Bears

Bears In-Foe: Aa-Rod and his 'R' words

Bears In-Foe: Aa-Rod and his 'R' words

Two years ago, after the Packers' 1-2 start, Aaron Rodgers famously called for their fans to "R-E-L-A-X" in a radio interview before heading to Soldier Field and torching the Bears, 38-17.

Three weeks ago, after a fourth straight loss on national TV in D.C. (and fifth in six games, broken up only by their Thursday night win over the Bears), he stated in his postgame press conference that, after dropping to 4-6, he felt good about his team's ability to "run the table."

Relax. Run. Rodgers.

Here come the Packers, winners of three straight, back in the NFC North mix, and suddenly looking scary again after (and still finding their way through) a series of defensive injuries. They come to town after their biggest shot in the arm, a 38-10 blowout of Seattle Sunday at Lambeau Field.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Packers have been focusing on faster starts after getting punched in the mouth early (and sometimes often) during their slump. So there was Rodgers, on Sunday's third play from scrimmage, showing how much the Seahawks might miss Earl Thomas with a 66-yard touchdown strike to Davante Adams. But complicating matters on that play was Rodgers injuring his right calf to pair with the left hamstring he strained, and has been nursing, throughout this three-game win streak. 

Up 28-3 early in the fourth quarter, head coach Mike McCarthy got Rodgers off the field and out of further physical harm.

While Jordy Nelson's return from last year's torn ACL (leading all receivers with a dozen touchdown receptions among 75 catches), the oft-criticized and injured Adams has come into his own. The 2014 second-round draft pick has already established a career-high with 63 catches, 897 yards, a 14.2-yard average and nine TD's (after just four over his first two seasons). 

It may be a comparatively quiet year for Randall Cobb, but the slot weapon still has 60 catches. The rare splash in free agency by GM Ted Thompson for tight end Jared Cook has yet to pay off. He missed six games earlier in the season with an ankle injury, and is expected to play Sunday despite leaving early vs. Seattle with a chest injury. He and Richard Rodgers have combined for 43 catches and two touchdowns at the position.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Pack 'D' coming off Lovie-like effort]

Elite right guard T.J. Lang returned Sunday after needing just a month to return from a broken foot, and helped keep the gimpy "Aa-Rod" clean (just one sack allowed) vs. that Seattle D. The season-opening line is back intact, having allowed 27 sacks.

Eddie Lacy lasted just five games in his contract year before it ended, while James Starks (2.3 average) hasn't gotten back on track after mid-season knee injury. So wideout Ty Montgomery remains the main ball-carrier, and after running nine times for 60 yards against the Bears, owns a 5.2-yard average on 44 rushes, while adding 35 receptions. 

Give McCarthy and company marks for ingenuity and enough balance while managing to average just under 100 yards on the ground per game. Former Seahawk Christine Michael (20-59) has yet to make an impact.

Oh. And Rodgers (Aaron, not Richard)? His 32 touchdown passes leads the NFL, while throwing just seven picks. That TD-to-INT ratio is 7/0 during the win streak, completing 74 percent of his passes with a 123.8 passer rating. 

With numbers like that, they might just "Run The Table" against each division rival down the stretch.  Let's see if the Bears can get in the way.

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

Should the NFL’s playoff changes mean the Bears should be more aggressive in a quarterback trade or free agent signing?

If the NFL’s proposed collective bargaining agreement is ratified, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs in 2020— a change that will immediately alter the league's player movement landscape in the coming weeks and months.

Under the proposed structure, the Los Angeles Rams would’ve been the NFC’s No. 7 seed in 2019, with the 8-8 Bears finishing one game out of a playoff spot (really, two games, given they lost to the Rams). But as the Tennessee Titans showed last year, just getting into the dance can spark an underdog run to a conference title game. The vast majority of the NFL — those not in full-on tank mode — should view the potential for a seventh playoff spot as a license to be more aggressive in the free agent and trade market as soon as a few weeks from now.

