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Bears expectations roundtable: Feeling super special

In the final part of an expectations debate, the glorious third phase comes into focus. For once, it might actually be special.

Chicago Bears v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

There’s a prevailing joke concerning the Chicago Bears’ special teams group over the years. Save for the stellar Devin Hester-Robbie-Gould-Dave Toub era from 2004-2012, Chicago hasn’t exactly been known for maximizing the third phase. If anything, it’s been more about preventing the damage of losing that monumental field position battle. Where many other teams would make the Bears pay in the blink of an eye when they attained possession of the ball, the Bears kicking and return game instead hoped for luck, never making their luck.

Current general manager Ryan Pace needed five seasons, somehow, to find a capable and steady replacement at kicker for the beloved Robbie Gould. That, of course, was a disaster of a situation in its own right from every facet (trigger warning). In easily the best season the franchise has enjoyed in almost a decade, 2018, the Bears were last in average yards-gained-per-kick-return, and were middle of the pack in actually pinning teams deep when punting.

It took special teams coordinator Chris Tabor three seasons to field a bona fide top flight unit. And it was worth the wait. The list of meaningful statistical accomplishments from last year is quite impressive. No. 8 overall in special teams DVOA in 2020; In the top-10 in kick return yardage with Pro Bowler Cordarrelle Patterson leading the charge; A kicker, Cairo Santos, making 93.8 percent of his kicks while breaking two separate Bears kicking records.

On an 8-8 team, with Allen Robinson, Khalil Mack, and Akiem Hicks all still rostered players, it was not a stretch to declare special teams as, by far, the best part of the 2020 Bears.

The question now is whether this kind of torrid production can be maintained.

A regression might be imminent, according to some members of the WCG staff in this last part of an off-season roundtable. However, there are other ways to buoy the ship.

In case you missed it:

Part 1 on The Offense

Part 2 on The Defense

Is the Bears’ special teams group better, worse, or about the same as last year?

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Erik Duerrwaechter: Worse

I get it. Cordarrelle Patterson could be seen as a luxury to have at kick returner. He’s also the best in the business; Nobody is going to replace him, and that puts even more pressure on the offense to actually do their job. Tarik Cohen will be nice to see as he’s back to returning punts. But still, why part ways with such a weapon in Patterson?

Overall, until the Bears make moves on offense and fill out their draft, this team hasn’t improved much whatsoever. They need to show something dramatic over the next month to inspire confidence.

Will Robinson: Downgrade

This is assuming Patterson inevitably signs elsewhere.

Ken Mitchell: Slightly worse

In almost every respect, special teams seems like a push. Losing Patterson hurts, but getting Cohen back helps greatly. All in all, right now I’m calling the Bears’ special teams slightly worse until we see who the kickoff returner will be.

Robert Zeglinski: Worse

Cordarelle Patterson’s status is still up in the air. No matter who they replace him with, that’s the premier kick returner in pro football. Meanwhile Cairo Santos will inevitably experience some sort of slight regression from one of the finest years a Bears kicker has ever had. Special teams might be less consequential than ever in terms of win-loss value, but that doesn’t change Chicago’s worsening. This is a lay-up.

Josh Sunderbruch: Worse

A tiny bit worse with the loss of Barkevious Mingo, or a lot worse with the loss of Patterson.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: Worse

No Patterson will hurt the kick return game, but Tarik Cohen back (if he’s healthy) will help the punt return game. It’d be hard for Santos to replicate his near perfect season from a year ago, so I would think there’s an expected drop off in productivity from the third phase.

Jack R. Salo: Same

Kick returns typically don’t mask deficiencies in other areas the way that a stellar run game or defense winning the turnover battle can. If the Bears let Cordarelle Patterson walk, I won’t throw a party, but that’s not a reason to press the panic button either. Tarik Cohen will be healthy to return punts, and a record-breaking field goal kicking unit is still in place. Unless there are significant injuries, there shouldn’t be a noticeable difference in this unit from last year.

Sam Householder: Worse

While I initially thought “same” because they’re running it back with the kicking battery of Patrick Scales, Pat O’Donnell, and Cairo Santos, it has to be noted that Cordarrelle Patterson isn’t going to return. You also probably shouldn’t have Tarik Cohen back on punts, given that the offense lacked so much without him and that that is how he tore his ACL in the first place. The return game being up in the air, this unit has to be worse.

Robert Schmitz: Technically worse

They’re technically worse due to the loss of Cordarrelle Patterson, but I don’t think losing a gunner otherwise sinks any special-teams ship. Santos will likely regress a bit as well from his record-setting 2020 form. But with the kicker and punter in place I still feel good about the Bears’ special teams — it’s the offense and defense I’m worried about.

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