Oh, what I would give to see Tarik Cohen doing donuts in a Polaris Slingshot.
Heck, even Matt Nagy would probably prefer that over the current reality.
Long gone are the days of showing up to training camp in style. It was just last year when Cohen irked his head coach by showing up to Olivet Nazarene University in a Slingshot, causing a stir with some borderline reckless driving.
The Bears had already said goodbye to Bourbonnais before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but this isn’t what they had planned for when they announced they would hold training camp in Lake Forest for the first time since 1983.
“Report day” in 2020 means nothing more than showing up and taking a coronavirus test. And then doing it again the next day. And the next day. Only after three negative tests are you actually allowed to enter the gorgeous renovated Halas Hall that has now been transformed into a socially distant NFL practice facility.
No donuts. Unless they’re packaged in a takeout container.
Welcome to the NFL in 2020. Here are your 10 Bears Things, which include plenty of insight from Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s annual training camp visit on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast (you can listen to the full interview here):
1. Nick Foles has arrived
Despite misguided rumors that the Bears’ newest quarterback might opt out of the 2020 season, Nick Foles is already at Halas Hall and participated in a walk-through that included quarterbacks and rookies Thursday.
“Beyond the physical traits that you've seen throughout his career, is just the person that he is,” Pace said in a lengthy conversation Thursday evening. “You've heard so much about it, but to finally see it in person and talk to him in person, you feel his experience, you feel his confidence, his charisma.”
It’s easy to forget that Foles hadn’t even seen Halas Hall since he was traded to the Bears in March.
“It was cool … just how excited he was with the quality of the facility, but then just the space and how we use it,” Pace said. “It was neat to see a veteran player's reaction to what we have and we're doing with it.”
Pace admitted that Foles is behind Trubisky when it comes to familiarity with his teammates, but there’s very little concern that one of the most likeable players in the NFL will catch up fast.
“Nick is going to have to get to know our players more than just over Zoom, but I think that is going to happen quickly, again, because of his personality. I think that's going to be easy for him,” Pace said.
That process has already begun. One moment in Thursday’s walk-through particularly caught the GM’s eye.
“I look over and all three of them are talking to different rookies and giving little tidbits and nuances of the offense,” Pace said. “All three of them know it so well. It's a really good quarterback room.”
2. Jacked-up Mitch
By now you’ve seen the videos of Trubisky working out with his teammates regularly at a local high school. He switched his personal quarterback coach. He’s talked about how determined he is in a pivotal season.
And apparently the Bears’ strength and conditioning staff noticed a difference when he showed up to Halas Hall this week.
“We're just a couple days into these walk-throughs, but when he walked into the building and had a couple sessions with our strength coaches, already they approached Matt and I just talking about, physically, how good he looks,” Pace said on the podcast. “You can see it, just his build right now, his physique right now, I think our strength coaches were really encouraged ... just where he's at physically. It's very obvious that he's been training very hard this summer.”
What difference that makes on the field remains to be seen, especially when it comes to dealing with pressure and reading defenses quickly. With no preseason games this year, I asked Pace how the Bears will try to simulate real pressure – the kind that exists in a game when quarterbacks can be hit and everything speeds up.
“That's real. I just think it's on us as a staff to do the best we can with the situation at hand,” Pace said.
He added that he hopes the Bears’ stellar defense makes it challenging on the quarterbacks, but also stressed that most of training camp will be structured with the quarterback competition in mind.
“We know how important it is. And I feel like whenever we're planning the schedule, Matt's in there with his coordinators and they're going over their schedules, I really think it starts with the quarterback position in mind first,” Pace said. “We want to make sure we're setting the schedule to make sure we're putting those guys where we can evaluate them accurately.”
3. Going virtual
Speaking of scheduling, there is one major change that is likely to stick around all season: more virtual meetings. Even though teams can gather together once again – and the Bears have created socially distant meeting rooms all over their campus, including a giant team meeting area inside the Walter Payton Center – many meetings will still take place over Zoom.
“I think there are times where Zoom meetings will fit in well. When you want to be really safe with it, I think Zoom is probably the best,” Pace said. “But in addition to that, we talk about sleep and recovery for our players. I think sometimes getting them home a little bit earlier where they can Zoom from home, getting them in bed a little bit earlier, those are all things we're mindful of.”
That doesn’t mean Nagy won’t want to have full team meetings at times, and Pace said the space inside the Walter Payton Center is designed to hold those meetings safely, but Nagy “will use those moments wisely,” according to the GM.
4. A huge opt-out
There’s an admitted awkwardness in discussing Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season because it’s both completely understandable and an enormous blow to a good defense.
From a life standpoint, good for him. He has a healthy contract that will toll for one season. He might as well keep himself healthy too. Honestly, I’m surprised more players haven’t opted out.
From a football standpoint, this hurts the Bears, but they have the depth – at least right now – to stomach the loss. And it’s better for defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers to know they don’t have Goldman now, than it would be to lose him mid-season.
