Bears

Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?

Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?

It’s not yet the preseason. That comes next. It falls under the umbrella of 'offseason,' but regulated team activities are now over. Coaches and general managers call it The Nervous Season.

Why? 

After all, the same could be said from the end of a team’s season in the winter until it reconvenes in the spring for non-supervised workouts. But this time of year comes after the OTAs and minicamps, when work has been put in, steps taken, progress, hopefully, made. It’s the six-week vacation written into the collective bargaining agreement six years ago in which players are on their own, required to stay away from the team facilities until it’s time to report to training camp in late July.

The nervousness comes with all the free time to enjoy as they see fit, unsupervised, potentially letting their physical conditioning slip. Or, in a worst-case scenario, their judgment. 

All John Fox and other coaches can do after the final minicamp workout is ask them to be smart.

“After embarking on a lot of these over the years, you see a lot – I don’t wanna say see everything,” Fox said after Thursday’s Halas Hall farewell to his roster. “Hopefully they make good decisions, and we’re trusting they take good care of themselves and come back in great shape.”

More recent examples of the opposite include the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul-Paul’s fireworks accident two years ago and the Packers’ Andrew Quarless discharging a firearm in a Miami parking garage that same Fourth of July night. The most heinous was the late Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who eventually was arrested and charged with murder for a 2013 incident in Boston.

“I think a lot of it’s trust, whether it’s the guy next to you, a guy at your position. Under the new CBA this is what it is, they go away for six weeks,” Fox added. “I think you have to have that trust that they know they’re wearing the same (Bears) name on their back, and to be accountable and dependable to each other. Knock on wood, we haven’t have a lot of 'situations,' and hopefully that’ll be the case when they report back.”

Among the things we know in the early stages of this time for the Bears is Sam Acho already being off on his annual trek with his parents and others to Nigeria to help poverty-stricken natives with medical needs. 

Fellow linebacker Jerrell Freeman has spent this first weekend of football freedom helping spread the game abroad, back in his CFL roots in Regina, Saskatchewan for an NFL Play 60 event. 

And rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has already shared social media posts of a return home to Ohio to visit his family before heading back to Chapel Hill to visit his coaches and others at North Carolina. We trust the Camry is holding up.

This is the lone breather for those rookies for the first time in about 10 months. From heading to their training camps prior to their final collegiate season last summer, it’s been a non-stop whirlwind of pre-draft interviews and workouts, to rookie minicamps, to formal workouts with their new teams. They’ll squeeze every bit of rest they can before the Bears’ class checks into Lake Forest again a week before reporting to Bourbonnais July 26th. 

Veterans have a better sense of what they need to do to balance physical maintenance with relaxation, but it’s still an inexact science.

“I think there’s definitely a fine line to it,” said wide receiver Markus Wheaton. “You wanna come in as 'in shape' as possible, but at the same time you want to rest your body. I think that’s something everybody tries to continue to find throughout their career.”

The new challenge for the former Steeler (who just got cleared for unlimited activity after last season’s shoulder surgery) is not forgetting what he’s learned in a new playbook, while building his knowledge even further. Still, there’s nothing quite like the rapid-fire call by a quarterback and trotting to the line of scrimmage with an assignment in mind.

“Going over the plays at home isn’t hearing it in the huddle,” he said. “ Obviously we’ll go home and continue to study, but when you hear it in the huddle a few times you gotta get used to it again and get back on it for sure.”

And the same goes for that signal-caller, who tries to be the offense’s MegaBrain, and hopes to convince a few of the wideouts to reconvene during this time on their own for an informal workout or two. Rust never sleeps.

“It’s more football than not,” Mike Glennon said about managing this month and a half. “There’s a lot to get ready for both mentally and physically. Make sure you’re in great shape, getting your body ready for the season. It’s a long season, 17 weeks, it’s long. As far as mentally, continue to study the playbook, continue to learn opponent defenses. There’s a lot to do mentally while relaxing, and just getting your mind right getting ready for the season.”

While hoping all his teammates keep their bosses’ nerves at ease.

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

While the Bears praised Mitchell Trubisky’s operation of a controlled gameplan in his second NFL start, they’re not losing sight of the special kind of athleticism and playmaking ability the rookie quarterback possesses. Two plays in particular stand out — plays that led to anywhere from a five-to-10 point swing in the game. 

Trubisky’s 18-yard third down completion to Kendall Wright in overtime seems to looks better every time you watch it on film. Trubisky was pressured by two Baltimore Ravens pass rushers, but managed to wriggle free and slide to his right, only to find linebacker C.J. Mosley waiting in front of him. The blend of athleticism and aggressiveness Trubisky displayed in firing high over the middle toward Wright — who made a specular play of his own — is one of the many reasons why the Bears are so excited about him. 

“To be able to throw that ball with both hands in the air and changing your arm angle – that’s why you draft a kid second,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Because of things like that.”

But there was another instinctual, athletic play Trubisky made that was just as impressive, and just as important. Cody Whitehair’s snapping issues cropped up at the Bears’ 13-yard line, with the center sailing a snap over Trubisky’s head and toward the end zone. 

If Baltimore recovered that ball, it would’ve tied the game; had Trubisky simply fell on the ball, it very well could’ve led to a safety that would’ve brought the Ravens within five points about a minute after the Bears took a 17-3 lead. Instead, Trubisky picked up the ball, scrambled to his right and threw the ball away — one of six throwaways he had on Sunday. 

“(That) was a critical, critical play at that time,” Loggains said. 

This isn't to say that two plays — only one of which gained yards — are enough to say the Bears' offense is in a good place. It's still a group that necessitates a controlled gameplan, similar to the one they used with Mike Glennon. But the difference: Trubisky can make plays. 

Briefly, on Whitehair

Since we’re on the subject of another poor snap by Whitehair, here’s what Loggains had to say on that topic: 

“He’s gotten better. We still had one too many. The thing and point I want to make with Cody Whitehair is, obviously wants to talk about the snap, but you’re talking about two weeks in a row of completely dominating. We’re an outside zone team that ran 25 snaps of inside zone because of what they were playing. It changed our game plan and Cody’s a big part of that. The last two weeks we’ve been able to move those guys inside. He’s a really good football player. 

“We’re going to battle through these snap issues. We’re cutting them down. He’s more accurate. He did have the one that obviously is unacceptable and no one owns that more than Cody Whitehair does. But he is a really good football player and let’s not lose sight of the 79 snaps where he really helped the team run the football and you can’t do that without a Cody Whitehair at center.”

Loggains has a point here — if Whitehair were struggling in the run game, against the defensive looks the Ravens were showing, the Bears wouldn’t have been able to run the ball 50 times with the kind of success they had. But the poor snaps nonetheless are ugly and have to be eliminated — imagine the uproar over them if Trubisky didn’t make that play in Baltimore. The Bears' offense won't always be good enough to overcome those kind of self-inflicted mistakes. 

Loggains and coach John Fox have praised Whitehair’s attention to the problem, and as long as Hroniss Grasu is still limited with a hand injury, Whitehair will have some time to work through these issues. One final thought: Who would’ve expected, back in May, that Whitehair would have the problems with snaps, and not Trubisky?