The smattering of Bears players who spoke in a quiet locker room following their humbling 36-25 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday all were able to admit their current predicament: This is a team lacking an identity on offense and missing it on defense.
But none of the players who talked believed the problems facing the 3-3 Bears are beyond repair.
“We essentially have the same guys as last year, we have the same pieces,” wide receiver Anthony Miller said. “We just gotta put it together. And I know eventually we will do that.”
Why does he believe that?
“Because we’re good,” Miller said. “We’re stacked. We got dogs everywhere. We got the pieces. We just gotta put them together.”
Running back Tarik Cohen echoed Miller’s words, saying things are “definitely fixable.” There may be a ton of things to fix on offense — from quarterback play, to route running, to run-play design, to playcalling, to run blocking, and so on — but the Bears aren’t saying they’re ready to give up.
This is a team that went 12-4 last year, after all, with largely the same group of players.
“I think it’s more encouraging that we have done it in the past,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “And we have a positive coaching staff. When we came in here after there wasn’t a lot of mother f’s and a whole bunch of volumes at 10. No one was yelling. And I feel like we have a pretty confident and mature group to where we know what we have to get done.”
Two thoughts on this, though:
The first: This is a team that did not shy away from sky-high expectations when players and coaches reported to Bourbonnais for training camp in late July. Cohen used the word “dynasty,” and with a young core and renowned coaching staff, you could see how he believed it was possible.
But through six games, reaching a Super Bowl in the franchise’s 100th season looks like a fever dream. For the Bears, improving off 2018 would have meant earning a first-round bye, which feels out of the question right now. Just making the playoffs again would now be an accomplishment — yet it would also be a disappointment to only make the playoffs after expecting so much out of this team two months ago.
The larger thought here: What have the Bears done in the calendar year of 2019 that makes reaching the playoffs a legitimate possibility?
Only a handful of players are having better seasons in 2019 than they had in 2018. Wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Danny Trevathan head that list. Defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams are on it to varying degrees. The Bears have a superior kicker in Eddy Pineiro than they had in Cody Parkey. Cordarrelle Patterson is a better kick returner — as he showed with his 102-yard touchdown Sunday — than the Bears had at any point last year.
But other than that group, players on this team have not improved. And in a lot of cases, they’ve regressed.
Members of that regression list through Week 7: Mitch Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton, the entire offensive line, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. That is not an exhaustive list, either.
Players brought in to be upgrades or replacements have either been just as good as their predecessors (Buster Skrine, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) or less productive (David Montgomery, Mike Davis). Losing Akiem Hicks to injured reserve sidelined one of the two best players on the Bears' defense for a minimum of eight weeks.
And the Bears’ offensive coaching staff is providing fewer answers, starting with Matt Nagy, than it did a year ago. There’s less concern about Chuck Pagano’s defense, but allowing star Saints wideout Michael Thomas to have nine catches for 131 yards with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook out probably hurt the exchange rate for Chuck Bucks.
The Bears staked their 2019 hopes on continuity and targeted improvement at certain positions. So far, continuity has led to regression. And those targeted improvements — specifically in the backfield — haven't delivered actual upgrades.
The Bears were a great team in 2018. In games played in 2019, they’re 3-4. Players and coaches can keep telling themselves they’ve done it before, but the more they keep playing like the 2019 Bears and less like the 2018 Bears, the more a reality of mediocrity will set in.
“I’m never worried,” Cohen said. “I trust the guys in this locker room and I trust the coaching staff. We’re going to get the job done.”