Bears

For Bears, a Packers team without Aaron Rodgers looms as a referendum on Ryan Pace

For Bears, a Packers team without Aaron Rodgers looms as a referendum on Ryan Pace

Bear Nation has waited a long time for this. Now it’s here. A time without an excuse that has been conveniently, albeit painfully, there almost back into the time of Mike Ditka.

How many years has the lament resonated that if the Green Bay didn’t have Aaron Rodgers, the Packers REALLY aren’t any better than the victim-cast Bears? Well, Sunday in Soldier Field, no Rodgers. And the Packers have never beaten the Bears without Rodgers since he succeeded Brett Favre in 2008, a downturn in Bears fortunes vs. Green Bay because Lovie Smith teams had their way with Favre (8-5), whatever uniform the Packers great donned.

Maybe this game projects as a mini-referendum on Ryan Pace. The general manager has had three drafts and three offseasons to build a roster built ideally to eclipse those of the Packers, Lions and Vikings. He drafted his Clay Matthews/Ziggy Ansah edge rusher (Leonard Floyd). He secured his Mike Daniels/Everson Griffen/Linval Joseph defensive linemen (Eddie Goldman/Akiem Hicks). And now he’s made his play for a franchise quarterback.

All of this doesn’t exactly translate into any sort of made-up “pressure” on the Bears. That’s already there to excess in the form of a 3-5 record and a make-or-break game for any wistful playoff hopes. (Every game for the foreseeable future will be “make or break” in that regard.).

Packers limping sans Rodgers

Forget the point spread, which was up to favoring the Bears by 5 points on Wednesday. That’s basically an opinion poll, based on where the wager money is going, based on what football bettors think.

The facts are that the Packers are a combined 3-10-1 since 2008 without Rodgers taking the majority of the snaps: 0-3 with Brett Hundley as their primary quarterback this year, 2-5-1 in 2013 after Shea McClellin’s tackle turned the first Bears game over to Seneca Wallace, 1-0 in ’11 and 0-2 in ’10.

To expect a walk-over would be a mistake. The Packers did lead the Saints 14-7 at halftime. And the Bears need to demonstrate they can win a second half; they are 3-0 when leading at halftime but 0-5 when tied or trailing at halftime. Best guess for a game plan would a change in general mindset of keeping the game close with defense and ball control. In this situation, keeping the Packers close is higher risk than there needs to be.

Not that Bears World needs any perspective like this, but the Bears know painfully well what Green Bay is feeling right now. Last year the Bears were 3-13 without someone approximating a No. 1 quarterback. Jay Cutler may have been the titular starter, but that arguably was a default setting. The Bears were 1-4 in Cutler starts, 1-4 in Brian Hoyer starts; and and 1-5 with Matt Barkley.

They are already better off (2-2) with a rookie in Mitch Trubisky, in no small measure because of an exponentially better defense. But part of that clearly traces to Trubisky and the Bears overall reducing giveaways from 10 to five in his four starts, vs. the issues during Mike Glennon’s stewardship.

Making a point

Green Bay is 0-3 with Brett Hundley as their quarterback, including the Minnesota game in which Hundley took over when Rodgers was hurt. The Packers have failed to top 17 points and have been outscored by an average of nearly 12 points in the three games against reasonably strong opponents (Minnesota, New Orleans, Detroit).

Ominously for the Packers, the defense appears to have contracted the malaise that Hundley brought to the offense. With Rodgers, the Packers are allowing 22.4 points per game. In the three Hundley games they are giving up 26.3.

The Bears can relate to a quarterback having a ripple effect on other phases. Opponents were putting 26 points per game on the Bears when Glennon started. In Mitch Trubisky’s four starts, opponents have managed just 16.8 ppg., and that with two TD kick returns by Baltimore. Trubisky hasn’t played a defensive snap yet but his effect around the locker room is palpable.

