Get the screenshots ready. Bookmark the link. Send it to @OldTakesExposed right now.
It’s time for my annual Bears season prediction column, which is usually in the general ballpark of actual outcomes, sometimes spot on, and occasionally worthy of endless harassment by my peers at Halas Hall (see: my 13-3 prediction in 2019).
This is Year 11 for me on the Bears beat and the thing I’ve learned about predictions is that you have to put legitimate thought, research and logic into making them.
And then you have to immediately prepare to be wrong.
Take them seriously at your own risk, both as the predictor and the consumer. Sports are fun. Predictions are part of what makes them fun.
With that in mind, let’s jump right in with a perfectly boring Bears prediction for 2021:
Final record: 8-9
Look, the Bears are not easy to predict this year. Justin Fields could be playing by halftime Sunday in Los Angeles, put up 35 points and have Offensive Rookie of the Year locked up by November. And yet, all of that is unlikely because the Bears seem as eager to play Fields as Ted Ginn Jr. was catching a punt last year.
Guess what? I’m actually a believer in Andy Dalton. I’m buying that his experience, confidence and competitiveness will give the Bears an upgrade at the quarterback position. Those are qualities that have grown on me since March, when I didn’t think Dalton was an upgrade over Mitch Trubisky, who brought more mobility and athleticism to the position.
That said, I’m also a realist. The Bears have offensive problems that go beyond the quarterback position, but a franchise quarterback is capable of covering up those problems. Dalton is just not that guy. Fields might be, but we won’t know until he plays. And even if he does, he’s a rookie.
So all I have to go on right now is that Dalton is the starter and Fields could play — and in my opinion, likely will — when the offense struggles.
Exactly when is hard to figure out. And regardless, the schedule is tough. Like, really tough. And as much as I love the Sean Desai hire as defensive coordinator, he has an aging defense that already has Eddie Goldman, Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn listed on the injury report.
All of this adds up to a grind. I suspect this will be a season in which fans come to appreciate Dalton more than they thought, still yearn for Fields, and watch their team fall just short of the playoffs while staying “in the hunt.”
So when does Fields take over as the starter?
A week ago, I probably would have told you it happens sooner rather than later, but it really feels like the Bears are going to be patient and let Dalton show what he can do with this offense. Now, if the Bears lose to the Bengals — Dalton’s former team — in Week 2 at home, then all bets are off.
But let’s assume the Bears are at least 1-2 after three weeks and Dalton has some success against that Bengals defense in Week 2. Many have pointed to the Week 4 game against the Lions at Soldier Field as a logical starting point for Fields, which makes sense. However, it also makes sense as a bounce back game for Dalton if the Bears struggle in Cleveland in Week 3.
That’s why I’m eying Week 6 against the Packers at Soldier Field. I’ve covered this team long enough to understand how important it is to the McCaskey family to beat the Packers, and I’ve seen coaches fired because they can’t. Now, I’m not a big believer that Nagy is on the hot seat, but I also know that he’s 1-5 against the Packers in three years. If Dalton is 2-3 and the offense is sputtering after five games with calls from coast-to-coast to play Fields, there’s going to be a strong argument that the rookie gives the Bears the best chance to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
It all depends on how you look at it. Starting Fields in Week 6 would set him up for a murderer’s row against the Packers, Buccaneers, 49ers, Steelers and Ravens to start his NFL career. On the other hand, not starting Fields could lead to the season spiraling out of control during that stretch.
I simply think Fields makes the Bears a better football team and I'll be surprised if he doesn’t start a game by Oct. 17 against Green Bay.
If the Bears exceed expectations, this happens…
Either Andy Dalton surprises the entire NFL with a career resurgence or Justin Fields plays and turns out to be everything he appears to be. And if we’re being honest, it might take both.
At this point, we know the blueprint because the Bears have drilled it into our heads: the 2017 Chiefs.
And yet, that team lost in the Wild Card round. As much as Nagy wants Dalton to be Alex Smith this year, there was a ceiling to that whole thing and Patrick Mahomes took it to the next level in 2018 when he became the starter. It makes you wonder what the 2017 Chiefs could have done had Mahomes taken over earlier.
Maybe that’s the real blueprint for success in 2021: Dalton wins games, but Fields still takes over because he’s better.
And what else happens in a dream scenario? Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet take off as legitimate fantasy football weapons in their sophomore seasons, giving the offense the weapons it needs. David Montgomery takes his strong finish to 2020 and turns it into a full 17-game season. Roquan Smith becomes an All-Pro and cornerback Jaylon Johnson gets in the conversation too. Khalil Mack goes back to being the superstar he was in 2018 and Robert Quinn becomes a legitimate threat in obvious pass rushing situations. Eddie Jackson piles up at least five interceptions and scores on two of them.
There’s a lot here, but it’s all on the list of realistic possibilities.
If the season spirals out of control, this happens…
Nagy’s offense continues to search for an identity in Year 4. The Dalton signing is another failure at the quarterback position and the switch to Fields either doesn’t happen or happens too late. Even if Fields plays, the concerns on the offensive line prove to be too much and Fields’ rookie year looks like Joe Burrow’s did on a losing team.
Remember, this is a team that lost six games in a row last year, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities of happening again. Nagy has proven to have the buy-in from players, which is why the Bears were able to pull out of that losing streak and make the playoffs last year, but what if it happens again? What if the defensive players get frustrated with the lack of help on the offensive side of the ball while Fields sits on the bench? Again, this is a doomsday scenario, but it’s happened before in the NFL.
And speaking of the defense, continued regression is at least on the table. Two cornerback spots are unresolved and could remain unresolved. Jaylon Johnson wouldn’t be the first promising Bears rookie to have a sophomore slump. Eddie Goldman’s availability has been a major issue in the preseason and could continue to be in the regular season. Age on defense is a real concern and could only get worse.
At left tackle, the Bears appear to be gambling with Jason Peters’ health, while hoping that either fifth-round rookie Larry Borom can contribute early or second-round pick Teven Jenkins comes back strong quickly from back surgery. Insert the yikes emoji here.
Most likely, some of the good stuff happens and some of the bad stuff happens too, which is why I think this is a team that will be around .500, most likely exiting the season with hope at the quarterback position and a fear that a good defensive window is closing.
I expect Mooney, Kmet and Johnson to be good players, but not necessarily Pro Bowlers in 2021. I think Roquan Smith will finally get the respect he deserves as an All-Pro. I fear Jackson’s best NFL season will end up being 2018. I fear Mack’s best season as a Bear will end up being 2018 too. I think Borom is the Bears’ future starting right tackle, but might be asked to do too much as a rookie. I think Montgomery and Allen Robinson will have big years on an offense that maybe — maybe — slips into the Top 20.
I’m all-in on Justin Fields. He’s special. He’s going to be really good for the Bears for a long, long time.
I’m just not all-in on the 2021 Bears.