Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy met the media at Halas Hall on Tuesday to recap the 2019 season. The GM and coach expressed both their disappointment looking back and their optimism looking forward.
Here were my top takeaways from the press conference.
1. Bears won’t reveal anything they don’t want to
My enjoyment is palpitating at the outrage perpetrated by the media and Twitter trolls over things that Pace and Nagy said at the presser.
For anyone to think that either man would tip his hand about the franchise’s intentions this offseason is laughable. Mitch Trubisky could have had a 1-to-30 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the best you would have gotten from Pace or Nagy would have been, “he has to play better, and he will.”
The fact that Pace kept looking down at his notes as a point of reference should have been the first clue that he wasn’t just riffing emotions. Both men were cautious and deliberate with the information they revealed and it was with good cause.
In the fantasy football era in which we live, everyone likes to play armchair GM. Everybody has an opinion on how to fix the Bears, but only one man has the opportunity to act on it.
The overwhelming message delivered from the presser was: “we didn’t play well enough, we regressed, we’re disappointed, and we know we have to get better.” Anything else was simply minutiae.
2. Mitch Trubisky received a vote of confidence
Pace and Nagy stood firm in defense of quarterback Mitch Trubisky on Tuesday, much to the consternation of Bears fans hoping for change at the position.
Again, I have to chuckle at those expecting the Bears’ brass to outright say, “We’re bringing in a free agent and drafting a rookie and we’re going to have an all-out competition for the starting job this offseason.”
Don’t be naïve.
The faith expressed in Trubisky was more so a moral boost for him than it was a declaration of certitude in Trubisky’s ability to be a franchise quarterback. With as much stock as Pace has invested in Trubisky, of course he’s going to want him to succeed.
However, if Trubisky continues to falter in his fourth season, survival mode will kick in and Pace — as well as Nagy — will look to save their jobs rather than go down with the sinking ship.
The Bears will bring in better backup quarterbacks, those they feel can actually lead them to victory if called upon. It won’t be just another “pseudo coach” who knows the offense and mentors Trubisky, like Chase Daniel did.
3. Offensive line is single-biggest problem
I recognize and acknowledge that quarterback is the most important position in football. And I agree that Trubisky did not play well in 2019 and has left doubt on his ability to be a starting NFL quarterback.
That said, Trubisky is not the biggest weakness on the Bears. The offensive line is.
There’s another adage that rings as true as the importance of the quarterback position, and it is this: football all starts up front with the big uglies. Which is to say: the offensive line is largely responsible for the success of the quarterback and the rest of the skill players.
I’m not sure there is any quarterback in the league that can operate without successful blocking from the offensive line. And I say that with confidence because I will always point to the 2007 New England Patriots.
For the historically challenged, the ‘07 Patriots are considered one of the best teams of all time. They were the only team to finish 16-0 in a regular season. They entered the Super Bowl with an 18-0 record … and lost to the New York Giants. And why did they lose? Because they could not protect Tom Brady against a vicious pass rush.
Simply put: the Bears had no run game this year and Trubisky had little time to throw. A good offensive line will make a play caller look like a genius. A bad one will get players and coaches fired.
4. Tight ends get positive words, but competition likely
There was little doubt that the tight end position was not only one of the weakest positions on the roster, but one of the flimsiest groups in the NFL. And Nagy’s offense simply doesn’t work as expected without a versatile, dependable tight end.
The Bears got a glimpse of what Trey Burton could be in 2018. Burton caught 54 balls for 569 yards and 6 touchdowns while lining up all over the field. He was a Top 10 tight end in receptions and Top 4 in touchdowns. He allowed Nagy to get creative with his play calling and he helped Trubisky find some comfort in the passing game.
Then Burton suffered a seemingly mysterious groin injury before the playoff game and he hasn’t been the same player since. Nagy admitted that Burton never played at 100% this season and that he didn’t seem quite right.
Pace expressed optimism and positivity about his tight ends room. Not only did he give Burton a vote of confidence but he spoke well of Adam Shaheen, whom he selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
“When he’s played, we’ve liked what we’ve seen,” Pace said of Shaheen.
There’s just one problem with that. Shaheen has played in just 27 of a possible 48 games in his 3-year career. That’s not going to get the job done, and the Bears can’t wait on him to heal.
The same could be said about Burton, although Burton has at least showed he can be a capable NFL tight end in Nagy’s scheme.
5. Surgeries plentiful this offseason for Bears
The Bears revealed on Tuesday that three players will have offseason surgery, likely to keep them out until training camp.
