John Mullin

Hyperbole aside, did Bears really get needed progress in Mitch Trubisky? They think so, but…

Hyperbole aside, did Bears really get needed progress in Mitch Trubisky? They think so, but…

The 2018 season ended with a predictable tsunami of feel-good about the play and prospects for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky:
 
From GM Ryan Pace: “I think it was just good to see the natural growth in the offensive scheme as [Trubisky] gained more comfort and then also more comfort with the players that are around him, that chemistry that developed. And I was just talking to Mitch today about that, just the excitement of going into an offseason with the pieces in place around him and then Year 2 in the same offensive scheme and how much growth can take place. So I just felt like you saw him playing more with his instincts because he was more comfortable in the system.”
 
Coach Matt Nagy, for whom total buy-in on Trubisky as the franchise quarterback was an understandable condition of employment, was even more lavish with his praise in the immediate aftermath of the playoff loss to Philadelphia: “We're lucky to have him. I'm looking forward to the future. I really am, with him, because the city of Chicago is lucky to have that kid at quarterback.”
 
But gushy talk is easy, particularly when the immediate objective is positivity. Exactly how “lucky” is Chicago to have a civic treasure like Trubisky? Did the organization get from Trubisky the improvements that it needs to move into the echelon of New England, Kansas City, New Orleans and the rest of the NFL’s Final Four?

Some indicators say “yes.” Others, maybe not so much. Still others, wait ‘til next year.
 
The Bears reached the 12-4 NFC North level they did in largest part because of the defense, which improved from No. 14 to No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, picking one apples-to-apples measure. The offense with 14 Trubisky starts vs. the 12 of 2017 improved from No. 28 last season to No. 20. Not good enough to get past Philadelphia, Cody Parkey notwithstanding.
 
The top five offenses (Chiefs, Rams, Chargers, Saints, Patriots) all reached the divisional round, and all but the Chargers are in the conference championships. Notably, all were top-10 and in the playoffs in 2017 as well, saying something about their quarterbacks’ consistency (and the relevance of the DVOA measure).
 
Better, but how much?
 
Wins are the only truly meaningful NFL measuring standard. But subheads under the general heading of “quarterback performance” warrant evaluation in the case of a work in progress like Trubisky. To that end:
 
Back before the start of training camp, before the on-field installation of Matt Nagy’s offense with Mitchell Trubisky and installing the revised Trubisky into the offense, this source identified three critical areas in which Trubisky needed to improve in if he was to take the uber-critical next step that the organization needed from him:
 
•      “Rediscover accuracy” - move from the 59.4 completion percentage of his 12-game rookie season, toward the 68 percent of his passing at North Carolina.
 
Analysis:  Trubisky had obvious accuracy problems early and at various points during the season, badly missing open receivers. But besides his overall completion bump to 66.6 percent, Trubisky had two sub-60 games in the first seven games of his season, only one in the second seven. And that one was vs. the Rams coming off two games missed with a shoulder injury and with an admittedly over-amped mindset.
 
•      “Stay the ball-security course” – improve on an INT rate of 2.1 percent, again toward his UNC ratio of 4:1, TD’s to INT’s.
 
Analysis:  From a very respectable ball-security rookie year, Trubisky slipped to a pick rate of 2.8 percent. He did throw for 24 TD’s vs. 12 INT’s, better than his 7-and-7 rookie totals but far short of the 4:1 rate sought by Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfich. Nagy recalled situations where Trubisky threw into ill-advised places and acknowledged, “I can’t do that” as late as the Philadelphia game.
 
But Nagy and staff established in training camp that they were comfortable with Trubisky pushing envelopes, even to the point of incurring training-camp interceptions normally unacceptable. That was part of their learning curve, and the assumption is that Trubisky was indeed learning and would not be repeating throws that too often weren’t interceptions only owing to DB’s poor hands.
 