Goldman is one of the best 3-4 run stuffers in the league and he doesn’t get enough appreciation as a pass rusher, often creating sacks for other players or sneaking through for one of his own. But there’s a reason he only played 44 percent of the available snaps last season. He typically comes off the field in sub packages. With Robert Quinn providing an upgraded pass rush opposite of Khalil Mack, it’s still going to make it hard for opposing offenses to find enough blockers. With Akiem Hicks, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols on the interior, there’s plenty of talent to get home to the quarterback.
Also, don’t sleep on 31-year-old John Jenkins, although we learned Thursday he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, which further stresses the depth at nose tackle. Jenkins is in his second stint with the Bears, and if he can return, he’ll be in a good place working with Rodgers again. The Bears not only love Rodgers as a coach, but also as an evaluator, allowing him to have a strong voice in player acquisitions on the defensive line, both through the draft and in free agency. Rodgers has a knack for getting the most out journeymen defensive linemen – just ask Nick Williams, who earned a 2-year, $10 million contract from the Lions at age 30. Jenkins may have only started five games for the Dolphins last year, but he was on the field for 43 percent of the snaps, virtually the same number as Goldman.
And if Jenkins isn’t available, then the Bears might look to the free agent market.
“There's avenues to improve it as we go forward to and of course we're looking at that,” Pace said. “And Jay's involved with that.”
5. Adjusting rookie expectations
When the NFL Draft was over in April, I penciled in tight end Cole Kmet, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney as players who would see the field early. That hasn’t changed, but with no preseason games, I do wonder if it's fair to expect those players to be up to speed by Week 1.
The good news for Kmet is that he’s been in the local area and participated in some of the workouts with Mitchell Trubisky and other skill position players. He’s also used to playing baseball in the spring and getting up to speed quickly in the fall. Last year he broke his collarbone in early August, but only missed two games before catching nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown against Georgia on Sept. 27.
In Johnson’s case, he was going to miss OTAs anyway because of labrum surgery. Perhaps some walkthroughs would have been beneficial, but it’s really just the 2.5-week delay in padded practices that will hurt the rookie cornerback.
But those are still lost reps, even if Nagy tries to make them up with more live periods in practice. And even those live sessions can’t replicate preseason game reps, which are always valuable for rookies.
That means if Johnson earns the starting job at cornerback, he’ll be thrown into the fire against a good Detroit Lions receiving group on Sept. 13. I have to imagine that at least hurts his chances of starting a little bit, but Pace is already raving about the IQ of this year’s draft class and said he’s been impressed with how prepared they’ve been in early walk-throughs.
“That lines right in with Jaylon Johnson. You guys know the type of football player he is, but the football IQ and the passion for the game, all those things are off the charts and I think that's really going to bode well for him, but there's a lot of competition at that outside corner position opposite Fuller and we just have to see it battle out,” Pace said. “I think it will be fun to watch.”
If Johnson isn’t ready to start right away, most seem to assume Artie Burns or Kevin Tolliver will slide in there, but the Bears do have other options. Buster Skrine has experience playing outside, which means you could keep him on the field on non-nickel downs. Perhaps Duke Shelley has improved enough to slide into the slot if Skrine plays outside. And don’t forget about Sherrick McManis, who has experience filling in at the nickel cornerback spot.
Of course, the best-case scenario is that Johnson shows up and runs away with a starting job.
6. Get Robinson signed
Bears fans somewhat panicked a two weeks ago when Allen Robinson said the Bears still hadn’t reached out to his agent about a contract extension. Well, two weeks ago significant salary cap discussions between the NFL and NFLPA were taking place. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a global pandemic going on.
That may not have stopped the Chiefs from giving Patrick Mahomes half a billion dollars, but um, that’s a little different.
Even with a pandemic, there’s no reason to worry about a Robinson extension not getting done… yet. Pace typically hands out a big extension to a deserving veteran right before the regular season begins. Robinson is the no-brainer recipient this year.
“Look, we know how good of a player Allen Robinson is,” Ryan Pace said on Hoge & Jahns. “And we know how important he is to our team. Not just a great player, but a great teammate and a huge part of our culture. So we recognize that.”
So why wait to extend him? Injuries, opt-outs, COVID-19, e.t.c. There’s really no need to rush it until right before the start of the season. If I’m Robinson, I’d like the security. 2021 isn’t necessarily the best year to be a free agent. If I’m Pace, I want my top wide receiver, who is still only 26, locked up.
I’ll be surprised if it’s not done by Week 1.
7. What happens if there is no college football?
There are a lot of reasons to doubt the existence of college football games this fall, but one of the reasons to believe there will be a season is the importance it has on the NFL Draft.
I asked Pace how devastating it would be to not have a college football season, and this was his response:
“It would be hard for so many reasons. And there's so many more important reasons. I look at it sometimes from myopic lenses of just us, but I think about the players at those schools and the experiences that they might miss out on and the coaches and the student bodies and the fan bases. That's hard. But for us, we'd have to lean on previous years' tape and there's so many guys you see -- especially these young players -- that blossom in the final year of their collegiate careers. There's different things that can happen, so it's just going to be unique. Every team is going to be dealing with the same thing. These are unprecedented times for sure.”
