Bears

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Chicago Bears, playoffs, 2017 – where are you?

"Playoffs? Don't talk about—playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?!... .”   Jim Mora, Indianapolis Colts coach, 2001.

or...

“I do expect [the Bears] to be in the playoff conversation come mid/late December,” Chris Simms to NBC Sports Chicago.

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Josh Sitton was a Pro Bowl Green Bay guard when the 2015 Packers began that season going 1-2, at which point quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a radio interview gave Green Bay fans a simple word of advice:

“R-E-L-A-X,” said Rodgers, who’d uncharacteristically completed less than 60 percent of his passes in the previous two games.

The stress-reduction suggestion appeared to work somewhere, since the Packers rolled off 10 wins in their next 11 games on their way to an overtime loss in the NFC Championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.

It’s obviously easy to relax when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback: “It’s about the confidence that comes from winning,” said Sitton, a first-team All-Pro that season and one of the obvious reasons Rodgers was relaxed. “Winning is a habit, and people start buying in more and more when they start winning. That’s human nature.”

The Bears at 3-5 likely aren’t going to be issuing any “R-E-L-A-X” dictums. But neither are they treating the second half of this season as just games.

Even without a culture reinforced by winning over the recent past, a winning mentality and belief “is possible, absolutely,” Sitton said. “You can see the difference around here, the way we’re playing. Guys believe. Guys are buying in. That comes with a couple wins in a row, and a couple games we lost, we know we could have won those games.”

(Sitton has been here before: The Packers were 2-2 in Rodgers’ first four starts, with Sitton a rookie guard that season. The Bears are 2-2 in Mitch Trubisky’s first four starts, for anyone who’s keeping score.)

Math being what it is, the Bears at the midpoint of their season do have playoff possibilities. The reason is simply that they have turned something around since the woeful start behind Mike Glennon, although the Bears were within a couple dropped Glennon passes of upending Atlanta in Week 1. They have won two of their last three games and own wins over Pittsburgh (6-2) and Carolina (6-3).

“You can just see the upside he has, you know, especially in the huddle, the intangibles like the leadership he has,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “You can feel that in the huddle, just feel that he's going to make the play and if you listen to him he'll lead you to the right … and the promised land.”

Which could be excused as hyperbole around a rookie quarterback who isn’t completing half his passes, but Cohen’s a rookie, too, so… .

Since 1990, Elias Sports Bureau reports that nine teams have started 3-5 and reached the playoffs. In seven of the last eight seasons, the NFC North has sent a wild card to the playoffs with at least five losses, four times with six losses. The margin of error is slim given the Bears’ five losses already, but far stranger things have happened.

“Hopefully we can stay a little bit more consistent as far as lineups,” coach John Fox said. “We have to be right on top of it. When we are, we win. And we’ve lost some close games, we’ve won some close games. I’d rather see that be more consistent in the second half.”

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Bears ARE within sight of the playoffs. And if there’s a team other than the Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps maybe the L.A. Rams based on sheer points production, that’s run away from the pack, you’ll need to make that case.

Because the Bears have beaten the Steelers and had potential game-winning possessions against Minnesota (6-2) and New Orleans (6-2). Blame parity or whatever, but the leaders aren’t out of sight up ahead of the Bears.

With that as context, NBC Sports Chicago is happy to provide this Viewers Guide to the Bears’ 2017 second half:

Week 10: Green Bay Packers (4-4)

The Bears are favored this time, not shocking given the projected absence of Rodgers. The only time the Packers faced the Bears without full-metal Rodgers was the first Bears-Packers game of 2013, when Rodgers went down and out early from a Shea McClellin tackle. The Packers couldn’t beat the Bears with Seneca Wallace that night, and Brett Hundley has a ways to go to reach Wallace’s level. W (Bears record: 4-5)

Week 11: Detroit Lions (4-4)

