Just win, baby. That really is the whole point, or maybe points – the scoreboard points, not the style points. On Sunday, however, the defense in the Bears’ 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers accounted for enough of both kinds of points for the Bears (3-4) to matching their win total of last season, and in the process win two straight games for the first time since mid-2015.
How much or what it really means, though, as was the case with the Bears’ win at Baltimore a week ago, will have to play out in New Orleans next Sunday. Because the last time the Bears stacked two victories, it got them to 5-6 in John Fox’s first Bears year, whereupon Robbie Gould missed some field goals and the Bears went into a two-year death spiral, fueled by a year of quarterback turmoil. “I don’t know if [the 2016 win total] is really a benchmark for us, to be honest,” Fox deadpanned.
But that was then, this is now. And a lot is different. A lot. Because in the past handful of weeks, which have seen victories over Baltimore and Carolina after a failed final possession with a chance at a winning score over Minnesota, the Bears have seemed to be pulling up from the death spiral that followed the last time they won two straight.
“We’re definitely trying to change the culture,” said linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose first-quarter sack of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was Floyd’s fourth in the last four games. Right now, it is difficult not to sense the culture change, regardless of whether the Bears go into their off-week 4-4 or 3-5.
One of the hallmarks of success, in fields far beyond just football, is to win when you’re not performing anywhere close to your best. Everybody does well when they’re “on” and cylinders are firing. Winning when they’re not is another matter.
And the Bears won a game Sunday despite their quarterback taking as many sacks (four) as he had completed passes – this after winning a game (Baltimore) in which Mitch Trubisky threw away almost as many passes (six) as he completed (eight). Probably a pattern that neither he nor the Bears are looking to as some weird winning formula, but if they can win when they don’t play well, just maybe… .
This time at least the Bears managed to close out a game in the standard 60 minutes, which was critical since the defense was on the field more than 30 minutes as it was, while holding Newton and the Panthers to three points. This marked the first time since midway through Newton’s rookie season (2011) that Carolina has been held to that few points, a span of 94 games.
“We didn’t score [a touchdown] as an offense, and defense carried us so we kind of felt salty that we didn’t help out more,” Trubisky said. (Consider that another small culture tweak – in eight years of Jay Cutler and, before that, Kyle Fuller and Brian Griese and Rex Grossman, “salty” was never an accusation anyone would have leveled at the offense, win or lose).
Credit Trubisky with candor and accuracy. The defense did indeed carry the offense, holding Carolina out of the end zone and in the process making it nine-plus quarters and 29 straight opposing possessions that have ended short of the end zone, extending back to Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon’s TD run in the third quarter of the Minnesota game.
It wasn’t always elite on defense. In the course of the first four games this season, the Bears defense allowed nine scoring drives of 60 yards or longer; over the past three games, a total of just two.
Pulling the camera back to look at more than just the defense:
To put this in some sort of NFL context: No Bears opponent has been below .500 at the time they faced the Bears (Atlanta and Tampa Bay hadn’t played before they faced the Bears). This was not only the Bears’ third win; it was their third win over a team with a winning record (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Carolina) at the time the Bears faced them.
Sunday was not without its obvious concerns, big ones in fact.
For the second straight game, Trubisky was sacked four times. This time he appeared to take sacks rather than throw balls away as he did in Baltimore, but Trubisky was still unofficially the only starting NFL quarterback completing less than 50 percent of his passes, and his 4-for-7 day only managed to pull him even at 50 percent.
And an offensive line with a supposedly elite interior-three and a left tackle recently given a contract extension has been complicit in Trubisky taking nine sacks over the past 11 quarters. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, that would be nine sacks in the last 46 drop-backs, although some of those were admittedly Trubisky electives.
“We had more plays called [Sunday], I was just pulling them down, being conservative and taking sacks,” Trubisky said. “I was just trying to play smart, protect the football and get out of here with a win.”
That would be the informal football Gospel according to John Fox, so Trubisky is indeed learning; the downfield fireworks will come when they come. And the Panthers did come into Sunday ranked No. 2 for total sacks in the NFL.
In the meantime, the Bears could go into their off-week following New Orleans within a game of first place in the NFC North, if next weekend they defeat the Saints (4-2) and Minnesota (5-2) loses. The latter isn’t terribly likely given that the Vikings play Cleveland, but the game is in London and the Browns do have to beat SOMEBODY (don’t they?).
Regardless, that’s the math of it all, and the Bears have played themselves back from the abyss to this point. And they clearly are looking forward, not back.
“Guys just know we have a good chance of winning every week,” Trubisky said. Maybe that’s the biggest culture change taking place.