•      “Get the ball off on time” – Trubisky was sacked at a rate approaching 9 percent of the Bears’ pass plays; only one team reached the 2017 playoffs at a rate higher than 6.6 percent. All of the fault did not lie with the offensive line.
 
Analysis:  Trubisky was sacked on 5.24 percent of his pass plays (excluding scrambles and vs. 10.6 percent for Chase Daniel in the latter’s two starts). That would rank No. 6, just behind Kansas City and just ahead of the Rams. Not coincidentally, his release time, per calculations by NextGen stats, improved from 22nd (below Trevor Simian) to 11th (2.65 sec.) and quicker than Mahomes, Rodgers, Watson and others of note.
 
 
Qualitative vs. quantitative – and the “It” factor
 
But there are only lies, damn lies and statistics, in ascending degrees of misinformation. Myriad other elements beyond simple numbers comprise a championship quarterback in the fashion the Bears say they have in Trubisky.
 
The future of the Bears and their offense runs through Trubisky the leader. His performance levels can improve simply by eliminating errors rather than pressing for more dramatic plays. Trubisky faced eight teams in 2018 that he hadn’t seen in 2017, and the teams he had seen before (Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Philadelphia, San Francisco) he was confronting with an offense different than the ’17 one.
 
Very significantly, in the tradition of greats, he got his team into winning range on a final drive in a playoff game, a range (43 yards) from which kickers were 76.7 percent successful in 2018. Cody Parkey had been significantly less successful (69.2 percent) in his career, but that personnel issue is on management, not Trubisky.
 
Trubisky earned the trust of the team, offense and defense and special teams, and took major qualitative and quantitative steps both as an NFL quarterback and, more important, as Matt Nagy’s quarterback:
 
“For him, he conquered the next-play mentality,” Nagy said by way of summary. “He conquered that. He conquered the steps of ‘101’ progressions. By the end of the year, he was reading it, ‘1-2-3 [progressions] -run.’ That, he conquered.
 
“Now, I think level two next year is going to be him really recognizing pre-snap what he's about to see from these defenses. So, last year he was so focused in on, 'What we do we do on offense? Hell, I've never run this offense before. What does that mean?'
 
“Now, he knows it all and can take that next step of figuring out, 'OK, here they come. They got a blitz, cover-0. Now, I know what to do, what to check to, I know the protections, all of that.' That's going to be the big one for him.” 

Hiring Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator a Nagy call; Bears to pick up Leonard Floyd 5th-year option

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AP

Hiring Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator a Nagy call; Bears to pick up Leonard Floyd 5th-year option

The process of replacing Vic Fangio with Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator was a simple change within the evolving organization that is the Bears. That kind of step hasn’t always been so simple, however.

What was immediately clear, as general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy did their joint year-in-review briefing, was that the high-level staff hiring decision belonged to the head coach, a statement in itself.

Pace was asked what drew the Bears toward Pagano. “Really, those are Matt’s hires,” Pace said, turning to Nagy, “so he’s better to speak on that.” 

For an organization that once told an incoming Mike Ditka that he’d be keeping Buddy Ryan as defensive coordinator, and told Marc Trestman that his defensive coordinator would be Mel Tucker and that the Bears would remain a 4-3 team, the process revealed both a confidence in the head coach as well as well-defined areas of responsibility. That has not always been the case.

Where Ryan would tell Ditka to get out of the defense’s meetings, Nagy was largely hands-off as far as Fangio’s operations and views Pagano as a continuation rather than a makeover.

“We're in a position here where they both have the 3-4 scheme family,” Nagy said. “We've talked about it before where you see all these ‘11’ [one back, one tight end] personnel offenses that teams are playing, you're in more ‘sub’ defense, four down [linemen]. You're talking about a minimal part of the game as far as 3-4 versus sub.

“But then there's the language part of it and where they're at. Again, there's some familiarity there. You got to remember, Vic and Chuck worked together in Baltimore.”

