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Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

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USA TODAY

Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

At some point of Thursday’s first night of the draft, history says that some team will push a big pile of draft chips over in front of another team at the NFL table in return for the latter’s pick. Some of those will work out; others will be considerably less than successful.

Just ask the Bears. Ask them why some of those mega-deals work and others don’t.

Last year it was Arizona trading up from No. 15 to Oakland’s spot at No. 10, taking quarterback Josh Rosen. The deal netted little, unless you believe that the NFL’s worst record and this year’s No. 1-overall pick count for something.

In 2017 it was the Bears going all-in for a one-spot move and Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears at least cashed one playoff check. Kansas City traded two No. 1’s and a 3 to move from 27 to 10 for Patrick Mahomes. Two slots later Houston traded two No. 1’s to move from No. 25 to 12 for Deshaun Watson.

The Bears, Chiefs and Texans all cashed playoff checks last offseason.

In 2016 the Rams traded up from 15 to No. 1 overall for Jared Goff. Philadelphia jumped from No. 8 to No. 2 for Carson Wentz. Both teams were in the 2017 and 2018 postseason, the Rams in the last Super Bowl.

In the might’ve-been category, Bears general manager Ryan Pace pondered a move from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 in a quest for Marcus Mariota but judged the price too steep.

The Cardinals’ Rosen gamble and the Bears’ for Trubisky – plus three other Bears mega-deals – offer case studies on the do’s and don’t’s of blockbuster trades involving top draft picks.

Three times in the past decade, and once 10-plus years before that, the Bears rocked the NFL with franchise-altering trades for what they hoped would be franchise-defining talents. Twice they appear to have gotten what they bargained for; twice, not so much, for intriguingly similar reasons.

These deals form a collective object lesson for teams (Oakland? Arizona?) contemplating the kinds of trades this week that the Bears made that brought them Jay Cutler, Khalil Mack, Rick Mirer and Mitchell Trubisky. Only the Bears-49ers deal that secured Trubisky represented a specifically draft-weekend trade; Cutler happened 10 years ago, ahead of the 2009 draft, Mirer was moved in February 1997 for a Bears No. 1 and Mack was a late-preseason deal.

But the four together serve as a collective trail of breadcrumbs regarding what is typically the difference between those kinds of blockbusters working out vs. blowing up on the acquiring team, in those cases the Bears, this draft, someone else.

Finding “It”

The critical element is, pure and simple, football character. It’s not talent. It’s the “It Factor.”

“The competitiveness, a guy playing with, we call it ‘dog’ or energy or swagger, those kinds of things,” Pace said. “There's more specific things I don't want to get to, but I would just say you can feel a guy's football character on tape and we're really strong on that.”

Mack and Trubisky have that essential football character, the “It Factor;” Cutler and Mirer didn’t. And the results reflected it.

The Cleveland Browns snagged “undersized” quarterback but leadership-heavy Baker Mayfield and improved by seven wins last season and by four prime-time games going into this one. Irrespective of any trade situations here, the Browns, like the Bears, can vouch for what happens without “It” – Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn.

Cutler, Mirer: leadership-lite

If there is a jolting difference that sticks out, it is that Pace very clearly has made football character a priority (Mike Glennon notwithstanding). Others haven’t.

Those inside Halas Hall at the time recall the personnel staff asking for evaluations of Cutler by the coaching staff. Those were done and included prescient, serious reservations about Cutler’s leadership and personality.

Those were disregarded by the dealmakers as not significant. They were. Cutler's Chicago teammates said all the right things about him, even as he was shoving one offensive lineman coming off the field, told another to shut up and play his own position at another point and was telling one position coach, on the practice field, to back off his fundamentals.

Cutler took a Lovie Smith team that reached the 2005 postseason behind Kyle Orton and the 2006 Super Bowl with Rex Grossman, and missed the playoffs four of his five Smith years, then in both of his Marc Trestman years and both of his John Fox years. Grossman and Orton were a combined 40-24 in Chicago. Cutler was 51-51.

Cutler simply wasn’t worth what the Bears gave up for him. It seemed obvious at the time (certain commentators who will remain nameless here were roasted for saying so at the time) and it proved out. He was in Chicago exactly what he’d been in Denver. He was the same middling quarterback with suspect “weapons” as he was with Pro Bowl’ers Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, behind an offensive line that included Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long, both Pro Bowl players.

Mirer was a disaster after the Bears chose to ignore his dismal four years with the Seattle Seahawks and give away. Mirer seemed perceptibly overmatched by the game when he was given three starts in ’97, all losses. He had no confidence and, worse, inspired none.

On the other hand, Mack and Trubisky… 

A rookie Trubisky told veteran Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to shut up in a 2017 huddle (no one is supposed to talk in there except the quarterback), which Sitton respected and recounted. Not the same thing as embarrassing or disrespecting. Head coach Matt Nagy on more than one occasion last season made mention of Trubisky’s reactions to adversity and mistakes.

Football character. There is something to be said about a rookie quarterback who earns a complimentary nickname – “Pretty Boy Assassin" – from the defense for what he was doing to them running scout team. The defense’s nickname for Cutler doesn’t clear NBC censorship standards.

Mack brought with him from Oakland not only sacks, but also a mindset that took root in and resonated with an already-strong defensive unit.

“When you bring a guy like Khalil in,” Pace said, “I think the longer you’re around him, it’s not just the player, it’s his work ethic and it’s his professionalism and it’s everything he is as a person. And to have your best player be absolutely one of your harder workers is a great thing to have as a franchise.”

Football character.

The unfortunate reality is that character is harder to assess than talent. But as a handful of Bears transactions involving all-important high-round draft choices (and quarterbacks) have repeatedly demonstrated, arm strength, size, 40-times, all that stuff, don’t make up for a missing “It” factor if that targeted player doesn’t have “It.”

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Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

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USA TODAY

Another day, another reason why Bears won the Khalil Mack trade

Oh, now this is a doozy.

As if it wasn't obvious enough already, the Bears absolutely won the Khalil Mack trade over the Raiders. Not only did they acquire the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, but they did so when the rival Green Bay Packers were also interested. Based on a recent revelation from Packers president Mark Murphy, the extent to which the Bears won the trade is greater than we may have realized. 

In an interview with 105.7 The FAN, Murphy revealed a unique reason as to why the Raiders chose the Bears over the Packers.

"Well the whole Khalil Mack thing. It's not that we didn't try," Murphy said on Thursday. "We were aggressive. We wanted to sign him. I think, ironically, the Raiders took the Bears offer because they thought they would be a better draft pick."

As it turned out, the Packers had a higher first-round pick (No. 12 overall) than the Bears (No. 24) in 2019. This very well could change in 2020, but for the time being, let's get this straight.

Not only did the Bears acquire one of the best (if not the best) defensive players in football, but:

-Their trade package was highlighted by what should be two late first round picks (assuming the Bears remain a playoff team in 2019), and
-Acquiring Mack kept him out of Green Bay.

Talk about absolutely winning a deal. In the end, the Bears have a three-time All-Pro (2015-16, 2018) pash rusher entering his age 28 season. The Raiders and Packers surely cannot say the same thing.

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Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be


How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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