Training camp hasn’t even started, but after years of waiting for the Bears to finally turn the corner, fans have hope that this season might be different. A new coach, a promising young quarterback, and a (generally) renewed roster all give fans reason to be optimistic.
Ultimately, the Bears should be judged by whether or not they win games, and Ryan Pace’s ability as a general manager should be evaluated by the Win/Loss tally. However, because progress can take time, here are a few suggestions for milestones on the path to relevance—set up as a quarterly process through the season.
First Quarter (Games 1-4): The offense needs an identity
The first four games of the season see the Bears match up against the Packers (20th in defensive DVOA for 2017), Seahawks (13th), Cardinals (4th), and Buccaneers (32nd). Across those four games, Matt Nagy needs to prove that he can design an offense out from under the aegis of Andy Reid, and Mark Helfrich needs to prove that he is able to coach at the professional level. Would it be awesome if Trubisky came out and had a 100+ passer rating? Yes. Is that what needs to happen here? Not really.
Instead, the first four games will give the offense at least 250 snaps to show what they are made of. Are multiple tight ends used to create inventive mismatches? Do Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, and Kevin White spread out the field with an Oregon-esque tempo? Do Howard and Cohen see the field together to create a dynamic 1-2 punch?
There have been numerous efforts this summer to project what the offense will look like under Nagy, and most of those draw on what the Chiefs did while Nagy was their OC. That makes sense, to a point, but it would be even better for Chicago if Nagy was able to adapt his offense to the talent he has, instead of forcing the talent he has to match a particular offense. In the first four games of the season, the Bears needs to show that they have an identity on offense for what might arguably the first time since #34 was paired with #9.
Second Quarter (Games 5-8): The defense needs to be ready
After starting off facing what will likely be three Pro Bowl quarterbacks in four games, the Bears face a different challenge. The Dolphins will be testing out modern surgical wonders with Ryan Tannehill, while the Jets and Bills will be hoping to prove that they have made good decisions at QB. Obviously, there’s a guy named Brady in there, too. However, these four games are not a murderers’ row of offensive surgeons, and Chicago will be coming off the bye. By the second set of four games, there will not be the excuse that players are getting up to NFL speed.
In games five through games eight, the Bears need to look like bringing back Vic Fangio was the right thing to do, and they need to look like the defensive has gone from a work in progress with a lot of potential (and a lot of excuses) to being a unit that is ready to compete now. No more “well, if Floyd had help at pass rush” or “but see, Hicks needs help.” Since Pace has arrived, this defense has invested three Top 50 picks in a tackle, an edge rusher, and inside linebacker. Half of Pace’s draft picks have gone to the defense, including half of his first-rounders. This unit needs to deliver, and it this is the range of players to test itself against.
What does that look like? Fans need to see it less often because it is getting off the field. Since 2015, the Bears have been 29th, 22nd, and 20th in allowing third-down conversions. Takeaways are nice. Defensive scoring is always fun. Low scores are good. However, when the Bears need a stop, do they get it? If the other team stops scoring because the offense is lost and 20 points is going to win the game, that’s not what matters. What matters is once Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd are on the field together, do they stop the other team on a reliable basis? If so, that’s progress. If not, excuses don’t matter anymore.
Third Quarter (Games 9-12): Trubisky needs to lead
Playing the Lions twice, as well as the Vikings and the Giants, Mitchell Trubisky needs to do more than make promising throws. He needs to do more than show that he “might” be good someday. He needs to lead the Bears. He should be twenty games into his career at this point. Only 44 quarterbacks drafted since 2006 have started that many games, and that crew has a combined passer rating of 84.64. Trubisky does not need amazing numbers, but he does need to belong on the field. The history of the NFL does not favor the idea that a quarterback struggles for 20 games and then suddenly turn it all around.
In order to Trubisky to prove himself, he needs to have at least one game where he is the reason the Bears win, and he needs to make sure that across these four games, if the Bears lose it is not because of him. Could a young quarterback struggle against the Vikings defense? Yes. But if he struggles, it needs to be because the Vikings are that good, and not that he giftwraps the win for them. He can be efficient, he can be dynamic, or he can be spectacular. However, by the time November is over, Bears fans need to be past the point where they are promising that “someday” Trubisky will show he has what it takes.
Fourth Quarter (Games 13-16): R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Right now, almost any fan of 13 football teams in the NFL will look at the schedule for 2018 and will count the Bears as a win. Why wouldn’t they? The Pace-era Bears are 14-34. In the final four games of the season, Chicago needs to earn respect. The Bears will play the Rams (11-5 in 2017), the Packers (7-9 with a giant asterisk), the Vikings (13-3), and the 49ers (5-0 with Garoppolo). Each and every one of those fanbases will have opened the season with this game as a ‘W’, but by this stage in the season that needs to be a thing of the past. By the final four game of the regular season, the Bears need to be a team that other fanbases worry about. They do not need to actually go 3-1 or anything in this set of games, but they need to threaten. They can’t be dismissed, anymore, and they need to no longer be an easy win.
Margin of victory or defeat doesn’t mean as much, here. If the Bears only lose by 3, but it’s because the other team had a 14-point lead early and the Bears just sort of burned clock while eating away a little bit, that’s still losing (Fox ball!). Instead, against what might be four teams with playoff aspirations, the Bears need to belong on the field and stay within a score, consistently. They need to make other fans nervous.
No team wins the off-season, and moral victories are slim comfort. However, if the Bears can simply deliver on these four steps, they will at least show that they are finally making progress.