Second-year wide receiver Anthony Miller will need surgery on his left shoulder — the same shoulder he injured during his rookie season. Trey Burton had surgery on his hip and inside linebacker Roquan Smith had surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
The most alarming injury to me is Miller’s. He’s hurt the same shoulder twice, and this latest injury occurred while getting hit on a kickoff return. Miller has tremendous talent, which explains why Pace traded up to draft him. He had a slow start to the 2019 season but came on strong as a solid No. 2 option opposite Allen Robinson later in the season.
Despite his talent, one has to be concerned about his durability.
Burton’s string of injuries has to be a concern as well, given the importance of the position to Nagy’s offense. The hope is that the surgery will cure what has ailed him since last year’s playoff game, but one can never be too sure.
Lastly, and of least concern to me, is Smith. Many players have had torn pecs and have returned fine. It is more important that Smith fix the tear and heal completely than he try to rush back this offseason. Smith was the leading tackler in both of his first two seasons in the league and the Bears will need his presence on defense in 2020.
6. Tarik Cohen will see a boost in production in 2020
Matt Nagy’s offense is one centered on versatility. He’s not an old-school coach who relies on the ground-and-pound run game. Instead, he likes to get the ball out quick, stretch defenses both laterally and vertically, and line up his chess pieces in advantageous positions to confuse the defense and take advantage of weaknesses.
In short, if his chess pieces aren’t positioned correctly — or protected well — they won’t be of much use. That’s exactly what happened to running back — or wide receiver — Tarik Cohen in 2019.
Cohen was a force in 2018, Nagy’s first season with the team. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per catch. This past season, however, Cohen’s production dipped. Yes, he actually caught 8 more passes. But his receiving yards were slashed and his yards-per-catch average was cut nearly in half, to 5.8. On top of that, his yards per rushing attempt dipped to 3.3 — indicative of a woeful offensive line, to be sure.
“Tarik knows what he can provide to this offense,” Pace said at the press conference. “He’s a huge part of what we want to do going forward. And we expect a better performance from him next year.”
I agree with Pace. And I firmly believe with some upgrades to the offensive line, we’re going to see a more explosive Cohen in 2020.
7. Bears have faith in Floyd, but patience wearing thin
Ask any disgruntled Bears fan whether they regret the Bears trading two first-round draft picks for Khalil Mack and the most irritable of the bunch would say yes.
And I think that’s just stupid.
Bellyache all you want about the quarterback position remaining unresolved. But premier pass rushers — the next best thing to a premier quarterback — don’t become available all that often. Ryan Pace recognized that and he rightly went after Mack.
Besides, no Bears fan was complaining in 2018. But because the highly-paid Mack failed to register double-digit sacks this season, for the first time since his rookie year, suddenly Bears fans have buyer’s remorse.
Frankly, it’s not Mack’s fault when offenses scheme to take him out of the game. It’s incumbent upon his teammates to pick up the slack, and they failed to do that this year.
Part of that failure was due to the absence of Akiem Hicks. But the main culprit was Leonard Floyd.
Floyd continues to be a valuable asset to the defense due to his versatility and presence around the ball. But because his sack numbers haven’t added up over the years, the pressure on him is mounting.
I have faith in Floyd to be a strong contributor to the defense. But even my patience in him is wearing thin, if for no other reason than he couldn’t step up and relieve pressure off Mack. To be fair, it’s not just Floyd’s fault. But as the main pass rusher opposite Mack, he’ll bear the brunt of the criticism.
8. Bears riding the wave of Eddy Pineiro
The Bears finished far enough out of the playoff race that we don’t have to relitigate all offseason Eddy Pineiro’s missed game-winning field goal attempt against the Chargers.
And thank God! That’s all we need to do is listen to whining about a missed field goal in an October game.
Pineiro cost the Bears a game, yes. But he’s not the only — or even the primary — reason the Bears missed the playoffs. There was enough blame to go around.
The Bears conducted a thorough offseason kicker search last year and ended up with Pineiro. Pineiro finished the season with an 82.1 field goal percentage. That ranked him smack-dab in the middle of the league at No. 17. He’s got to improve, that’s for sure. But the Bears sound willing to ride the tidal wave.
“The goal the whole time was to hit on a young kicker that we can grow,” Pace said on Tuesday. “And we feel like we’ve done that with Eddy.”
Pineiro did improve as the season wore on, connecting on his final 11 field goal attempts.
One thing Bears fans can ponder is this: Which offseason felt worse? The sting of Cody Parkey’s “Double Doink” costing the Bears a playoff game? Or the bitterness of a season of regression following unmet expectations?