Bears

Moon Musings from a Sunday of NFL football

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Moon Musings from a Sunday of NFL football

Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010
10:45 PM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

The play of Matt Flynn for the Green Bay Packers should serve to quiet some of the snickering about the Bears facing backup quarterbacks (which has happened a lot this season).

Flynn started in place of concussed Aaron Rodgers and had the New England Patriots reeling right up to the final, game-ending sack. Rodgers doesnt make some of the new-guy mistakes but Flynn played better against the Patriots that Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez and a lot of other quarterbacks this season.

A fluke? Well, Drew Stanton, that third-stringer who started against the Bears, guided the Detroit Lions to a road win over playoff-hopeful Tampa Bay earlier in the day and beat the Packers with Rodgers a week earlier.

Look, no one is saying that backups are the players that starters usually are. But would the Bears have lost to the Miami if the Dolphins had Chad Henne or Pennington starting instead of Tyler Thigpen? Or to Detroit if Matthew Stafford is in rather than Stanton? Lovie Smth has virtually owned (8-3) Brett Favre, and Tarvaris Jackson iswell, Tarvaris Jackson. Can Joe Webb really do all that much worse?

Remember those guys?

Not that the Bears or anyone else is looking that far back and it doesnt mean anything now, but what the Philadelphia Eagles did with their comeback against the New York Giants puts a subtle exclamation point to the Bears win over Philly a few weeks back. It also did the Bears a little favor that could turn out to be very big.

If the Bears and Eagles tie as division winners (assuming the Bears get their business done in short order), the Bears have the head-to-head edge over Philadelphia and that could get them a bye past the wild-card round. The division winners with the two best records get that first week off; one of those two will be the Atlanta Falcons and the other could ultimately be determined by those 28 points in the final 7:28 by the Eagles in the Meadowlands.

Jet takeoff?

A less helpful (for the Bears) turn of events was taking place in Pittsburgh where the recently inept New York Jets were taking the measure of the Steelers. The Jets had a total of three field goals in the combined previous two games and the Bears would like very much to have been playing a collapsing team on a three-game losing streak.

What raises an eyebrow is the fact that the Jets did it on the road, against the fourth-ranked yardage defense. The Jets also are now 6-1 on the road as they get ready for Soldier Field.

Detroit doins

The Detroit Lions are starting to play the way I thought they would all season after all the upgrading they did in the offseason. Its just a little late.

They put a significant scare into the Bears with that 17-14 halftime lead two weeks ago. Then, off a losing streak at five games, they rocked the Green Bay Packers and didnt allow at TD. Now they average 6.5 yards per carry and run for 181 yards against what appeared to be a playoff team at Tampa Bay. Operative phrase: at Tampa Bay.

This was the first road win since they beat the Bears in 2007.

So the Lions have defeated two teams with winning records in the last two weeks and threatened a third (Chicago). Early prediction: The Lions will not finish fourth in the NFC North next year.

Nice call

Compliments to Jeff Fisher for his presenting offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger a game ball after the Tennessee Titans defeated the Houston Texans. Heimerdinger is battling cancer and Fishers gesture was one of those moments that helps you remember that there are battles in life far greater and with more at stake than a football game. Nice going, Guppy, and good luck, Mike.

Sound of silence
With the Bears playing on Monday night, we wont have our regular Monday night chat on CSNChicago.com from 7-8 p.m. Those are always a good time and right now well figure on hooking up Tuesday night instead of Monday.

Same on checking in with the guys at WFMB-AM SportsRadio 1450 in Springfield. We usually visit in drive time at 4:40 p.m. but well gab Tuesday instead. Other get-togethers right now will stay the same this week.

And one more thing

Ive had the Bears at 10-6 or better for this season and this will be No. 10. I had thought the upset of the New England Patriots would be that onenever mind.

But this time for sure.

The Vikings lost the Leslie Frazier buzz last week in that showing against the New York Giants in Detroit. Theyre honoring their 50 greatest players and coaches this weekend but since Chuck Foreman, Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton are in their primes or suiting up, thats just good for a brief emotional tick. Hey, the Bears retired the uniform numbers of none other than Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in 1994 and lost by 27, at home.

Minnesota is starting a rookie quarterback against a defense that has been roughed up the past two weeks. Joe Webb will give the Bears more problems than they would like, and the Bears could be in serious trouble if they prepared sloppily the way the Patriots did for Matt Flynn when the Packers came to Foxboro on Sunday night.

But while conditions should affect the dome-based Vikings more than the Bears, the biggest issue I see for the Bears to overcome is Jay Cutler. The quarterback simply does not characteristically play well in the dark, as the Giants, Dolphins and Patriots game confirmed. Even his play in the win over Green Bay produced a lower passer rating than his season average.

Turnovers will decide the game and if Cutler can avoid them, the Bears should post win No. 10 and pick up their third NFC North title in Lovie Smiths seven Chicago seasons.

Bears 13 Vikings 10

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

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.

