As their 2018 schedule made its way through November and into December, the Bears were in the process of winning nine of their final 10 regular-season games. But within the heady blitz of the league, a stretch which matched that of the 1985 team’s final 10, lay some questions that hang over the 2019 group.
First, some context: Over the span of the first five of those 10 games, all wins, the Bears scored six return touchdowns. The Bears won the five games by an average of 14 points. Then the faucet of defensive touchdowns stopped with Eddie Jackson’s game-winning interception in Detroit.
The Bears lost to the Giants in New York the following game, then won the final four – by an average of 8.6 points. Over the final eight games, including the playoff loss to Philadelphia, the offense failed to score more than 17 points five times.
Obscuring any nagging shortcomings of the offense, the defense was throttling opponents such that six of the final seven rival offenses failed to top 17 points.
In three of the final five games, including the playoff loss to the Eagles, the Bears failed to top 15 points (15 vs. Rams, 14 at San Francisco, 15 vs. Philadelphia). This compared to the first nine games of 2018 in which the Bears scored 23 or more eight times.
The offense exceeded 390 yards five times in the first nine game, including 400-plus in four of those. The offense topped out at 376 through last eight games, and that in the loss to the New York Giants, in which Chase Daniel started for an injured Trubisky. After the 402 yards in the first Detroit game, the offense behind Trubisky max’ed out at 332 yards over the final five regular-season games before a “surge” to 356 in the playoff loss to Philadelphia.
The question arises:
The question all of that points to is that while coach Matt Nagy, quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the offense were settling in and living their learning process, how much was the NFL catching onto and learning them?
“I think what the league does and what defenses do in general is that they eventually do catch up to specific offenses,” Nagy acknowledged. “And schemes you do the second time you see something, they can adjust to it.”
Anecdotal evidence is inconclusive or conflicting. On one hand, the scoring slippage as 2018 wound down suggested loosely that opponents were in fact doing their due diligence in film study. On the other hand, the Bears had generally the same production of points, first downs and yards in games 1-2 vs. Green Bay and Minnesota. On still another hand, the Bears put 34 points and 402 yards on the Lions in Soldier Field, then managed just 264 yards and 16 points in that Thanksgiving game 11 days later, winning only with a Jackson pick-6 in the fourth quarter.
Hence the question: Was/is the NFL catching onto Nagy?
“I don’t think so,” said former Bears quarterback Jim Miller, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I saw a lot of growth throughout last year and I really like the way Nagy brought Mitch along.”
If there in fact are issues coming with league familiarity with Nagy and Trubisky, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Bears’ new, bright, shiny offensive toy was out’ed by an NFL that can stand for “Not For Long.”
About this time 20 seasons ago, a flashy start in a new offensive system – 20 first-half points to produce a 17-point halftime lead against the Kansas City Chiefs under then-new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton – was followed by being shut out in the second half by the Chiefs, and coach Gunther Cunningham denigrating the Crowton offense as trite “razzle dazzle.”
Cunningham’s derision proved prophetic: The Bears averaged 17.0 points for the year, 25th in the NFL, a league that very quickly caught on to Crowton and his bubble screens and assorted razzles and dazzles.
That kind of precipitous drop-off for the current Bears offensive iteration isn’t likely. The Crowton scheme relied on gimmicks; the Nagy offense employs gimmicks but isn’t gimmicky, tracing its concepts to the longtime, proven-sound West Coast principles of Andy Reid and others.
“You want to be able to be different with what you do and not be predictable and not have tendencies,” Nagy said during last season. “We always self-scout ourselves and we decide what we want to do going into each game.”
The great unknown: Trubisky’s – and Nagy’s – upside
The requisite question at this point last year and now again this year, albeit for slightly different reasons, is how good will Mitch Trubisky be now that the NFL has had a year of him on film and an offseason to plan for Trubisky and, by extension, offensive architect Nagy?
“I think a game that really stands out was the [second] Minnesota game,” Miller said of the season finale, a game in which Trubisky and the offense put up 24 points and 332 yards on a top-five defense based on Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. Trubisky was the model of efficiency, completing 18 of 26 passes against a team going all-in with a playoff spot at stake.
“[Minnesota coach] Mike Zimmer threw everything at Trubisky, blitzed all over, and Mitch handled it,” Miller said. “I’m not sure he would have been able to early in the season. But Mitch outplayed Minnesota’s $84-million quarterback [Kirk Cousins].”
Apart from the natural unknowns as to upside/ability (Trubisky’s 27 NFL games have been split, 12 in one system, 15 in Nagy’s, while all 19 of Patrick Mahomes’ and 24 of Deshaun Watson’s have been with the same system), last year it was how the Bears quarterback projected to be in an entirely new offensive system under a new coaching staff. This year one major element, presumably positive, becomes how he and the rest of his mates on that side of the football will be with a year invested with that staff and system.
But there is a hugely significant variable/unknown, one over which the Bears have only so much actual control.
That lies in what Bears opponents took away from year one of Trubisky/Nagy and what they do with the information. Trubisky had started 12 games in 2017 but that was under coordinator Dowell Loggains and a conservative head coach in John Fox. Even with his limited experience, Trubisky had the advantage of being a relative unknown, particularly operating with a dramatically different scheme and mindset.
This year, no such “advantage.” And that will be the case right from the season’s outset, which pits Trubisky against a team – Green Bay – which has seen him more times (three) than any other group than the Minnesota Vikings (four) or Detroit Lions (three).
Most NFL teams front-load preparation around their opening-week opponent, in the interest of getting a max start on the season and also because that opponent is simply the one with virtually unlimited time before its game, rather than the standard one-week in-season window. Meaning: Trubisky is prepping for the Packers a little bit at a time, just as the Packers are preparing for him, even as we speak.
In week two, the Bears go to Denver. Vic Fangio won’t need a whole lot of help game-planning for Trubisky/Nagy. After going to Washington, Trubisky faces Zimmer and the Vikings, whose defenses have held Trubisky to a combined 69.0 passer rating and underwhelming 59.3 percent completion rate in the four games against Chicago with Trubisky.
Last year vs. 2019
The dominant storyline throughout training camp 2018, the accompanying preseason and the ensuing regular season – extending into and through the resulting playoff game – was the development of Trubisky. Along with that was the evolving landscape that was/is the Bears offense according to Nagy.
For a while, both storylines were on course for happy endings. Indeed, the record shows that the Bears flirted with a stratospheric average of 30 points per game (29.9) around the midpoint of a 12-win season. The offense benefited from points scored by the defense, such things as touchdown interception returns by Prince Amukamara, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Khalil Mack. The Bears aren’t likely to amass 36 takeaways and six return touchdowns a second straight season.
So now the same questions of Trubisky and the Nagy offense resonate again, albeit in different ways than a year ago. And Trubisky has self-scouted on what he has done and needs to do to keep the rest of the league from overtaking him.
“I would say just my overall development, my growth, how I continue to get better, how I have just the same mind-set I came in with,” Trubisky said, adding, “and how I just stay humble, continue to work hard.
“I know I haven’t played my best football yet.”
Nagy was hired to make “best football” happen for Trubisky and associates. That involves keeping Trubisky and Bears football in general ahead of the NFL’s defensive learning curve:
“It’s our job,” Nagy said. “We control every play… . I always talk about, they’re chasing the cat’s tail. So we’ll have some new wrinkles this year. We’ll do some different things and then they’re going to have to adjust to that.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.