A stunned, melancholy silence enveloped the home locker room at Soldier Field, the same place where the dance parties of “Club Dub” became a phenomenon on so many Sundays this year. But not this day. Not after Cody Parkey’s 43-yard field goal cruelly doinked off the left upright, and then the crossbar, to send the Bears to a 16-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.
The suddenness of the end of the Bears’ best season in years hadn’t quite set in. This was a good team that thoroughly enjoyed playing together, with a collective will and spirit that ran as an undercurrent to 12 wins and an NFC North championship.
And now, it’s all over. The 2018 Bears will never play together ever again.
“It did kind of hit me taking off my pads,” center Cody Whitehair, who played every single snap this season, said. “That’s the last time I’ll do it this year with this team as all of us.”
This season wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not with the best defense in the league, the kind that looked ready to cement itself among the legendary 1985 and 2006 groups in franchise history – but won’t be remembered in that echelon thanks to this quick playoff exit. Not with Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy proving they could build an offense good enough to support that staggeringly great defense. Not with week after week of celebrations and trick plays that made the Bears fun again.
In a game of wild swings, the Bears ultimately couldn’t muster any of these three things: A lengthy offensive drive to chew up clock after taking the lead, then a defensive stop to hang on to that lead and then a field goal with five seconds left to re-take the lead.
“Just with how our season was going, it was like man, it just seemed like it was meant for us,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “And yeah, it obviously wasn’t.”
The Bears head into the NFL’s offseason sooner than they expected, and are hardly guaranteed to repeat or build on the success they had in 2019. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is reportedly interviewing for two head coaching openings — with the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins — on Monday. Safety Adrian Amos and slot corner Bryce Callahan will be unrestricted free agents. Cap casualties are a routine part of an offseason roster churn. Injuries will happen to a team that had significant luck avoiding them in 2018.
The core of this group will be back when the 2019 season begins in eight months: Nagy, Trubisky, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson, Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, etc. The Bears could make some shrewd moves in the offseason to make themselves preseason favorites to win the NFC. The message from the Bears’ locker room was one of hope for 2019, as well it should be.
“You know what it takes now, you know what it looks like,” Trevathan said. “So now, the bar has been set high, so we’re ready to play Chicago Bear ball next year.”
But windows to win open and shut quickly in the NFL. The reality is that the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars made the AFC Championship behind the best defense in the league, then imploded into being a 5-11 disaster in 2018. The Minnesota Vikings were supposed to be one of the best teams in the league this year, and couldn’t beat the Bears to get in the playoffs a week ago. These things are not assured.
It will take a lot of hard work in the offseason by Ryan Pace, Nagy and this team to repeat as playoff participants, let alone NFC North champions. But that’s all for another day.
For now, the Bears head into the NFL’s long offseason stunned, disappointed and sad that such a wildly enjoyable and successful ride came to an abrupt end on the first weekend of January, far sooner than they expected or hoped.
“It's unfortunate that the season ended this way,” Hicks said. “This is what we got. This is what you're going to deal with. If you wanted a different result, maybe make a different play. You got to swallow this. Let it hurt for a little bit. We'll be alright."