With the Bears kicking off the 2019 NFL season Thursday night, we asked our Bears reporters at NBC Sports Chicago to offer their thoughts on a number of critical topics for the defending NFC North champions. Here's what JJ Stankevitz, John "Moon" Mullin and Cam Ellis had to say, starting with the biggest question:
1. Is Mitch Trubisky good enough to win the Bears a Super Bowl?
JJ: I’m going to say yes, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. The Bears need Mitch Trubisky to be better than he was last year, but they don’t absolutely, desperately, 100 percent need him to be a top five quarterback in the NFL to win a Super Bowl. This defense is still loaded with talent, and talent — moreso than coordinators — wins championships.
I think in the buildup to the season this fact may have been lost a bit: It’s hard to imagine Trubisky being worse in his third year in the NFL and second year in Matt Nagy’s scheme. If he somehow is, then no, Trubisky wouldn’t be good enough for the Bears to win the Super Bowl. But if 2018 is his baseline — him being a roughly average NFL quarterback — it’s difficult to see how that could be worse with another year of experience. Instead, as long as Trubisky is at the very least a slightly above average quarterback, the roster talent and coaching staff around him is good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Moon: For one thing, no quarterback drafted No. 2 has ever won a Super Bowl. (Sid Luckman doesn’t count just because there wasn’t a Super Bowl then.) But enough about superstition.
Based on Trubisky’s career performances of two years, he won’t join Namath in that pantheon. The fourth quarter of the playoff loss to Philadelphia hinted at “special” but the first three quarters were anything but, and that was the last time Trubisky played. That is, other than in training camp against a very, very good Bears defense, and again, he was nowhere near what a Super Bowl quarterback plays like. To win a Super Bowl means being able to take the measure of a top defense or at least one playing at an elite level, and Trubisky was consistently not playing his position at the level that his “opponents” were playing theirs.
“Super Bowl” may lie within the reach of his career span, but not without a significant step up in performance. He hasn’t shown the ability to take over a game and at some point in a championship game, that is required.
Cam: The Bears are good enough to win a Super Bowl with Mitch Trubisky. So I guess the answer to the original question is yes? He's no MVP candidate, but there's a realistic scenario where Trubisky plays well enough to find himself in Miami this February. Will he drag the Bears there through sheer will and 5,000 passing yards? I don't think so. I think Matt Nagy is good enough to coach Trubisky into being good enough for a Super Bowl run.
2. There’s been a lot of talk about the Bears’ defense regressing without Vic Fangio. Is that fair?
JJ: To an extent. Fangio was a deft play caller, and his scheme — especially in the back end — was complex and confusing for opposing offenses. Guys like Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller developed into ideal fits for it, and game-wreckers up front in Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks provided the disruptive forces any great defense needs.
But Fangio’s defense didn’t all of a sudden turn a bunch of mediocre talent into Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. The Bears’ defensive DVOA rankings in 2015-2017: 31st, 23rd, 14th. It’s no coincidence that the defense got better as the talent on it did (Akiem Hicks/Danny Trevathan/Leonard Floyd joined in 2016, Jackson/A healthy Fuller/Prince Amukamara in 2017, Mack and Roquan Smith in 2018). All those players return in 2019. Chuck Pagano is a smart defensive mind, but as Mack put it this week: “Ultimately it's up to the players to go out and execute."
Moon: No. One reason for the regression worry is simply the idolization of Fangio and the presumption that no Chuck Pagano can be as good. Not so. The second is that the game is ultimately in the hands of players, and to suppose that there will be any regression after the shattering disappointment in the playoffs borders on the unthinkable. Cody Parkey’s miss at the end drew attention away from the defense that allowed 21 first downs and two TD’s in the second half, culminating in the game-winning 60-yard drive in the final four minutes.
Cam: It's fair, if not a bit lazy. Eddie Jackson can't have more touchdowns than 90 percent of the league's wide receivers every year, and history shows us that interception totals fluctuate pretty arbitrarily. It's conceivable to think that they still might struggle against big plays, especially with Chuck Pagano blitzing more frequently than Fangio did. With that said, it's hard to see too much regression on a team with All-Pro caliber talent at every level of the defense. Trying to pick apart this defense looking for problems is what happens when you have to sit through six weeks of preseason.
3. How much do you trust Eddy Pineiro?
JJ: Right now, you trust him until he loses that trust. Yes, Pineiro’s shanked PAT in the Bears’ final preseason game was brutal, and yes, he’ll head into Thursday night having never made a field goal longer than 40 yards in a game at Soldier Field. But he has a strong leg and a good attitude toward the whole Bears’ kicking mess. He’ll need to build on that trust — and not lose it — over the first few weeks of the season. But I have him as the Bears' kicker for all 16 regular season games in 2019.
Moon: As far as he can kick – or not kick – and extra points. So, about 30 yards. The fact is that he may develop into something special, and he’s got the leg power to become a howitzer for getting points out of stalled drives.
But Cody Parkey left scar tissue, first of all. And second, if the Bears were themselves all that trusting, they don’t flirt with trading for Kaare Vedvik. The reality: Every Piniero kick is a prove-it moment.
Cam: At this point I'd trust Eddy Pineiro to water my plants, but I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog. Does that make sense? He's got all the leg talent he needs, but you can't really know what it takes to kick through the worst of Soldier Field weather until you do it. For better or for worse, Pineiro's their guy for the foreseeable future. He seems like someone who thrives on self-confidence (that's a good thing!), so coming out of the gate hot might be key when November/December comes around.
I think he'd hit from 43, if that's what you're asking.
4. Who’s one player not named Mitch Trubisky you’re particularly interested in watching this year?
JJ: David Montgomery. There are so many guys to choose from here on both sides of the ball, but Montgomery should be able to do two things Jordan Howard couldn’t: Make opposing defenders miss, and be a receiving threat out of the backfield.
If the third-round pick from Iowa State can do those two things, the Bears’ offense will be significantly better off for it. Howard made only 23 defenders miss in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, and caught 20 of 26 targets for 145 yards. It’s reasonable to expect Montgomery’s numbers in those two categories to be higher, affording the Bears more success on first-and-10, which will be a major positive contributor to the overall health of the offense.
Moon: Tie between Leonard Floyd/Roquan Smith. The Bears have potentially two of the most versatile linebackers since Brian Urlacher/Lance Briggs, with Floyd and Smith possessed of the talent, speed and instincts to be the true tips of the defensive spear. Both can cover. Both can blitz. Both play on the edge of out-of-control but within the scheme, which makes both the scheme and them something to watch.
Cam: Roquan Smith. He looked head and shoulders better than other pro football players during training camp. With all the attention on Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson – plus an aggressive Pagano scheme – I think Smith's going to put up huge numbers this season. And he'll also be like, a top-five coverage linebacker because, again, Roquan Smith is really good.
5. What’s the Bears’ final record, and where do they finish in the NFC North?
JJ: I’m going with 10-6, which is a classic hedge of a prediction. If everything goes right for the Bears, they could go 13-3, even against a first-place schedule. If a few things go wrong, 8-8 could be in their future, if not worse. So I’m going to go in the middle here, leaning on the roster talent and coaching staff in place as being good enough to get the Bears back to the playoffs as — narrowly — NFC North champions. I also have the Minnesota Vikings going 10-6, but will give the divisional tiebreaker to the Bears.
Moon: 10-6, which will be good enough to win the division by one game. The schedule is markedly more difficult – not just the first-place part of it, which just means two division winners instead of two fourth-place finishers, but primarily the stretch after London and the off week which confront the Bears with four playoff teams in five weeks – teams with 47 combined regular-season wins in ’18. The season concludes with visits from Dallas and Kansas City sandwiched around trips to Green Bay and Minnesota. The margin for error in the NFL is slim to begin with and the Bears need to show that they have improved enough on offense to give their defense a bit of that margin.
Cam: On the Under Center Podcast, I said 10-6 and have hated myself and that pick ever since. So I'm hedging a bit here and saying the Bears are going to finish 2nd in the division with a 9-7 record. They'll play teams close, but there are too many tough games on the schedule for a double-digit win total. They'll underwhelm at times through the season and then be That Team No One Wants To See In The Wild Card.
Rapid Fire! (For explanations on these, and other predictions, download Sunday’s edition of the Under Center podcast)
Khalil Mack sacks
JJ: 16 1/2
Mitch Trubisky yards/TDs/INTs:
JJ: 3,750 yards, 27 TDs, 10 INTs
Moon: 3,751 yards, 30 TDs, 6 INTs
Cam: 4,100 yards, 29 TDs, 11 INTs
Eddie Jackson touchdowns
Kyle Fuller interceptions
Roquan Smith tackles
Tarik Cohen total yards (rushing + receiving):
Eddy Pineiro field goal percentage:
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