It took four years and virtually an entire turnover of front office, coaching staff and roster, but the Bears are back on top of the NFC North early in a season.
Coach Matt Nagy said last week that he’d seen how his team responded to a tough loss, shrugging off the collapse in Green Bay and rebounding to defeat Seattle. His next horizon was to see how his team responded to a victory, with an added mini-payoff of climbing ahead of the Packers and Minnesota Vikings.
He found out.
The Bears (2-1) took the field against the Cardinals with a chance to move into first place in the NFC North, shook off early issues on both sides of the football and won for the second straight week with a 16-14 comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals (0-3).
“[The Cardinals] came out and scored 14 points [in the first quarter],” Nagy said, “and it’s a credit to our guys that they rallied.”
Nagy’s young team did not dominate against a bottom-feeder that had scored a total of six points in two previous games but rang up 14 in Sunday’s first quarter. The Chicago quarterback had another undistinguished performance.
But they won without playing well start to finish, which suggests that when quarterback Mitch Trubisky does figure out how the key fits into the ignition switch of the offense that the Bears could have something in the offing at a time when their biggest rivals are scuffling. A Bears defense that made costly mistakes to allow two first-quarter touchdowns then forced three punts and four turnovers in Arizona’s final seven possessions.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we’re winning games because of our defense,” Nagy said. “But that doesn’t mean the offense isn’t a huge part of this.”
The offense did generate 316 yards, its first 300-yard day of 2018, and Trubisky had his first 200-yard (220) passing game this season. But the Bears in the final analysis won with average-at-best quarterback play. Trubisky completed 24 of 35 passes for those 220 yards, but lost a fumble, had a screen pass deflected into an interception, missed multiple downfield throws and took a third-down sack that cost 15 yards before a missed field goal on the Bears opening possession. His 73.5 passer rating did not reach even his modest career average (77.9).
“We’re getting better,” Nagy insisted. “He’s getting better.”
Trubisky is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes on the season. And the Bears have moved the football into opponents’ side of the field on 11 of the last 21 Chicago possessions, albeit with too many field goals rather than touchdowns.
“We just have to finish in the red zone and when we cross the 50,” Trubisky said. “We want touchdowns.”
Leading a division in September means nothing. But how it came to be might, because of what happened to Green Bay and Minnesota and what it suggests about a division that is in fact not out of reach even for a developing Bears team.
The last time the Bears were in such rarified NFC North air after three games was Marc Trestman’s second year (2014), and after four straight years finishing in the division cellar, the change in view is at least noteworthy.
The NFC North on Sunday did set up nicely for the Bears, with Minnesota blown out, at home, by the previously lowly Buffalo Bills, this while Green Bay was going into Washington and losing to the Redskins in a game with, of course, the requisite bizarre roughing-the-passer penalty called on Clay Matthews.
The weekly attempts at discerning exactly what the 2018 Bears are will continue. Along with that come assessments of Nagy, who twice burned timeouts making decisions to go for field goals.
“I’m growing right now with decision-making,” Nagy conceded with a smile. “These are all situations, I’m learning as I go, and I’m OK with that.”
Which, after a 2-1 start, a road win and a defense that projects to keep the Bears in games against even good teams, is probably the right perspective.