Given that three of the four conference championship contenders appear on the Bears’ 2019 schedule, and that aspects of their on-field operations parallel the Bears’ ways of doing things offensively and defensively, a few relevant takeaways from the AFC and NFC championship games and participants…
Time for the Bears to make “peace” with a quality member of their extended family, while it still matters. The Los Angeles Rams are advancing to the Super Bowl (instead of the Bears) on the strength of a game-winning OT field goal against the New Orleans Saints – the last Gary Zuerlein kick of a 4-for-4 day, the last two longer than the 43-yard miss of Today Show star Cody Parkey. The Bears can do something about that.
By way of context: Dick Butkus finished his career amid enough acrimony for him to sue his former team in a contract spat (Butkus won). Brian Urlacher’s exit left hard and hurt feelings. Mike Ditka was jettisoned by Michael McCaskey after being left twisting in the wind for a couple weeks after.
All three of those Bears Hall of Fame members were welcomed back into the Bears fold, whether for jersey retirement or just being honored. Both sides got past the unpleasantness.
Robbie Gould departed Chicago without the bitterness of the aforementioned, but it stung when the Bears released him before the 2016 season. But he’d missed some critical kicks in 2015, missed a couple of PAT’s in the ’16 preseason, and neither John Fox nor the organization had the requisite confidence to keep Gould at his lofty (for a kicker) price. And he got that.
But since then Gould has made 82 of 85 field goal attempts. The Bears lost their way out of the 2018 playoffs because of missed field goal (and lost a shot at a first-round bye because of a missed kick in Miami earlier last season). And Gould, who settled his family in Chicago, attended the Bears’ wild-card loss and said this month, “Chicago will always be home,”
Barring the San Francisco 49ers applying a franchise tag to Gould, the veteran kicker is an option for a Bears organization that could see the Super Bowl but doesn’t have the kicker to get there.
Gould is 36. Adam Vinatieri, still kicking at 46, had just two sub-80-percent seasons since age 36 and has converted field goals at a rate of 86.9 percent since turning 36. Jason Hanson, a Detroit Lion his entire career, kicked above his career average (82.4 percent) in six of his last seven years, the ones after age 36.
Gould wasn’t done after 2015, and with what general manager Ryan Pace and the organization have invested in Khalil Mack and the rest of a win-now roster, plus what they will have invested in Mitchell Trubisky, the quest for a kicking alternative to Cody Parkey shouldn’t be all that hard to chart.
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Thinking “back” on things
Not to bury the lede: The first and the last six touchdowns in the Kansas City-New England game were scored by running backs. Consider this for a bit.
The Bears spent so much of last offseason and cash acquiring receiver weapons for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. This offseason, the expectation is that something significant will be done on the backs side of Trubisky’s options.
All four of the conference finalists decisively out-rushed their division-round victims to reach Sunday’s games. And in the pass-intensive NFL, running backs were again decisive elements when a trip to the Super Bowl was involved on Sunday. The Bears likely were taking notes.
In the undercard, the Rams got past the Saints without the kind of rushing dominance that helped them bury the Philadelphia Eagles. But Los Angeles did rush 26 times (to 21 for New Orleans), and in their comeback in the second half and overtime the Rams pounded 15 times on the ground to 20 Jared Goff passes.
More dramatically, in the matchup of the current standard of quarterback excellence (Tom Brady) and the presumptive next-gen standard (Pat Mahomes), the game turned on more than quarterbacks alone.
The Patriots scored an opening-possession touchdown drive with 10 runs vs. five Brady passes, the last run by Sony Michel for one yard and the touchdown. Before Brady’s careless end-zone interception, New England had built a yardage edge of 123-to-minus-2 with a 17:10 run:pass ratio. New England led 14-0 at halftime after mauling Kansas City for 99 rushing yards on 25 running plays (vs. 17 pass plays for 146 yards, without giving up a sack).
The second half and the fourth quarter in particular, Kansas City committed to a “heavy” defensive front to force the New England offense more onto Brady’s right arm, which worked (10 Patriot rush yards in the third quarter).
Meanwhile, the Chiefs were overtaking the Patriots with Mahomes relying on Williams, who finished with 18 touches, three of those winding up in the end zone in the second half.
The point was obviously not balance for balance’s sake or some harkening to leather-helmet personnel. It’s not that the modern NFL offense actually runs through a tailback, although it does require a running-back identity or at least clear sense of rushing purpose, which the Bears lacked vs. the Eagles.
Beyond the stats and balance, another issue — roster construction — with Bears relevance has been part of the Final Four.
Kansas City reached the AFC title game without Kareem Hunt, the reigning NFL rushing champion having been released for his well-publicized violent incident and its ensuing aftermath. The Hunt/Bears question is for another time, but the roster-stocking by Kansas City general manager Brett Veach, a former Delaware teammate and effusive endorser of Matt Nagy’s hiring as Bears coach, is its own object lesson:
An offseason priority for Ryan Pace is to staff Nagy’s backfield with options better than a depth chart of Jordan Howard-Benny Cunningham-Taquan Mizzell. (Tarik Cohen is his own depth-chart slot, more like Tyreek Hill ultimately.)
The depth element was noteworthy for more than the Chiefs. The Rams led with Todd Gurley, backed by C.J. Anderson, who won a Super Bowl with Denver. New Orleans had Mark Ingram in place when they drafted Alvin Kamara in 2017 (with the third-round pick that the Bears had given San Francisco as part of the trade-up to get Mitchell Trubisky).
New England advanced with 47 carries for 176 rush yards, the winning score coming on three consecutive runs for a net 15 yards, all by third-stringer Rex Burkhead, who hadn’t scored running the football all season.
Meaning: Not only can the NFL’s offensive leaders run the football, but they also do it with backfield depth that includes not one, not two, but three impact-grade running backs. The Bears don’t have that going into this offseason. To reach the levels of Sunday’s participants, that becomes priority one this offseason.
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