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

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AP

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

So another playoff weekend and with it some takeaways of greater or lesser relevance for the Bears, not so much as any sort of measuring standard for how close the Bears are or aren’t from this level of NFL play (but if you actually are wanting to keep meaningless score, the Bears did beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by more points (6) than the Jaguars did (3), and whacked Carolina by 14, while the New Orleans Saints only outscored the Panthers by 5, so… oh, never mind… .).

But in a copycat league that looks desperately for things that are working for anyone at all, the playoffs do offer some object lessons to the also-rans. Of course, pretty much like diets, most systems for doing things in the NFL all work. You just have to do them the right way and shop right. So some from along a spectrum ranging from “Huh?” to “Wow”… .

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QB acquisitions

Some playoffs make it indelibly apparent that the only route to team excellence runs through quarterbacks drafted pretty much in first rounds, not even necessarily by their playoff teams. Last year the final three (we’re not including New England here, because Tom Brady is the ultimate outlier, and he and the Patriots have been in 11 of the last 15 seasons he’s been involved) were quarterback’ed by Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, all 1’s. In 2015, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. Every year, at least two of the final four finishers are led by former No. 1’s, even going back to the Bears’ near-miss in 2010 (Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez.) Plus Brady.

This year, not so much. Brady aside, two of the other three (Minnesota, Philadelphia) come in not only not with No. 1’s, but not even with intended starters – Case Keenum and Nick Foles, respectively.

A couple takeaways here:

  •       What is put around the quarterback, including coaches, is potentially everything. Jacksonville, which is riding former No. 3-overall Blake Bortles, is in the AFC title less because of Bortles than Leonard Fournette rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns. No. 1’s are far from necessarily a winning ticket: No. 1’s Roethlisberger, Ryan and Marcus Mariota all bowed out over the weekend, along with Drew Brees (a No. 2), with only Roethlisberger losing to a quarterback drafted higher than he was (Bortles).
     
  •       The Bears are on the right track with prioritizing quarterback at No. 3/2 last draft in the form of Mitch Trubisky. And GM Ryan Pace was on another right track in making a serious play for a backup quarterback. Mike Glennon turned out not to be the right one, and coaches arguably erred in choosing him to open the season over Trubisky in an extremely close decision. But Minnesota and Philadelphia are in the NFC title game because of backup quarterbacks (Keenum, Foles), and the whole New England thing happened because Bill Belichick and the Patriots went after a quarterback in the 2000 sixth round despite having previously durable Drew Bledsoe in place.
     

Pace neglected the quarterback spot in his first two drafts before addressing it last draft with Mitch Trubisky (plus Glennon and Sanchez in free agency). For comparison purposes, Spielman drafted zero quarterbacks over his last three, but had that luxury by virtue of landing Teddy Bridgewater with his second first-rounder in 2014, and augmented that after Bridgewater’s knee injury with a trade for Sam Bradford and free-agent signing of Keenum after Bradford’s injury.

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Remember when the Bears just absolutely had to, couldn’t stay in the NFL unless they did, switch to a 3-4 scheme? All four teams in the conference championships are base 4-3 teams.

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Targeting the targets

Ryan Pace and new coach Matt Nagy, along with incoming offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, are expected to devote money and draft capital in the wide receiver spot, and not necessarily including a wideout with the No. 8 pick. Good idea. But Nagy comes from the West Coast cult of Andy Reid, and from the weekend’s divisional round, one template stands above all others:

Using the Patriots as the standard, New England had seven players this season haul in 30 or more passes (the Bears had two, Tarik Cohen and Kendall Wright). None of the seven were first-round New England picks, although the Patriots did trade a No. 1 (32nd overall) and a No. 3 to New Orleans for Brandon Cooks and a No. 4. Three of them were running backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White) and one was a tight end (Rob Gronkowski).

Very noteworthy: Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick and Stefon Diggs a fifth, both going to teams with histories of stocking and then stocking again and then stocking a little more at wide receiver. Diggs is one of five wide receivers taken by draft and personnel chief Rick Spielman over the past three drafts. Pace went all-in with Kevin White at No. 7 of his initial draft, but Daniel Braverman is the only other wideout drafted by Pace; over the last eight drafts, Braverman, White, Marquess Wilson and Alshon Jeffery are the extent of Bears draft capital invested at wideout.

(Brandon Marshall could be counted in there, accounting for two No. 3’s. Whether that counts as properly building through the draft, your humble and faithful narrator leaves to the reader.

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Build through the draft…mostly

Speaking of building through the draft:

Everybody talks about it and it’s certainly the ideal. But Jacksonville is a game away from the Super Bowl (No. 2 in yardage and points allowed) because of a near-historic hit rate on defense in free agency: Calais Campbell, up for defensive player of the year, plus Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson on the defensive line; Paul Posluszny at linebacker; A.J. Bouye at cornerback; and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson.

Of course, the NFL’s No. 1 defense for points and yards allowed (Minnesota Vikings) can point to a starting unit that includes just two players (tackles Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph) who were significant pickup in free agency from other teams. Safety Andrew Zendejo was a Dallas castoff signed off the scrap heap back in 2011 but has been a Viking ever since.