Personnel happenings

Pagano takes over a defense that will include linebacker Leonard Floyd for at least the next two years, with Pace stating that the team would pick up the fifth-year option on the 2016 ninth-overall pick. The price will be north of $14.2 million but “he played well and we’re happy where he’s at,” said Pace, who did not pick up that fifth year for his first No. 1 pick, Kevin White, last offseason, nor the fifth-year option for 2014 No. 1 Kyle Fuller, drafted by former general manager Phil Emery.

“I feel like Leonard is still going [up] and I think he felt that as the season was still going on, so [picking up the option] is something we plan on doing.”

Floyd did not post dominant sack numbers opposite Khalil Mack but started all 16 games for the first time in his three seasons. Playing 75.4 percent of opponents’ snaps was a jump from 55 percent in 2017 and 49.9 percent in 2016.

The Bears still have starting safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan heading into unrestricted free agency but have nearly two months before the opening of free agency on March 13.

“We have 14 UFAs so we have to go through all of them, some of whom are starters, some of whom are key players,” Pace said. “And that’s kind of where we’re at right now, with our coaches and scouts evaluating our own roster. We need to get that right first and then establish the offseason plan.”

The offseason plan is not expected to include lavish spending. For one thing, the foundation has been solidified with a roster that includes five Pro Bowl players, four on defense. For another, the Bears have an estimated $20 million in available cap space, enough to get business done but not likely enough for another Khalil Mack gambit or a play for the likes of running back Le’Veon Bell or a pricey replacement at right tackle to replace Bobby Massie. The Bears already have linemen Charles Leno and Kyle Long at tickets above $8.5 million this year, plus center Cody Whitehair hitting free agency after 2019.

“That’s my job, to ensure the roster is always getting better, whatever avenue that is,” Pace said. “Whether it’s cap space or draft picks, we’re going to strive to improve this roster in every area.

“I think back. There was a draft in 2012 in an organization I was part of [New Orleans]. We didn’t have a first-round pick. We didn’t have a second-round pick. But we had a third-round pick, and that was Akiem Hicks. There’s ways for us to nail this offseason even when the resources are a little bit more limited.”

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Bears takeaways, from Chuck Pagano to NFL Playoffs

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USA TODAY

Bears takeaways, from Chuck Pagano to NFL Playoffs

The impact of the Bears changing defensive coordinators, from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano starts to play out inside Halas Hall long before anyone will be permitted to observe Pagano and his new defense go through on-field work. That will be when and where buy-in with a new coach starts, something that’s not always a given, to which Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker can emphatically attest. That regime lost veterans starting with the first team meeting; Fangio had buy-in from when he arrived with John Fox.

But the biggest reason to expect continued excellence and dominance from the Bears defense really isn’t the coach.

It’s the players. And Fangio, Pagano, Nagy and every coach with a shred of integrity will say the same.

For that reason, even facing an exponentially more difficult next season vs. last, a significant fall-off by a defense that already has 10 of its 11 starters under contract would rank as the biggest surprise of the Bears’ 2019. And there’s context for that.

Going back to the ’85-’86 transition from Buddy Ryan, one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in franchise history, to Vince Tobin, one of the iciest – the personality of the defense may have changed but the results were that group ranking No. 1 in two of the next three years. The reason: Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary, Steve McMichael and others were still in place.

By contrast: The Lovie Smith/Rod Marinelli defense ranked 4th-4th-1st in DVOA from 2010-12. Tucker came in 2013 and the unit went into the deepest two-year down-spiral in franchise annals. But the defense fell to 25th in 2013 (the year Shea McClellin was drafted) when it lost Izzy Idonije and Brian Urlacher, and to 28th in 2014 when the organization decided it couldn’t afford Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman missed 14 games.

Fangio and Fox arrived in 2015 in time to say goodbye to Lance Briggs. Notably, when Fox had turned around Carolina, his first draft pick (2002) was Peppers. When he turned Denver around, his No. 1 in 2011 was Von Miller.

