Bears

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

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USA Today

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

The Bears are 3-5 halfway through the regular season, and returned to Halas Hall on Monday after recharging during their off week. If this team is going to mount a serious shot at eight wins -- or, more ambitiously, a legitimate playoff push -- it'll need this group of players to step up in the second half of the season: 

1. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky

For all the talk of the different energy Trubisky brought to the offense, and for all the (fair) points about talent issues around him, Trubisky is 38/80 for 512 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and a rating of 66.2 through four games. The Bears were able to spend last week self-scouting and taking a bigger picture look at their rookie quarterback, and that could reveal some different ways to get Trubisky into a rhythm and help him be a more effective passer within this offense. Still, the most important thing Trubisky can do in these next eight games is not turn the ball over: It’s no coincidence the Bears are minus-43 when they turn the ball over more than two times and plus-six when they have two or fewer turnovers. 

2. [Insert a wide receiver here]

We’re not picking a specific receiver, but the Bears need at least one guy to step up from this group: Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Tre McBride, Tanner Gentry and Josh Bellamy. Inman hasn’t been active in a month but has the length (he’s 6-foot-3) to possibly this receiving corps go three-wide more than they did in the first half of the season. It’s easier to envision Wright — who hasn’t played much but has been the Bears’ most reliable receiver — being on the field more in the slot with Inman and Tre McBride/Tanner Gentry manning the outside. McBride showed against New Orleans he can be productive, especially when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains schemes to get him open in space. Wheaton could return from a groin injury at some point this month, and perhaps could re-discover the skills that made him an effective deep threat in 2014 and 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bears may not have a traditional go-to receiver in this group, but there could be enough players to cobble together a relatively effective unit in the final eight games. 

3. Tight ends Adam Shaheen and Daniel Brown

With Dion Sims on pace for an average pass-catching season for him (he had nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown; his 2013-2016 average was 18 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns), the Bears will need either or both of Shaheen and Brown to step in and fill Zach Miller’s pass-catching shoes. Brown may be more of a direct replacement — he had 16 catches for 124 yards in six games with the Bears last year — but Shaheen carries high expectations as a second-round pick and needs to be targeted more than the two times he was in the first half of the season. Miller is third on the Bears with 20 catches and 236 yards; replacing that production would go a long way toward the success of this offense in the second half. 

4. Defensive end Akiem Hicks

Hicks played at an All-Pro level in the first half, racking up seven sacks (which tied his career high set in 2016) while being a force against the run. He’s not like everyone else on a list of players that largely needs improvement — but he was the most important player on the Bears in the first half of the season, so it stands to reason he’ll keep that spot in the second half. 

5. Kicker Connor Barth

Barth has made only 64 percent of his field goal attempts, which ranks 27th among the 29 kickers who have attempted at least 10 field goals this season. Three of his misses have been from 40-49 yards, with his other miss on a 52-yard attempt. Barth is, for now, the Bears’ kicker, but he’ll have to be better for a team that likely will find itself in a number of close games in November and December. 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bears use Jags/Vikes as blueprints and build an elite defense over offense?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bears use Jags/Vikes as blueprints and build an elite defense over offense?

On this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, David Schuster (670 The Score), Dan Cahill (Chicago Sun-Times) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel.

The Bulls keep on winning. Should they try to make the playoffs? NBCSportsChicago.com’s Vincent Goodwill joins the guys to discuss.

Plus, with Bortles, Foles and Keenum starting in this weekend’s Championship Games should the Bears prioritize improving their defense this offseason?

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term (Brett Favre).

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.