Q&A: Virginia McCaskey on the Bears, past and present


Q&A: Virginia McCaskey on the Bears, past and present

As part of this weekend's Bears100 Celebration at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, NBC Sports Chicago had a chance to sit down with Virginia McCaskey, the matriarch of the Chicago Bears and the daughter of George Halas. The 96-year-old McCaskey has a wealth of memories, insight and stories to share, from the days of her father's efforts to get the NFL on the map to the explosion of interest in the game today:

JJ Stankevitz: What’s this experience been like for you where you have living Hall of Famers, so many legends of this franchise coming back and being in one place?

Virginia McCaskey: I think it’s something that everyone has been enjoying and being amazed by it. I heard Pat Mannelly say he had never met Dick Butkus until last night, and he went up and introduced himself to Mr. Butkus. And I’m thinking oh, I just assumed they all somehow melded into one happy pod. 

JJ Stankevitz: Was there someone in particular you were looking forward to seeing here?

Virginia McCaskey: It’s always great to see Bill McCall because he and I are the seniors. And his wife Barbara came with him all the way from California. And I think that’s a lovely representation of what this means to the players and to their families. 

JJ Stankevitz: You see these legions of fans here, old and young. What would you like some of the younger fans here to know about your father and the impact he had on this franchise?

Virginia McCaskey: He was the Chicago Bears all his working life, and always will be. 

JJ Stankevitz: As a father — everyone got to see him as “Mr. Everything” with this team — what do you remember about him when he came home and he was George?

Virginia McCaskey: He was still on the phone or thinking about some things that would make a difference. Also trying to work extra jobs just to support the family because there certainly wasn’t the income as far as the football team was concerned. When you read about the early championships and the payoff per player was $210 dollars. It was a completely different world. 

JJ Stankevitz: You were at the first playoff game in NFL history, correct? At Chicago Stadium — what do you remember about that?

Virginia McCaskey: There were different rules of that game because there wasn’t room in Chicago Stadium for a full football field. And so I had to ask my mother questions during a football game, which usually I didn’t do. I usually waited until after a game if I had any questions. She was up to date on all the information that I needed and it was — I had a ticket stub that belonged to one of my older cousins that showed a price of a dollar and a quarter. 

JJ Stankevitz: A dollar and a quarter?

Virginia McCaskey: A dollar and a quarter. I made the mistake of taking it to one of the Super Bowl games to show Pete Rozelle and I don’t know what happened to it. But I do remember that. 

JJ Stankevitz: I imagine if you guys make the Super Bowl in your 100th season the ticket prices will be a little bit more expensive. 

Virginia McCaskey: I’ve heard rumors of thousands of dollars. And with our family, the size of our family — but we still hope to be there. 

JJ Stankevitz: I know you were very young when George Halas went on his barnstorming tour into Florida, into California. But what do you remember about the stories from that, about how hard your dad had to work just to get the NFL on the map in this country?

Virginia McCaskey: The barnstorming tour probably should be a recognition of Red Grange’s managers’ dream, C.C. Pyle, because it certainly was revolutionary in planning and execution. My brother had been born that September 1925, and this was just before my third birthday, so I don’t have any real memories. But I have heard many stories about the traveling on the train with my mother and her sister, my aunt. And we went as far as Florida and then decided, my mother decided we would go home and not make the trip to California. 

JJ Stankevitz: And now the Bears are going to London this year!

Virginia McCaskey: Yes, London and California. 

JJ Stankevitz: When you see how much the Bears have grown along with the NFL, and you see how many fans are here for this convention, what are your emotions in terms of what has been built with this team?

Virginia McCaskey: Almost disbelief. Gratitude for the fans. And then some people say, what do you think’s going happen in the next 100 years — I can’t imagine what’s going to happen compared to what’s happened already in the first 100 years. 

JJ Stankevitz: Is it neat for you that Matt Nagy has such a keen sense of history? I mean, the first play he called was “Papa Bear Left.”

Virginia McCaskey: Wasn’t that fun?

JJ Stankevitz: How neat is it for you that you have a coach who’s so invested in the history and the tradition of this team like Matt Nagy?

Virginia McCaskey: I think we’re very fortunate to have him as our head coach. I also think we’re very fortunate to have the history to tell the players and remind them at least once in a while about the humble beginnings of all this. It was a dream that has actually more than come true. I think there’s a limit to what you can do with history. Now we have to concentrate on the immediate future of this season. It’s going to be — for me, it’s going to be challenging just to accommodate to all the different kickoff times and places. 

JJ Stankevitz: Well that first kickoff time against Green Bay — we had coach Ditka telling us yesterday that it’s almost fitting, it’s the way that coach Lombardi and George Halas would’ve wanted it, for the Bears and Packers to open the NFL’s 100th season. 

Virginia McCaskey: I’m glad it’s at home instead of up there. 

JJ Stankevitz: What do you remember about the Packers rivalry? Has it always been there, ever since you can remember, that this has been the best rivalry in the NFL?

Virginia McCaskey: We used to play our games in Wrigley Field, but we couldn’t get into the field until after baseball season was over — especially in the later years when they constructed the temporary east stands, and all that took time, so we always played the first three or four games of the season as away games. And inevitably, we either opened or played Green Bay one of those early games. And it was difficult to beat them up there. It was difficult to beat them any time. So now we’ll be on our own home ground and I hope the fans — actually, I had friends call me and say ‘I am so excited about this season, let’s get to September.’ And we have work to do first. 

JJ Stankevitz: I’m sure you and a lot of other fans feel the same way, just get to September. How did you experience last season with sort of the rebirth of this team as one of the best in the NFL?

Virginia McCaskey: Were you there for the last two games at Soldier Field?

JJ Stankevitz: Yes I was. 

Virginia McCaskey: Wasn’t it glorious? Everybody there was involved. 

JJ Stankevitz: And did you take a moment at any of those points to think, this is what my dad would’ve wanted?

Virginia McCaskey: This is what we hope it will be, yes, going forward. 

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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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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: