As the Bears lurch their way toward the end of a disappointing 2017 season, let’s revisit a story from three months ago: How Jared Goff’s rookie year could be a cautionary tale for Mitch Trubisky.
The premise was that Goff, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick, had his confidence severely damaged by going 0-7 and throwing more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) as a rookie. The connection there is Trubisky — in the wake of Cameron Meredith’s season-ending injury — may be better off developing from the sidelines to avoid a Goff-level disaster.
But now that we’re deep into a season in which Goff and the 8-3 Rams have so impressively turned things around — they’re No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA entering Week 13 — maybe the better question to be asked is this: Can the 2017 Rams be a blueprint for the 2018 Bears? And are the expectations that come with that comparison fair?
Take these quotes from August said by Benny Cunningham, who played with Goff in 2016, and there are some clear similarities to apply to the current situation in Chicago:
“As a quarterback, being drafted high, you take most of the criticism,” Cunningham said. “But I feel like if the guys around him can help — that’s any quarterback — if the guys around you can execute and help, it makes your job a lot easier.
“… I just felt like in general we all struggled as an offense. I wouldn’t say he struggled by himself. It’s different when you’re on the inside looking out, you can see exactly what’s going on the depth of a receiver, a missed block by a running back — you see everything. And then in the paper you read the quarterback had two interceptions, so you really don’t get to see the whole detail of it. I feel like everybody played a part in what happened last year.”
The Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher in mid-December with a 4-9 record, which was the first step toward becoming competitive. Taking a chance on Sean McVay, then the 30-year-old offensive coordinator of Washington, was the next move, pairing an offensive-minded coach with a franchise quarterback.
Then, through free agency and the draft, Rams general manager Les Snead added a number of key pieces around Goff: center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth were signed to stabilize the offensive line, and four wideouts were acquired: Sammy Watkins (via a trade with the Buffalo Bills), Robert Woods (free agency), Cooper Kupp (second-round draft pick) and Josh Reynolds (fourth-round draft pick). The Rams also used another second-round pick on tight end Gerald Everett.
Goff didn’t struggle having to learn a new offensive scheme. He’s thrived in the new structure, and is rated as the fifth-best quarterback in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Watkins, Woods and Kupp have all been top-25 receivers in the league, too (the highest-ranked Bears’ receiver by DVOA is Kendall Wright at No. 48).
And the success the of the Rams’ passing game has stopped opposing defenses from selling out to suffocate running back Todd Gurley: Only 20 percent of Gurley’s rushing attempts have come with eight or more men in the box, down about five percent from 2016 (43 percent of Jordan Howard’s runs in 2017 have come with eight or more defenders in the box).
The Bears, on paper, will have more offensive pieces in place going into the offseason than the Rams did a year ago. The offensive line won’t need a significant overhaul, for starters, and the Bears already have a second-round tight end on their roster in Adam Shaheen. Tarik Cohen has proven to be a playmaker, though he’ll be better-utilized when he’s not frequently the only playmaker on the field.
Wide receiver is the clear position of need for the Bears, and it won’t be easy to hit on 75 percent of the receivers they do acquire like the Rams did with Watkins, Wood and Kupp.
But the Rams’ success from 2016-2017 does set a precedent for the Bears from 2017-2018. Expectations should be high next year, even if we're still weeks and months away from knowing what the makeup of that team will look like. The most important player is Trubisky, and if he makes second-year improvements with an improved team around him, why can't the Bears do what the Rams did?
"I feel like Mitch is focused, and his preparation is going to take him very far in this league and he’s going to play in this league for a very long time," Cunningham said after Sunday's 28-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. "I like what he’s doing, I like the direction he’s headed as a player, he’s starting to develop more leadership each week with this offense and with this team. So I’m excited to see what he’ll be."