8. Don’t forget about…
With offseason and training camp interviews being held over Zoom there’s a much more limited pool of players the media has access to this year. That’s not a complaint, just a reality in this odd year, but it may lead to some players not getting the attention they deserve as this thing unfolds. With that in mind, here are three reserves you shouldn’t forget about:
Fullback/tight end JP Holtz – Picked up off waivers after Week 1 last year, Holtz became a reliable blocker, especially out of the backfield and a good special teamer. With the Bears moving on from Ben Braunecker, Holtz becomes even more important on special teams. And if Nagy uses more power in his run schemes this year, Holtz will have a big impact.
Offensive tackle Jason Spriggs – The former Packer is penciled in as this year’s veteran swing tackle. With Bobby Massie turning 31 on Saturday, that could be an important role on this team. Will Alex Bars push for a more permanent role at tackle?
Defensive end Brent Urban – Urban was quietly good after the Bears claimed him from the Titans mid-season. This is the perfect example of Jay Rodgers getting the most out of a reserve. With the defensive tackle depth already getting tested, Urban will be a key piece of the puzzle.
9. Ryan Pace is not on the hot seat… yet
This has been a Pace-heavy edition of 10 Bears Things, so we might as well address some of the national speculation that the Bears general manager is on the hot seat.
“Let’s just say that Bear success in the 2020 season is vital for Pace’s future,” Peter King wrote in this week’s Football Morning In America column.
When King writes/says things, they are notable because he is very well connected. And even when he’s just offering an opinion – which is what this felt like to me – it is a very well-informed opinion.
That said, speculation that Pace is on the hot seat seems to be driven more by the continued condemnation for not drafting Patrick Mahomes rather than an actual mandate at 1920 Football Drive dictating that the Bears must win big this season or changes will be made.
Look, there’s obviously frustration with the quarterback situation inside Halas Hall – it’s been that way for decades – but Pace is highly respected in the building. Chairman George McCaskey and President/CEO Ted Phillips have given Pace a lot of influence to build the right culture and lift the Bears into the 21st century with a facility that rivals the best in the NFL. They plan to see this through.
“I feel the full support from George and from Ted and our dialogue is constant, our communication is constant, and I really appreciate that,” Pace said this week. “I think it gives me and Matt a lot of energy and confidence as we go into the season.”
For every Mike Glennon and Cody Parkey signing, there’s a shrewd acquisition of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks or Allen Robinson. The ledger is more balanced than most want to admit. Do McCaskey and Phillips sometimes lay awake at night and think about what could have been with Mahomes as the face of the franchise? You’d hope they do. But they also realize the depths that Pace pulled the Bears out of to win the NFC North title in 2018. Last year was a terrible disappointment, but despite poor quarterback play, questionable coaching decisions and injuries that decimated the defense, the Bears still went 8-8. There's reason to believe they'll be better this season.
“We all have the same goals and the same vision for this season,” Pace said. “Last year was disappointing for all of us. That starts with me. That's hard to swallow. It's disappointing. There's a number of factors that went into that. Just being real with ourselves this offseason and making hard decisions, whether it's the roster or it's staff or it's different things we're doing here at Halas, all those hard decisions, I feel like they've been made or continue to be made.”
That’s not to say McCaskey and Phillips won’t have their own hard decisions to make at the end of 2020 if this season ends up being a disaster, but right now, there’s still a sense of belief that Pace and Nagy are the right duo to lead the Bears. And there’s also very little reason to believe 2020 will be a disaster for the Bears. This is a pretty good roster overall.
Could things change? Sure. It’s the NFL. Coaches and general managers are swapped out constantly. But it’s far more likely that the Bears compete for an NFC North title this fall, which will be enough for Pace to earn a seventh year as general manager.
10. Final Thought
2020 sucks. You know this by now. And it will suck a lot more if there’s no football. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re all worried there might not be football. And some of us also wonder whether it’s morally right to even try to play this season. But we all want football.
There’s a segment of the NFL media that seems to be almost rooting for COVID to affect the season. They want it.— Kyle Brandt (@KyleBrandt) July 27, 2020
They see the Marlins news and say, “Yep! Lots of luck, football!”
These are people who make their livings off football.
I don’t get it.
Look, I like Kyle. But this is an awful take.
No one is rooting for the virus.
Our livelihood as reporters also requires us to ask questions and seek the truth. Right now, the biggest question in football is: how are they going to pull this season off?
The Marlins outbreak in baseball has led to two Major League Baseball teams not playing games this week. Both the Marlins and Phillies are quarantined. This very well could happen in the NFL this year, where there are more players and much closer contact than in baseball, which is a socially distanced sport by nature.
Questioning how football is going to work is not rooting for the virus. It’s doing our jobs.
I started this column by mentioning how I wish I was in Bourbonnais right now. That’s not an opinion I thought I would have four months ago. I love everything about football and love bringing that passion to you in this column. If there’s no season, that all goes away. Frankly, a fall without football would be devastating.
By asking questions now – and by learning from what happened with the Marlins – it gives us all a better chance to enjoy our Sundays this fall.
No one is rooting for the virus.