As abysmal as last season was, the Bears defeated the Lions in Soldier Field and did it with Jordan Howard rushing for 111 yards in his first NFL start, and with Brian Hoyer being the un-Jay Cutler (zero INT’s). Howard is the NFL’s No. 5 rushing-yardage leader and tied for third in first downs among backs. And Trubisky has sounded like he grasps the concept of ball security and the evils of giveaways. W (Bears record: 5-5)

Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)

This one will be a load. Carson Wentz is the template for trading up to No. 2 in the draft for a quarterback. Alshon Jeffery is happy in Philly. The Bears and Eagles are about equal defensively in yards and points allowed, but the Eagles are averaging 31.4 points per game; the Bears haven’t scored 30 points in even one game in nearly two full seasons (31 games). L (Bears record: 5-6)

Week 13: San Francisco 49ers (0-9)

The 49ers were one of the Bears’ three victims last season. They will likely defeat someone this year, just probably not the Bears in Soldier Field. W (Bears record: 6-6)

Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)

After missing the playoffs for only the second time in the last eight years, coach Marvin Lewis wasn’t given a contract extension last offseason, leaving him in the final year of his contract, a situation that could be matched next year by Fox and the Bears. The Bengals, perennial first-round losers in the playoffs, should be playing out the string right about the times the Bears show up. W (Bears record: 7-6)

Week 15: at Detroit (3-4)

The Bears haven’t won in Ford Field since 2012. This looms as a potential tipping-point game, possibly for both teams. L (Bears record: 7-7)

Week 16: Cleveland Browns (0-9)

So many jokes, so little time. W (Bears record: 8-7)

Week 17: at Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

The Bears had a chance to upend the Vikings in Trubisky’s first start. That chance ended with an interception leading to a game-winning Minnesota field goal. The Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since 2011. This won’t be in the snow at TCF Bank field but if the Bears hit town with a shot at the playoffs… . W (Bears record: 9-7).

(There – that wasn’t so hard, was it?)

Tight ends and all things “timing” will change in Matt Nagy Bears West Coast offense

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USA TODAY

Tight ends and all things “timing” will change in Matt Nagy Bears West Coast offense

Second of two parts

Looking ahead to training camp and what everyone will be looking at – it will help to have even a cursory idea of the offensive elements that coach Matt Nagy is incorporating, particularly in the passing game -- because the when, where and how the Bears will be throwing the football is changing. NBC Sports Chicago focuses on a selection of specifics and their origins within that part of the offense that fans will notice, first in Bourbonnais and then in the 2018 season.

Bill Walsh wrote and always insisted that the tight end was the least understood central pillar in his offense. He viewed and used the tight end as a receiver rather than simply an extra offensive lineman, and used the position to exploit matchup problems and open areas of the field created by design.

In a bit of fortuitous timing, the Bears signed and drafted tight ends (Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims) a year in advance of Matt Nagy’s arrival. But how those tight ends project to be used will be substantially changed from their functions last year. The best indication came this offseason when yet another tight end was brought in, one that signaled a critical direction change coming to the Chicago offense.

The Bears invested heavily to land smallish ex-Philadelphia tight end Trey Burton this offseason. He fits a Nagy template.

“He understands this offense and what to do, so there’s not a lot of mistakes,” Nagy said. “When guys see that you’re a player that has experience in this offense and does things the right way, they really gravitate towards that style of leadership. It’s been everything and more with what we thought with Trey.”

In eight of the last nine years Nagy was with Reid, the tight end (Brent Celek in Philadelphia, Travis Kelce in Kansas City) was either the leading or second-leading receiver on the roster.

In the last 37 years, since Emery Moorehead (No. 2, 1985), the Bears have been led in receptions by a tight end just once (Greg Olsen, 2009) or had a tight end No. 2 in catches just three other times (Olsen, 2008, Martellus Bennett 2014-15).

Receiver additions Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson notwithstanding, the role of the tight end in a Bears offense is about to change. Dramatically. And it started literally before Nagy even arrived in Chicago.