“They’ve done an excellent job schematically tying it all together,” said Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. “That’s definitely something that jumps off the tape. [Trubisky] is very smart with his decisions. He can make throws in the pocket, he can make throws out of the pocket. It’s clearly a better offense today than the one we saw going into the first game. They’re taking care of the football and they’re playing old school, hard John Fox football.

“I think they’re playing excellent on defense and they’re doing a really good job running it and taking care of that ball and time of possession is something that hasn’t been where it needs to be for us clearly the last two weeks. It’s a focal point for us.”

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

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USA Today

As NFL Draft scouting begins, six players for the Bears to watch in this week's Senior Bowl

A decade ago, die-hard football fans — at least those who weren’t also big into Conference USA football — were introduced to a running back from Tulane named Matt Forte at the 2008 Senior Bowl. Forte, who rushed for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year at Tulane, was the 2008 Senior Bowl MVP; the Bears went on to draft him with the 44th overall pick a few months later. 

(The Bears also drafted the 1999 Senior Bowl MVP — Cade McNown — and that pick didn’t work out as well as Forte, to say the least.)

John Fox and the Bears’ coaching staff coached the North team in last year’s Senior Bowl, and from that roster wound up selecting D-II offensive lineman Jordan Morgan in the fifth round. The coaching staffs this year are from the Denver Broncos (Vance Joseph) and Houston Texans (Bill O’Brien), but the Bears will still have a significant presence in Mobile, Ala. to scout prospects this week. 

So as practices begin leading up to Saturday’s game, here are six players for the Bears to watch down in Alabama:

WR Tre’Quan Smith (Central Florida/South Team)

Smith seems to fit the profile of what the Bears lack at wide receiver as the offseason begins: He’s a 6-foot-1, 210 pound explosive playmaker who caught only 59 passes last year…but for 1,171 yards with 13 touchdowns. He may not be a Day 1 or Day 2 guy right now, but if the Bears’ plan winds up being to address their dearth of wide receivers via free agency and the middle rounds of the draft — where value and playmakers can certainly be found — Smith could be someone to circle. 

OLB Garret Dooley (Wisconsin/North Team) 

The Rochester, Ill native doesn’t explode off the stat sheet like fellow ex-Badger T.J. Watt did a year ago (11 1/2 sacks), but Dooley did notch 7 1/2 sacks in 2017. Worth noting here: Wisconsin runs a 3-4, as do the Bears. Getting an up-close look at the 6-foot-3, 246 pound Dooley could begin to show the Bears if he’s worth a late-round flier to help address some of the team’s issues at outside linebacker. 

WR J’Mon Moore (Missouri/South Team)

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Moore has similar size to Meredith (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and turned in a productive 2017 for the Tigers: 65 receptions, 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns. If the Bears like what they see in him, he could give them a later-round spin of the wheel at receiver — which could be valuable if they were to pick a receiver in the first or second round. 

CB JaMarcus King (South Carolina/North Team)

The 6-foot-2 King is listed as the tallest corner (along with San Diego State’s Kameron Kelly) at the Senior Bowl, and while he only had five interceptions at South Carolina, he did total 21 pass break-ups in 26 games. As the Bears begin scouting cornerbacks — one of their biggest positions of need — they can begin to find out this week if King’s length could translate into him being a mid-round sleeper in this year’s draft. 

PK Michael Badgley (Miami, North Team) & PK Daniel Carlson (Auburn, South Team)

Both kickers from last year’s Senior Bowl — Zane Gonzalez and Jake Elliott — found regular roles as rookies, with Elliott going to the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bears whiffed in their evaluation of Connor Barth, only bringing in Roberto Aguayo for a short-lived competition during training camp, while Elliott was available in September after being waived by the Cincinnati Bengals on cut-down day. The more immediate issue here: Badgley and Carlson each made fewer than 75 percent of their field goals as seniors; Elliott and Gonzalez hit 80 and 92 percent of their field goals in their final collegiate seasons. This may not be as good a pair of kickers in this year’s Senior Bowl, but they’re still worth an early scouting evaluation for a team that needs to get its placekicking situation sorted out. 

