tenuous without an elite defense.
A coordinator in Loggains who, for whatever reason, said that "sometimes the defense dictates who is going to be out there" in reference to the extreme misusage of the electric Tarik Cohen. What credible offense allows the defense to dictate personnel? Certainly not any championship attack.
Cohen was an explosive tailback that was ignored because the Bears had no idea how to creatively use him once defenses adjusted to the initial shock value he presented. Inexcusable in every sense of the word for supposed professional coaches.
These are but a few gripes of how Fox's Bears didn't follow suit in the manner the Eagles and Patriots did this season. The ideal with new head coach Matt Nagy and company - as everyone expects - is that moving forward Bears offensive players are put into position to make plays, not play scared. Coaching for a Super Bowl means being aggressive and getting the best out of what's on your offensive roster, bar none.
Break open the Bear bank
The last lesson the Bears need to take away from this year's Super Bowl participants has nothing to do with the current coaching staff, or finishing a pass rush. It's putting the onus squarely on Ryan Pace: in free agency.
An over repeated mantra in the NFL is that you build teams through the draft, first and foremost. That spending money in free agency means hamstringing your team long-term, instead of elevating already present talent with more talent on top of it.
What this ignores is that the NFL salary cap is at the healthiest it's ever been with $167 million. It's risen at least $10 million in each of the four past seasons, giving no excuse for teams not to break open their checkbook when the open season of March rolls around. This is so evident, that three of the league's Championship Sunday participants in the Patriots, Vikings, and Jaguars were each in the top 10 in spending last spring.
New England, a team that was coming off of it's fifth Super Bowl in the 21st century, managed to add Brandin Cooks (trade), Dwayne Allen (trade), Stephon Gilmore, and Rex Burkhead; as well as retain guys from the previous core like Dont'a Hightower and Duron Harmon. The Patriots spent $82 million to bolster up for another Super Bowl run and it's paid off in spades.
Yes, the Eagles weren't among the very tops in spending by any means in comparison, but they still had an impactful spree of their own. Each of LeGarrette Blount, Chance Warmack, Stefen Wisniewski, Corey Graham, Ronald Darby (trade), Jay Ajayi (trade), Jernigan (trade), Long, Foles, and Jeffery were acquired last off-season. That's more than a boost to an already championship contender. That's a significant portion of a core.
Both the Eagles and Patriots not only drafted well to build their foundations (think Lane Johnson, Ertz, Graham, Gronkowski, Nate Solder), but they also effectively buoyed that core by taking advantage of the cap-strapped pockets the NFL has provided in booming business. Building a contender comes through homegrown players and impactful supplements in free agency. Not one or the other.
You'll notice that the Bears did break open their piggy bank last March. To the tune of being the third-highest spending NFL team with $116 million. The difference between them and Philadelphia and New England, is that almost none of that money was worthy of investment.
Among Pace's much lamented 2017 free agent class of Mike Glennon, Dion Sims, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, Markus Wheaton, Mark Sanchez, Tom Compton, John Jenkins, Benny Cunningham, and Prince Amukamara, only Amukamara has a likely shot of still being with the team come pending roster cuts. Everyone else had minimal to negligible impact on a team that was missing an extra oomph at intermittent points of this past season.
The good thing is Pace now has a chance to redeem himself and push all his chips in for a crucial 2018 free agency. And that none of those 2017 signings have any long-term commitments, so the slate can be wiped clean.
The bad thing is, aside from the occasional diamonds like Hicks and Danny Trevathan, we don't know if he'll be able to take advantage of more than ample cap space once again. That's optimistic theory, not past precedent. Spending money in free agency for the sake of spending won't get the job done. It has to be calculated, motivated, and effective first.
Needless to say, as the Eagles and Patriots have proven, Pace is going to have to succeed in this free agent aspect immediately. Or else his Bears (and relatively solid draft classes of late) aren't going anywhere of consequence anytime soon.
These Bears feel like they're on the precipice of either becoming relevant, or once again going down the tank should the proper mechanisms not be enacted. If Chicago is to make the leap next season and beyond, they'd do well to follow the blueprint that the Super Sunday Eagles and Patriots have left behind.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.