With their 41-9 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Bears finished their first half-season under a rookie head coach with as many wins – five – as they had all last season under John Fox. For a franchise groping and flailing in large part ever since the end of the Lovie Smith regime, reaching 5-3 at midseason represents an accomplishment in itself, at least a numerical one, if for no other reason than the Bears for a second straight week showed they can indeed win a game without a Khalil Mack or Allen Robinson.
The record isn’t the real point, though, so much as the progress, or how real that progress it actually is.
“I feel like myself and the guys on the team, we still carry ourselves with a chip on our shoulders,” said quarterback Mitch Trubisky. “We’re trying to earn that respect across the league that we are a good team in all three phases and that we can play with anybody.”
Grading on a curve: Last season the Bears lost five games by 10 or more points, down from six in 2016. With coaching and personnel changes, the Bears’ three losses this year have been by a total of 11 points. The Buffalo game was the fifth straight with the Bears scoring 24 or more points, the longest stretch since five consecutive 24-plus outings in 2011, a run that ended, along with the season, when Jay Cutler broke his thumb against San Diego.
The Bears were 5-3 halfway through Marc Trestman’s first year (2013), then lost at home the next week to the Detroit Lions (coincidentally, the Bears do happen to host the Lions next week) to begin a spiral from which they never really recovered.
Leading one’s division means absolutely nothing at midseason. So the Bears being ahead of Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota won’t count for anything if quarterback Mitch Trubisky can’t reverse his division fortunes for the 0-6 he’s produced in his 20 games as Bears starter. He’ll get the chance to start that next Sunday when the Bears begin a Lions-Vikings-Lions schedule stretch over the period of 12 days.
And mauling a team establishes nothing as to whether the Bears are a good team or not. The Bills are a top-five yardage defense, were second in the NFL in interceptions before Sunday (they intercepted Trubisky once), and annihilated the Minnesota Vikings by 21 points.
“You have to keep on building on what you’re doing well,” said tight end Trey Burton, holder of a Super Bowl ring from last season as a Philadelphia Eagle. “Fortunately there’s a lot of things that we’re doing well right now… You know all we have to do is win. Don’t listen to what the guys are saying on the outside and focus on what we’re doing on the inside.”
For the time being, though, the Buffalo game suggests another step in the growing-up process for the Bears. This was a situation that could have fallen into the trap of the Florida Follies (Tampa Bay-Miami), in which the Bears whacked a bad team (the Buccaneers back in September, the Jets last week), then took their feet off the gas in a game against a shaky, severely quarterback-challenged team.
Nagy’s charges appeared to have learned a lesson from the Miami debacle (defensive players were talking the night before about the prospect of getting to face Brock Osweiler because of the injury to Ryan Tannehill), and simply attacked Buffalo from the outset and kept attacking.
In that respect, pounding an offense-less Bills team represented a significant midseason step forward beyond just the scoreboard. The Bears won with a pedestrian Trubisky performance (12-of-20 passing for 135 yards, the second-lowest output of his last 19 games, and his lowest rushing total (six yards) of the season. Trubisky still has some accuracy issues to work through but the problems Sunday were caused by the other side of the football.
But Trubisky, the centerpiece of so much of the Bears for ’18 and beyond, won a game when he wasn’t strikingly dominant. That alone is noteworthy.
“I cannot begin to tell you how good this [Buffalo] defense is,” Nagy said. “The No. 1 thing is we won. That always is the only thing that matters. No. 2, there were times in that game where he just led that team and he made plays when we needed him to make plays. That’s what’s most important as we go through this process with Mitch. He’s putting us in great situations. I really am just proud of him.”
This year has been a learning process, for coach and players, each getting a true sense of each other, and doing that learning in very real time, as in an NFL season. Nagy has described several steps of that process, some good, some not-so: goods being learning to recover from a devastating loss (Green Bay); learning to respond to a comeback win (Arizona); the not-so’s being not learning how to play after an off-week (Miami) or learning not to let up against a quarterback-challenged opponent (also Miami). The Bears didn’t that this time.
As for the game at hand, Sunday was a rare triumph for all three phases, with the offense scoring three touchdowns, the defense scoring two, and special teams setting one up with a 38-yard Tarik Cohen punt return in addition to two-for-two field goals by Cody Parkey. All of this despite 14 penalties. You can only play the team across from you, and thrashing a doormat is what an aspiring young team is supposed to do.
Five of the requisite division games remain on the schedule, three coming in the span of 12 days, beginning next Sunday against the Detroit Lions at home and Minnesota the next week, followed on Thanksgiving by a trip to Detroit. If there’s a concern it would be that Trubisky is 0-6 against NFC North opponents, albeit four of the defeats coming by seven or fewer points.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot as a team, but we’re also eager to get into the division play,” Trubisky said. “We’re excited to get back to work and prove ourselves in the division. We can’t wait to get back to Soldier Field to defend home field, so we feel like we’re in a good place.”