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

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USA TODAY

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

The next-to-last weekend of NFL football for the 2017 season (Pro Bowl doesn’t count) and a handful of notelets present themselves with varying degrees of relevance for the Bears...

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As noted here on more than one occasion, winning football isn’t contingent solely on pristine football from an elite quarterback, but it does turn so often on quarterbacks making or not making a play at a tipping point (which, come to think of it, establishes a quarterback as “elite” or not). The Bears believe they have something special in Mitch Trubisky, but they did not see enough “special” in Trubisky’s late-starting rookie year. To wit:

The New England Patriots are going to another Super Bowl because their quarterback was just a little better than the Jacksonville Jaguars’ when it mattered most. Blake Bortles, who played an otherwise thoroughly stellar game on the biggest stage of his career to date, unable to execute second-, third- and fourth-down throws on the final three Jacksonville Jaguars possessions in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ 24-20 loss to the Patriots. Tom Brady threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

GM Ryan Pace traded up for in the last draft because he sees those kinds of fourth quarters in Mitch Trubisky. It’s about an intangible on top of a baseline of ability, and it’s unclear whether Trubisky has that “It” factor. In 12 starts, with a 4-8 Bears record over those games, Trubisky directed one game-winning drive (for the winning OT field goal at Baltimore) but has zero fourth-quarter comebacks on his young and brief resume’.

For (very) loose comparison’s sake, and perhaps a distant foreshadowing: Brady had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives in the 15 games of his de facto rookie season of 2001 (he’d appeared in mop-up duty in one blowout Patriots loss in 2000). Bortles did have one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback in his otherwise dismal rookie season.

Brett Favre delivered seven of each in his first two Green Bay seasons. Peyton Manning had one of each his 3-13 rookie season but six fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives his 13-3 second season.

Not comparing Trubisky to Brady, Favre or Manning, but fourth quarters are where careers are made and the demarcation line lies between “good” and “great.” Fourth quarters will be perhaps the defining measure of Trubisky’s first year under his new coaching staff.

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It isn’t a right-away priority for this Bears offseason but an obvious need is for a backup quarterback, assuming that Mark Sanchez’s services as QB caddy are no longer desired. Mike Glennon’s big money is done but his 2017 revealed that he is a not-ready-for-prime-time player. GM Ryan Pace took a flyer on Glennon in a gamble for some hoped-for upside in Glennon, and with that not happening, so presumably is Glennon.

Regardless, stocking the quarterback shelf behind Mitch Trubisky is a requirement. Josh McCown is available (again) but that option got away a while ago. So are Case Keenum (maybe after Sunday), Kirk Cousins and hey, why not Jimmy Garoppolo. Seriously, though, someone will want a job and the money, but it won’t be an attractive sell, backing up a young franchise quarterback for a team coming off four straight double-digit-loss seasons.

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Get used to the “run-pass option” (RPO) phrase. Coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich speak in those terms, referring loosely to the quarterback having the option of handing off on a called run play, or reading the defensive reaction and taking the ball out and going to a pass play on the fly. Nick Foles executed it effectively, so did Blake Bortles.

Incoming Bears coaches inherit a Mitch Trubisky who has met the NFL and achieved ball security, which impressed his new coaches because of what’s needed – good decisions under pressure – to do that. “I think watching Mitchell, his decision-making, there’s a lot of good stuff there,” Helfrich said.

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Expect the Bears to go best-available at No. 8 (before Ryan Pace makes his third straight first-round trade, that is), and for Pace to address some combination of offensive line, receiver, cornerback and linebacker in free agency ahead of draft weekend. Whatever the personnel end result, an upgrade to the pass rush is an offseason must-have absolute.

The 50-yard pick-six by Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson traced to pressure from Eagles defensive end Chris Long that forced Case Keenum to jury-rig his throwing motion. A potential scoring drive was aborted by a strip-sack by Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, with Long recovering the fumble.