So, should the Bears look at this new CBA as reason to be more aggressive in pushing to acquire one of the big-name quarterbacks who will, or could, be available this year? After all, merely slightly better quarterback play could’ve leapfrogged the Bears past the Rams and into the playoffs a year ago.

The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton representing that upgrade feels tantalizing on the surface, right?

But the CBA’s addition of a seventh playoff team does not, as far as we know, also include an addition of significantly more cap space available to teams in 2020, even if the salary cap has increased 40 percent over the last five years. An extra $25 million is not walking through that door to add to the roughly $14 million the Bears currently have in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report.

So that means every reason we laid out why the Bears should not make a splash move at quarterback remains valid, even with the NFL lowering its postseason barrier to entry.

The Bears’ best bet in 2020 remains signing a cheaper quarterback like Case Keenum or Marcus Mariota (who shares an agent with Mitch Trubisky, potentially complicating things) and banking on roster improvements being the thing that gets them back into the playoffs. Adding a quarterback for $17 million — Dalton’s price — or more would hamstring the Bears’ ability to address critical needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, thus giving the Bears a worse roster around a quarterback who’s no sure bet to be good enough to cover for the holes his cap hit would create.

Does it feel like a good bet? No, and maybe feels worse if it’s easier to get in the playoffs in 2020. But a Trubisky-Keenum pairing, complete with a new starting right guard to help the run game and more than just Demetrius Harris to upgrade the tight end room, is a better bet than Dalton or Bridgewater and a worse roster around them.

Also: This new playoff structure will tilt the balance of power significantly toward the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The last time a team made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye was after the 2012 season, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens won the title. Otherwise, every Super Bowl participant since hasn't played on wild card weekend. 

So while the Bears may become closer to the playoffs if the new CBA is ratified, they won’t be closer to getting a No. 1 seed. And that holds true even if they were to find a way to sign Tom Brady.

Getting in the playoffs can spark something special. But the Bears’ best path back to meaningful January football still involves an inexpensive approach to addressing their blaring need for better quarterback play. 
Is it ideal? No.

But it’s far less ideal to be in this situation three years after taking the first quarterback off the board with 2017’s No. 2 overall pick. 

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Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

Austin Hooper dubbed Bears' ideal free-agent target

The Bears are expected to be extremely busy in their effort to upgrade at tight end this offseason. In fact, they've already made their first move with the signing of veteran Demetrius Harris, but it's unlikely he'll be the only new player added at the position over the next few months.

The most appealing free-agent tight end who's likely to hit the open market is Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper, who was recently dubbed the ideal target for Bears GM Ryan Pace once the spending frenzy gets started.

Hooper is exactly the type of performer the Bears currently lack. He can provide a reliable outlet to make life easier on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Granted, the 25-year-old tight end shouldn't be viewed as a Travis Kelce-like difference-maker in head coach Matt Nagy's scheme, but he's the best option in thin free-agent and weak draft classes.

Hooper would be the dream acquisition for Chicago, but the dollars are unlikely to make sense. According to Spotrac, Hooper's market value will command a five-year, $49.9 million deal, or $9.9 million per season. If the Bears inked Hooper to a contract like that, they'd have nearly $19 million tied up in tight ends in 2020 (Trey Burton's contract counts as $8.5 million against the cap next season).

As much as Bears fans want more production at tight end, that's just too steep a price to pay regardless of how important the position is for Nagy's offense.

The better route for Pace to pursue is the 2020 NFL Draft, where Chicago could be the first team to draft a tight end in April. This year's class of tight end prospects is without a clear first-rounder and with the Bears' first pick coming at No. 43 overall, there's a good chance they could have their pick of the litter.

Prospects like Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, and Washington's Hunter Bryant will all be given strong consideration in the first half of the second round.

It'll be another strike against Pace's work in free agency if he's forced out of the Hooper market because of the contract he gave Burton in 2018. But maybe it's for the best. He hasn't been very good at identifying tight ends since taking over as Chicago's GM in 2015 -- Khari Lee, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Burton -- and probably shouldn't be trusted with the checkbook while searching for another one this offseason.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.