“Our first conversation when [Nagy and Pace] were on the plane heading to Chicago the day that I was hired, we discussed that ‘U’ position, the position that we know in Kansas City and we use in Kansas City as kind of the wide receiver/tight end,” Nagy said. “And you play the slot position you can move around, do different things — it’s what we did with Kelce.”

New meaning for “timing” in pass game

Trubisky’s mobility creates a greater threat in action passes and within run-pass options, if only because Trubisky can and will take off with purpose, even as Nagy, Helfrich and QB coach Dave Ragone drill one phrase into the quarterback’s brain: “Get down!”

“We don’t do that all the time but that’s kind of your ‘ball control,’” Nagy said. “There is a mentality that might be a little different in how we’re trying to be aggressive, too. In the classic West Coast there were still times where they were looking to be aggressive and we want that mindset.”

More than that, however, is the threat that play-calling versatility posed by Nagy’s offense. What jumps out is the play-calling balance on first downs:

 

2017 first downs

 

Run/pass ratio (%)

Bears        Chiefs

59/41        51.1/48.9 

 

Yards per carry

Bears        Chiefs

4.1             4.6

 

Completion %

Bears        Chiefs

59.3          68.2

 

The Chiefs had the advantage of a more accurate quarterback (Alex Smith) than the Bears (Trubisky). Coaches are stressing accuracy along with ball security, and improving Trubisky’s accuracy is axiomatic for success in Nagy’s scheme, which is based on the West Coast foundation of high completion percentage and minimizing risk of negative plays in the passing game.

Notably, in true West Coast tradition, with the Reid/Nagy offenses forcing defenses to spread horizontally the Chiefs rushed for a half-yard more than the Bears on first downs.

More notably perhaps, the Chiefs exploited those higher-percentage positive first-down plays, which meant shorter yardage needs on second downs, with more passing, not less. And when the Chiefs did run, they were just as successful per carry.

 

2017 second downs

 

Run/pass ratio (%)

Bears        Chiefs

48/52        40.8/59.2 

 

Yards per carry

Bears        Chiefs

4.0             4.6

 

Completion %

Bears        Chiefs

62.6          72.7

 

West Coast systems typically operate with more drag routes, quick slants and square-in’s, requiring receivers to run precise routes and have the ability to create separation quickly as Trubisky sets up quickly and looks to throw on time.

The “on time” component is critical, because it the timing of breaks and routes are connected to footwork – Trubisky’s – in that the ball is expected to be coming out when he hits the third or fifth step of his drop. The quarterback is not going to sit waiting for a receiver to come open, as in some other programs.

“It's a wide open attack and it's a great offense because there are so many options within it,” Trubisky said. “We know our job and it all comes down to execution for us. There are so many options I can't even begin to say where it starts but Coach Nagy has brought in a great plan.

“I think the system fits the players we have. In particular I feel like it really fits my skill set with the RPO's, the quick game, stretching the ball down the field and then with the running backs we have just pounding it inside and continuously trying to establish the run game each and every game. I just feel like we've got a lot of options, can be really dynamic and on top of that how we understand it and how the coaches have taught it to us since day one is just going to allow us to play faster and execute the plays at a higher rate.”

Bears among 50 most valuable sports teams in the world

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USA Today

Bears among 50 most valuable sports teams in the world

The Chicago Bears haven't enjoyed many wins over the last several years, but that hasn't done anything to hurt the franchise's bottom line.

According to a recent report by Forbes, the Bears rank 17th among the 50 most valuable sports teams in the world for 2018. The franchise is valued at $2.85 billion.

17. Chicago Bears

Value: $2.85 billion

1-year change: 6%

Operating income: $114 million

Owner: McCaskey family

Chicago is seventh among NFL teams in the top-17, with Dallas, New England, New York (Giants), Washingon, San Francisco and Los Angeles (Rams) all having higher valuations.

It's no surprise the Bears are this valuable, even without a winning product. They play in one of the greatest sports cities on the planet. And just imagine what will happen to the club's price tag if Mitch Trubisky and the new-look roster actually start winning games.