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Bears mailbag: A 6-3 start, will Adam Shaheen return this week, Jordan Howard’s future and a struggling running game

The Bears are off to their best start since 2013 and with that comes questions. We’ve got you covered in this week’s WCG mailbag.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bears are 6-3 and off to their best start since former head coach Marc Trestman’s first season back in 2013. After a convincing 34-22 win over a division foe in the Detroit Lions, they’ll stay at home to host the Minnesota Vikings on what is the biggest game for this franchise in quite some time.

Division games have been a problem for the Bears in recent memory, but the hope is that Sunday’s dominating win will provide a spark. That spark is going to be a vital key for any post season aspirations they might have in the coming weeks.

Optimism is at an all-time high, but Sunday night will show football fans all around the country what kind of football team the Bears really are. With optimism and excitement comes questions, and with questions come answers. So without further adieu, let’s dive into Week 11’s mailbag.

I’d say there’s a strong chance that the Bears will activate Shaheen before the 3pm central deadline on Saturday. Last Friday, head coach Matt Nagy disclosed the team had not made a decision on the second-year tight end but it seemed pretty evident, judging by some of Nagy’s comments, that they didn’t think he was quite ready.

This week is a different story. It will be his second week of practice and this is a much bigger game than a week ago. Regardless of what happens with Dion Sims, I would fully expect Shaheen to not only be active but see 15-20 snaps on Sunday night.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One thing to keep in mind is that if he returns on Sunday night, they have a very short turn around before they play once again on Thanksgiving morning. Couple that with Shaheen returning to his first game action since late August and you’ll probably see him on some sort of pitch count. With all of that being said, make no mistake about it, he will be a big part of this offense moving forward. That also means we’ll likely see less of Sims.

It will also be interesting to see who they cut because they do have to clear a roster spot to activate Shaheen.

In a perfect world where cap space didn’t matter, absolutely. I think Le’Veon Bell would be a perfect fit in this offense.

In a realistic world? I don’t see them spending $15 million-plus on a running back any time soon, especially when they’ve already got a guy like Khalil Mack on the books for an average of $23.5 million per year and are a few seasons away from having to pay Mitchell Trubisky.

I will say is this on Jordan Howard, though, I think it’s becoming pretty apparent that he’s not a fit for this offense, and I don’t think it’s even really his fault. This offense calls for a running back that needs better athleticism, better pass catching ability, and just an all around better three-down back type of skill-set.

It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it this off-season but I’ll go on record as saying I’d be pretty surprised if Howard is on the 2019 Week 1 roster.

I’ve got two guesses on this matter.

My first would be Daniel Brown. As much as I like Brown, Ben Braunecker is not only the better special teamer, but has seen more snaps in Shaheen’s and now Dion Sims’ absence.

My second guess would be Kevin White. For as much as we’ve all wanted White to work out, his time in Chicago is close to done, if not all the way gone. He’s been a healthy scratch the past two games and it may make sense just to cut bait with him, if they value Brown over him. He’s not in their future plans.

There’s three issues to the Bears running game right now, in my opinion.

  1. Fit - I don’t think Howard fits this offense very well. Whether it’s due to lack of athleticism and ability to make sudden cuts in the backfield, or the fact that his blocking and catching don’t make him a true three-down back.
  2. Scheme change - The past few years, the Bears have been primarily a zone running team. This year, we’re seeing more of a complex plan with new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. It’s more of a hybrid blocking front and the way it’s meshed with Nagy’s play calling has made things look repetitive and to a certain extent, predictable.
  3. Lack of creativity - Nagy said on Monday that contrary to popular belief, he loves to run the ball. That may be true, but like you pointed out, there hasn’t been a ton of creativity with Howard. He’s always been a better runner out of shotgun but there’s been very little outside runs that Howard has been involved in.

Overall, I don’t know that this is something that is just magically going to fix itself during the season, but it’s a main reason why I believe Howard is playing his final season for the team.

To be completely honest, I haven’t seen much of an influence from Helfrich, and that could be because Nagy has taken small concepts and mixed them in with his version of the West Coast style offense.

It’s worth noting that Andy Reid had plenty of “college concepts” within his offense and has for years now. It’s one of the main reasons he’s regarded as one of the best offensive minds in football. That has obviously translated over to Nagy as well, but in terms of what Helfrich has been able to do, I’m not sure I see much, so it’s hard for me to speak on it.

Whatever they are doing though, it’s working and I’d expect it to continue to get better.

The amount of skepticism the Bears have been met with so far this year has been somewhat surprising but to a certain extent, justified.

In situations like these, I try to put myself on the outside. The first thing Bears fans have to realize is that regardless of what most people say, they aren’t watching each and every game the same way that fans are. I’d say that under 40% of national analysts that have an opinion on the Bears have actually watched every minute of football they’ve played this year. That’s important to remember. While it may be coming from an educated source, it doesn’t mean they are always seeing the entire picture.

Second, the Bears were a 5-11 team a year ago. On top of that, most thought general manager Ryan Pace should have been fired, and most people hated the team trading up for Trubisky last April. The Bears haven’t finished over .500 since 2012 and have been through 3 head coaches and two general managers since that point. Meaning, there’s been plenty of perception built over a long period of time that the Bears are a bad team and a “disaster” of a franchise, as some have put it.

You combine those two together with the fact that the Bears (like many teams) haven’t beat a team currently over .500 and you’ll be met with skepticism.

The NFL is a weird thing. When teams stay good or bad for long periods of time, it takes a while for the perception to change but once that perception does chance, recency bias tends to kick in and those same people who called that team bad, now can’t remember those feelings for the years that they had them.

Long story short, all the Bears have to do is keep winning games. They are (6-3) with a chance to get to (7-3) with a win on Sunday night. Big wins in prime time slots seem to change perceptions quite quickly and let’s not forget, the Bears with Trubisky haven’t exactly been good in prime time (where many more people are watching), which leads a lot of casual fans to believe teams are different than they are. If they win these next two games, you’ll see the majority of skeptics buy in.

This was a great question and it took me quite a bit of time to look it up, but thankfully our resident NFL historian is a Pro Football Reference wizard, so he took the lead.