As part of their 100th anniversary celebration this year, the Bears held a “Return to Decatur” event over the weekend in southern Illinois. It’s another way of marking the Bears’ tradition when they were known as the Decatur Staleys early in the 20th century. .To cap off the weekend’s festivities, general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy held their pre-training camp press conference on Sunday, instead of on the usually scheduled report date in Bourbonnais.
The ascent of third-year quarterbacks and fourth-year pass rushers monopolized the conversation.
The headlines this preseason will likely mostly center around Mitchell Trubisky, and rightfully so. The Bears are being tabbed as a preseason Super Bowl contender by many. If they’re going to live up to those lofty expectations, their quarterback has to step up to the plate. In his second season, the 24-year-old completed 66 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Moderate production that won’t be acceptable for most moving forward, especially the folks at Halas Hall. As good as the Bears defense is, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. And the Bears aren’t playing deep into January, and even February, if their quarterback isn’t prepared to become The Man, The Guy, or whatever cliche label suits your fancy.
At this early stage of the 2019 season, Pace isn’t concerned about the leap his prized pupil can and needs to make. If anything, considering an eventful and productive off-season, it seems he’d be shocked if Trubisky didn’t become an MVP-caliber passer and leader (for the team, anyway) in the coming months.
The bar, in case anyone was wondering, is set demonstratively high.
“The word that comes to mind for me is incremental improvement, steady incremental improvement, and I think we’ve seen him do that,” Pace said of Trubisky. “And as long as he just keeps on that pace, steady incremental improvement, we’ll be happy. You can feel his confidence growing; we’ve talked about that. Chemistry, continuity, all those things going into Year 2, and that’s going to continue as we go forward.”
It’s one thing to light it up in shorts and shells in the spring. It’s an entirely different endeavor to do it when 250-pound pass rushers are bearing down on you with reckless abandon, and unfamiliar defensive backs are doing anything to bait you into a back-breaking mistake. The Bears understand this distinction with Trubisky. Trubisky himself assuredly understands the divergence.
That doesn’t mean the Bears and Pace aren’t any less comfortable in anointing their quarterback and pushing him to be great.
“We felt it at North Carolina, even in the one year you could feel that quality in him. So it’s just natural, it’s easy for him. Matt always says be authentic, be you, and that’s what Mitch is doing.”
Getting better and better
There are a few absolute certainties in life. Death, no one can escape it, even if they tried. I’m sure the absurdly wealthy will one day find the secret to immortality, if they haven’t already. But for now, everyone dies eventually. Taxes, where you pay your fair (or unfair) share depending on perspective. Those new sports stadiums commissioned by billionaires aren’t going to pay for themselves! And of course, in recent recycled Bears summer storylines, “this is the year Leonard Floyd finally gets it.”
One can’t escape the inevitability of reheated-in-the-microwave hope.
The 26-year-old Floyd is entering his fourth NFL season in a contract year. Chicago picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal from 2016, making this season the prove-year of prove-it years for the lanky outside linebacker. His career to this stage has seen considerable ups-and-downs.
In three years, Floyd has yet to record double-digit sacks in a campaign. He’s went through lengthy stretches of seasons where he seemingly wasn’t making any major impact at all—at least one that a former first-round pick should be accustomed to. After an injury-riddled start marked by concussions and ligament years, 2018 was the first time Floyd featured in all 16 games. A marked step in the right direction, and even then he was anything but 100 percent for most of the year due to a preseason hand injury.
To put it plainly, with the Bears already so reliant on the human Galactus known as Khalil Mack, 2019 is a make-it-or-break-it year for Floyd. (If you’ve heard this refrain before, so was 2018 and 2017.) The main difference on this occasion is Floyd has his future in Chicago on the line. In the best case scenario, he dominates the competition this season and the next, and earns a long-term place on the Bears’ defense. In the worst case, injuries to an extent continue to mitigate his impact, or he unfortunately doesn’t piece his full game together, and he flames out of Halas Hall by the end of 2020.
The Bears have desperately pushed this storyline of “the game slowing down” for Floyd in the past. He’s been in “the best shape of his life” for his entire professional career. Pace won’t let this familiar ring dictate how sincere he was in his praise for the pass rusher.
“If you said — and I know it’s hard with just shorts on — what player, non-rookie, stood out to you in this offseason program, it would be Leonard Floyd,” Pace said. “Just as he develops his pass rush, as he develops his counters, working with Ted Monachino, working with Khalil Mack, I just feel like he’s getting better and better.”
Outside of health issues, Floyd has intermittently struggled because he’s been limited as a one-note pass rusher. Chicago’s defensive Swiss Army Knife is a talented athlete that can line up all over the field. No one’s ever denied he possesses terrific natural ability. But Floyd has never been particularly elite or diverse in any one specific skill-set. The textbook jack-of-all-trades and master of none. What no one ever notes about that famed phrase is that it was most famously used to once describe, yes, William Shakespeare. If Floyd can have even a tenth of as successful of an NFL career as arguably the most influential writer and playwright ever, the Bears are on the right track. (Yes, I’m aware that’s probably the first time you’ve ever seen a Bears player’s name and Shakespeare in the same paragraph. It could be interpreted as blasphemy. To that I say: it’s 2019, nothing matters anymore.)
I don’t what the football equivalent of writing a nuanced masterpiece like Hamlet or Macbeth is for Floyd, but I’m sure it’s nice.
“... So that’s going to be exciting to see, specifically in his pass rush. I just feel like his repertoire, his toolbox, has grown.”
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.