When he and Fangio came to Chicago, they were given Kevin White. Personnel, which had gone all-in with Pernell McPhee, passed over Vic Beasley (Atlanta) and Danielle Hunter (Minnesota, round 3).

Fangio may rank stratospheres above Tucker, but the 2015 defense slipped to No. 31 with the first of its three straight eight-interception years. Matters improved a little (23rd) with signing Akiem Hicks and drafting Leonard Floyd in 2016 and to No. 14 in 2017. Add Khalil Mack and draft Roquan Smith and….

You get the point. Fangio had Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis in San Francisco. Pagano has Floyd, Hicks, Mack, Smith, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Goldman, Eddie Jackson.

It’s always about the players.

*                     *                          *

Schedule-peeking

Random thoughts on the divisional weekend:

The NFL may have doctored its rules to favor passing, and Chicago may be abuzz with the wide-open passing game ushered in with Matt Nagy, and this is not any reflection on degree of offseason need for the Bears at running back (well, maybe a little), but… .

Of the first 12 combined touchdowns scored by the Chiefs, Patriots and Rams this weekend, 11 were scored by running the football. All seven of the touchdowns scored by the winners in Saturday’s games came on the ground: Kansas City’s four, the Rams’ three. On Sunday, New England effectively put away their game with the Chargers by breaching their end zone five times in the first half, four of those on runs.

All four of the winners more than doubled the rushing total of their victims. The Rams rushed for 273 yards, the Chiefs 180, the Patriots 156 and the Saints 137.

This all by offenses with quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees) in the top 10 for Quarterback Rating and top 12 in passer rating.

Nagy spoke through the early part of last season that the offense stlll needed to develop an identity for its run game. By the end of the year he felt that identity was developing.

That’s fine. But while the Bears rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of their 16 games, they ranked 27th in rushing average (4.1 yards per carry) and netted just 65 in the playoff loss to Philadelphia.

The divisional playoff round was a chance to sneak a peek at the meat of the Bears’ 2019 schedule. The playoffs left the Bears behind a week ago but their first-place finish in the NFC North means that they will be seeing: Dallas, Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, Kansas City, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The Rams the Bears visit in 2019 will be more of a load than the group that showed up in Soldier Field in early December. The Bears throttled them then when Sean McVay mysteriously ordered 49 pass plays vs. 12 run plays. Not likely to happen again. This time, the Rams pulverized the Cowboys with 170 rushing yards in just the first half, with 23 runs and 22 pass plays, and those 273 rush yards for the game.

Nagy will go against his old team (Chiefs), mentor (Andy Reid) and one-time quarterback project (Patrick Mahomes). Mahomes earned MVP consideration with his 50 touchdowns and 5,000-plus yards in just his first year as a starter, but in crushing the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs ran for 180 yards and four touchdowns.

Opting in or out on Leonard Floyd?

The Bears have a decision to make on Leonard Floyd, whether to pick up the fifth-year option for the outside linebacker who recorded the Bears’ only sack of Nick Foles in the wild-card loss.

The No. 9 pick of the 2016 draft has flashed (15.5 sacks in three seasons but 7.5 back in ‘16) and started all 16 games for the first time in 2018. But the tab for Vic Beasley (which the Falcons picked up last year) was $14.2 million, which Falcons deemed acceptable for an outside rush-linebacker with 24.5 sacks in three years.

With the cap hits of Mack ($22.3 million), Hicks ($10.1 million), Fuller ($13.5 million), Prince Amukamara ($9.5 million) and Goldman ($7.5 million), even a cap projected to be around $190 million may dictate some decisions for the Bears. The positive is that they are in solid cap shape in part because of young players (like Floyd) who are on rookie or extended contracts rather than 30-something vets with free-agent price tags.

Early guess: The Bears pick up the option, which loosely projects to $15 million for defensive ends, $13 million for linebackers. Floyd had his first healthy season in 2018, and without a No. 1 or 2 pick in this draft, finding a replacement for a starting edge rusher is highly problematic.

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