Bears

View from the Moon: Bears are what their 3-5 record says they are – but what is that, exactly?

View from the Moon: Bears are what their 3-5 record says they are – but what is that, exactly?

You are indeed what your record says you are. But at the midpoint of a 2017 season in which the Bears already have matched their 2016 win total, it’s really not all that simple to say what either the Bears or, in this case, their rookie quarterback exactly are.

After a three-win 2016 and sitting at 1-3 to begin 2017, and two of the losses by 20-plus points, the Bears were right about where cynics thought they’d be: bad, arrow pointing anywhere but up. Now, with an in-season quarterback change to a rookie with all of 13 college starts, the Bears reach the halfway of their season 3-5 overall, ahead of more than a few projections, perhaps even their own.

But they also are a .500 team in Mitch Trubisky’s first four NFL starts. All things considered, the Bears realistically can be viewed as a team with an arrow pointing decidedly up, even with a litany of maddening gaffes that cost them Sunday in a 20-12 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

A missed field goal. An unforced penalty on special teams to turn a defensive stop into a Drew Brees a touchdown opportunity (which he converted). Too much poor technique and tackling in the secondary. Odd play-calling coupled with failed execution. Poor accuracy and decision-making in a handful of tipping-point situations by Trubisky.

Even with all that, the Bears reach their halfway break with two wins under Trubisky and two losses in which the rookie threw interceptions on Bears’ final possessions with chances for tying or winning scores. A defense that set historic low bars for takeaways in 2016 had another game with more than the opponent, including one in the closing minutes and the Bears down by five points but which Trubisky and the offense failed to exploit with even a single first down.

If there is a single overriding negative it lies in Trubisky being unable to deliver on those final possessions in the Minnesota and New Orleans losses, and in his average-at-best passing (14-of-32 for 164 yards, the interception on a poor overthrow of Tre McBride, a throw on which the only debate was whether the route or the pass was worse). The Bears are craving some of what Trubisky showed them completing his first 10 passes against Denver in preseason. He hasn’t even a glimpse of that yet.

After a big Tarik Cohen kickoff return supplemented by a horsecollar-tackle penalty gave Trubisky and the offense the football at the New Orleans 43 with 1:28 remaining – a designer situation for a statement drive – left tackle Charles Leno incurred a false-start penalty and Trubisky checked down to a no-gain dump-off before he threw high and behind McBride for the effective game-ender.

[MORE BEARS-SAINTS: Why the Bears enter their bye week feeling like they’re ‘close’ to playing winning football]

Understanding limitations

So much for “opening up the offense” mattering, or the suggestion that coaches could be breeding Trubisky’s natural aggressiveness out of him in three games (if that could have been happening, the Bears seriously got the wrong guy). Trubisky had more pass attempts (12) in Sunday’s first half than Drew Brees (11), with each quarterback sacked twice. Aggressiveness was not a Trubisky shortcoming.

But the clear fact was that Trubisky was not enough to ignite the offense himself, whether on straight execution from the pocket or making something electric happen on the move, in the broken-play motif that has been expected to be a significant part of this game. He has all the appearances of being that guy sooner rather than later, but he hasn’t achieved “rookie phenom” status, and probably won’t, given the resources at his disposal.

All that said, Trubisky – and the Bears overall, for that matter – arguably should be graded on something of a curve. Particularly working behind an offensive line absent two of its three best blockers, Trubisky isn’t not good enough to pick up his team and throw it to victory.

Inconsistencies abound

The day was marked with highs and lows, which is by definition what a still-forming quarterback and team simply produce.

The first Saints possession contained two mental gaffes uncharacteristic of the ’17 Bears defensive players. Bryce Callahan’s missed tackle that allowed Brandon Coleman to turn a short pass into a 54-yard completion was poor execution, losing footwork and failing to get a receiver bumped a few feet to out of bounds. Callahan later was lost to a knee injury that cost the defense it’s No. 1 nickel back.

And while it was on special teams, cornerback Kyle Fuller lining up offsides on a field-goal rush turned a third-down stop into a second Saints chance, which Drew Brees turned into a touchdown.

The Trubisky pass to tight end Zach Miller was his finest throw of the day, one for a TD that officials took away after Miller wasn’t able to maintain enough control of the ball while on the ground. The pass was on target, where Trubisky placed it where his guy or nobody was coming up with it, and was the kind of delivery teams expect from a franchise quarterback, even one in development.

Trubisky’s rookie-ness did show up in a handful of throws and decisions, something suggested by some of the coaching cautiousness shown earlier. Adam Shaheen got zero separation on his first-quarter short route in the end zone, and Tanner Gentry’s second-quarter out-route was blanketed, yet Trubisky made both throws into coverage that broke up the throws. The Saints were credited with eight passes defensed, an indication of a whole lot of passes thrown to receivers with defenders nearby. Poor separation will do that to a quarterback. So will inaccurate passing.

Trubisky threw too high to a wide-open Tarik Cohen in the third quarter, a pass calling for more NFL-grade touch than Trubisky still needs to develop.

And for the second straight game he took a sack that added to the difficulty factor for a field-goal attempt, although the sack just before halftime Sunday was a jailbreak pass rush and still only left Connor Barth with a 48-yard field goal try, which he sailed wide left.

The Bears now have two weeks of prep time for the Green Bay Packers, the team that effectively ended Mike Glennon’s stint as a starting quarterback. This time the Packers will serve as a measure of how far a developing quarterback – and team – have come in a season not easily defined.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.