The Bears had two offseasons. There was the before-Justin Fields offseason and the after-Justin Fields offseason.
The former was full of angst and relentless calls for everyone to be fired. The latter was universally celebrated as if Fields had already been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Somewhere between the two extremes is the now and Tuesday marked a needed return to reality as Bears veterans reported to Halas Hall in Lake Forest for the start of training camp. Both offseasons are officially over and even head coach Matt Nagy acknowledged it’s time for results.
“You’ve gotta win. That's keeping it really simple,” Nagy said when asked what he needs to do to retain the belief from his bosses. “That's every team's goal every year is to do that. We want to do it the right way.”
Drafting Fields certainly bought Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace some goodwill – if not time – but there’s still a very real chance Fields is standing on the sideline with a headset when the Bears open up the regular season in Los Angeles on Sept. 12. That means starting the season with Andy Dalton at quarterback – and let’s not forget the Dalton acquisition came at the climax of the before-Justin Fields offseason. Fans were livid.
But Nagy and Pace continue to ask for trust in their quarterback plan, which is both fair and frightening for a franchise that has never gotten the position right. In fact, it’s one of many leaps of faith the Bears are asking their fans to make in 2021.
- The Bears could start a rookie at left tackle – one that primarily played on the right side in college.
- Two of three cornerback spots are up for grabs and the other will be manned by talented second-year pro Jaylen Johnson, who needs to make a jump and show he can play a full 17-game schedule.
- The Bears’ success at wide receiver will likely hinge on the jump Darnell Mooney makes in his second season.
- Other than minor additions, the Bears’ plan to improve their pass rush consists of hoping Khalil Mack is healthier, Robert Quinn is better and new defensive coordinator Sean Desai schemes it up more effectively.
These are just a few examples that can be viewed either through a positive or negative prism, perhaps determined by which offseason (before- or after-Fields) you enjoyed more.
All four of the above situations exist partly because of the tough salary cap situation the Bears are in, but at some point every franchise needs to let go of veterans to save cap space and rely on the development of their draft picks. The league hinges on the development of young players and having the quarterback position solved.
So as much as the focus will (correctly) be on Dalton-Fields, there’s a good chance that the success or failure of the 2021 Chicago Bears season will be determined by the amount of development that happens with a young group of players in their first or second year in the league – none of whom have experienced a full blown training camp/preseason due to last year’s COVID-shortened team activities.
If players like Johnson, Mooney, rookie left tackle Teven Jenkins, cornerback Kindle Vildor, pass rusher Trevis Gipson and tight end Cole Kmet develop like the Bears hope, then they’ll probably be a playoff-caliber team regardless of if/when Justin Fields starts a game. And if they don’t, then Fields’ presence probably won’t make much of a difference in 2021 anyway – especially because he’s still a rookie.
Back in January, Bears chairman George McCaskey asked for some trust when he brought Pace, Nagy and team president Ted Phillips back for another year. Pace and Nagy then asked for some trust when they brought Dalton into the picture and later released cornerback Kyle Fuller and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. And now they’re asking for trust when it comes to getting the quarterback position right and developing many key young players, including Fields.
It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out over the next six months. It might even work out. But you can’t really blame Bears fans for being skeptical.
It’s all a leap of faith. Who's in?