The first two years of the Matt Nagy era can be boiled down to this: First, a tremendously fun year in which the Bears blew past expectations; and second, a tremendously un-fun year in which the Bears fell short of expectations.
So what will 2020 be closer to: The unbridled joy of 2018 (until the last kick of the wild card round), or the numbing disappointment of 2019 (despite still winning eight games)?
To answer that question, we should start by laying out some expectations for 2020. Broadly: The Bears should compete for a spot in an expanded seven-team playoff field. More narrowly: The Bears’ offense should be, at worst, league-average – about where it was in 2018. And the defense, led by a mauling pass rush, should be one of the best in the NFL even without Eddie Goldman.
But how do the Bears get 2020 to feel more like 2018 than 2019? Here are three key factors:
The tight end question
Trey Burton did not miss a game in 2018’s regular season, and the Bears’ offense was better because of it. While Burton’s numbers weren’t eye-popping (54 catches, 569 yards, 6 TDs) his steadiness at the “U” tight end spot allowed the Bears’ offense to create mismatches, especially with Tarik Cohen.
Burton never was healthy last year, playing poorly in eight games before landing on injured reserve. The Bears didn’t have quality depth behind Burton, and the “Y” spot was a disaster. The lack of any good tight end play wasn’t the only reason why the Bears’ offense cratered in 2019, but it might’ve been the biggest reason.
The starting point to the Bears’ offense in 2020 is, certainly, figuring out who’s playing quarterback. But the Bears need Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris to be the fixes their tight end room sorely needs. Just average play from those guys will help the Bears’ offense be closer to what it was in 2018 (which, again, was merely good enough), if not better.
And if the tight end room is a disaster again? It might not matter who starts at quarterback.
Good luck and/or good depth
The 2018 Bears were incredibly lucky in dodging significant injuries early on. Adam Shaheen began the year on IR but returned in November; Kyle Long went on IR after Week 8 and came back Week 17. Depth pieces like Sam Acho and Dion Sims were lost, sure, but the Bears did well to make their absences footnotes to the season.
Even when slot corner Bryce Callahan was injured in Week 14, veteran special teamer Sherrick McManis did incredibly well in his place. Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury in Week 15 was the most costly, as the Bears missed him in that wild card game against Foles and the Eagles.
But overall, the Bears were both lucky in terms of staying healthy and good in terms of replacing those injured guys in 2018.
The Bears saw some depth shine in 2019 – specifically defensive lineman Nick Williams and inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski – but even still, the defense struggled to dominate without Hicks on the field. And the aforementioned tight end position was a disaster without a healthy Burton. Long never was right, and the offensive line without him (or veteran backup Ted Larsen) never was either. Taylor Gabriel’s off-and-on availability due to multiple concussions hampered the offense, too.
2020 inevitably will be a year of attrition not only for the Bears, but for the entire NFL. In addition to avoiding football injuries before and during the season, teams will have to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. Training and personal responsibility can go a long way in avoiding injuries and illness, but it’ll take a lot of luck, too, for teams to stay mostly healthy.
The teams with the best depth will have the best chance of making the playoffs. Will the Bears be among that group? Maybe. But a shortage of draft picks in recent years might be costly. We’ll see.
Betting on pressure
The Bears had one of the best defenses of the last decade in 2018 because of, first and foremost, outstanding coverage from its secondary. The ability of Fuller/Jackson/Callahan/Adrian Amos/Prince Amukamara to disguise their coverages confused most opposing offenses, who by the way also had to deal with Hicks pushing the pocket and Mack marauding off the edge. Hicks and Goldman opened up gaps for Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith to snuff out any attempt at establishing the run. It was a perfect formula.
The 2019 Bears’ defense took a step back not only because Vic Fangio (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) left for Denver, but because of player attrition, too. Last year’s defense was good, but not great.
The formula for the 2020 Bears’ defense won’t be the same as it was in 2018, though. The signing of Robert Quinn, coupled with jettisoning Leonard Floyd, hints at a defense predicated on a dominant pass rush. Holes in the secondary were addressed on the cheap, be it with Jaylon Johnson or Tashaun Gipson.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A trio of Mack/Hicks/Quinn seems impossible to contain. If the Bears’ defense re-emerges as one of the best in the NFL, it’ll be because those three guys lead the way in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.