Chris Simms

Chris Simms says the Bears' offensive struggles make the defense, Khalil Mack easier to gameplan for

Chris Simms says the Bears' offensive struggles make the defense, Khalil Mack easier to gameplan for

What a difference a year makes.

On November 14, 2018, the Bears — with a record of 6-3 — were riding a three-game winning streak into a Week 10 matchup with division rival Minnesota Vikings. They would go on to win that game, and the next one, en route to an eventual 12-4 regular season record and NFC North title. The offense was humming, the defense was dominant and, at the heart of it, their best player: Khalil Mack.

But 2019 has been a different story. Heading into Week 10 of this season, the Bears are 4-5 and living in a reality where every game is a must-win. A sputtering offensive attack, helmed by the increasingly-maligned duo of Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy, has catalyzed struggles across the team — including a half-step back for a defense that once appeared unassailable. They are still one of the league’s best, but not quite the death star of a unit they were in 2018.

Though many of his stats are comparable to his 2018 pace (outside of raw sack totals), Mack, specifically, hasn’t wreaked the same kind of havoc this season as he did last. Recently, NBC Sports NFL analyst, Chris Simms, posited a few theories for that development:

“In the big picture of the Chicago Bears: In general, when you’re not playing from a lead ever, to where the team playing against Chicago goes, ‘Oh man, we’re down by 14 or we’re down by 20. We gotta start throwing the football more,’ you know, those were the opportunities last year where Khalil Mack and the Bears were in control of the game,” Simms said.

“When you’re playing the Chicago Bears right now, you gameplan and you go, ‘Ok, what’s the big picture here?’ We’re not scared of their offense, so you can play it conservative on offense when you are playing the Bears,” he continued. “We know the one way we can lose to the Bears this week is if we let Khalil Mack get off on us, and we try to throw complete passes down the field, and then stripe-sack[s], fumbles and things happen.

“Within playing the Bears, most teams go into the games with conservative offensive gameplans because they don’t trust that the Bears offense is going to be able to move the ball a whole lot on their defense, and it’s short passes and things like that to where one guy that may be able to ruin a game on a weekly basis… Khalil Mack kind of gets taken away in those circumstances.” 

Opposing offenses have also been able to devote even more attention than usual to Mack in the form of double-teams and chips, given the increasing amount of injuries the Bears have sustained in their front seven — a fact Simms also acknowledges.

“[Mack] really creates a lot of attention,” Simms said. “And without Akiem Hicks there, a lot of offenses don’t have to worry about that beast in the middle and we can focus on our attention [to] let’s not let 52 ruin the game for us on that side.”

With the loss of Danny Trevathan on Sunday, that special attention Mack receives is only like to increase.

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Chris Simms says he believes in Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace to right the ship for the Bears

Chris Simms says he believes in Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace to right the ship for the Bears

The 2019 Bears are past the point of living week-to-week. In the midst of what could soon devolve into a completely lost season, many of the current challenges facing the team are far bigger — and far more existential — than, say, this week’s matchup with the Lions.

Chief among those challenges is identifying where exactly this season went awry and what player(s), coach(es), executive(s) or unit(s) will be held accountable moving forward. In recent weeks, the brunt of that blame has fallen squarely on Mitch Trubisky, and it’s not hard to reason why. Trubisky has regressed substantially in his third season in the league, one year after amassing an encouraging 3,644 total yards and 27 total touchdowns in 2018. 

Year 2 in Matt Nagy’s offense was supposed to be Trubisky’s ‘leap’ year, but, to put it bluntly, that hasn’t panned out. I could list his 2019 numbers, but the eye-test is enough. He looks completely lost, and the team has imploded around him.

Still, when Nagy says the team’s issues are deeper than the quarterback, he’s right. The offensive line is in shambles. Untimely special teams foibles have begun to rear their ugly head again. The Bears’ once-vaunted defense now enters this week ranked eighth in defensive DVOA. (That, for the record, is still great, but the marginal slip from transcendent to great has allowed the team’s 27th-ranked offense to sink the entire ship.)

Faced with this litany of issues, the biggest thing Bears brass will have to decide over the remainder of the 2019 season is who will take charge of putting this team back together. If it were up to NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms, Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace would be a part of that equation.

“I am a believer in what Matt Nagy does,” Simms said recently. “I like his attitude, the way he coaches, the way he handles himself at the podium.

“I am a believer in Ryan Pace,” he continued. “He’s done a lot of great things there. I know we all want to get on him for drafting Mitchell Trubisky. He messed up. He took Trubisky before Mahomes and Watson, we get that. There’s been a lot of teams that made mistakes, you just gotta keep moving on…

“Long story short, I’m still a believer in Pace and Nagy.”

Notably missing from Simms’ summation is Trubisky, which is fair. But as eager as many fans and pundits are to cast the third-year signal-caller aside, there is an argument that fully and completely evaluating Trubisky over the remainder of the season would be more prudent than a mid-season switch.

If the Bears do decide to cut the Trubisky era short, Nagy may have done enough to earn a second chance with a second quarterback — this time, one of his choosing. But the team’s complete and continuous unraveling should only exacerbate the scrutiny of Pace, who — even outside drafting Trubisky — has made mistakes at the top of the draft (see: Kevin White, Adam Shaheen) and made a habit of aggressively parting with valuable draft capital to, overall, little franchise-altering consequence. 

There are also the whiffs Pace has accumulated in free agency — from committing relatively big money over multiple years to Mike Glennon before trading up for Trubisky, to bringing in Mike Davis on a multi-year deal that is looking increasingly like a sunk cost, and so on. These are moves that, alone, don't outweigh the good Pace has done (the Khalil Mack trade, signing Allen Robinson, drafting Eddie Goldman and Cody Whitehair, etc.), but in the aggregate, have the potential to put a cap on the team’s ceiling and window to contend.

Whatever direction the Bears decide to move in this offseason, self-reflection and the capacity to act on said reflection will be crucial. Without that, a cycle of mediocrity is inevitable.

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Chris Simms says he's worried about Mitch Trubisky's future

Chris Simms says he's worried about Mitch Trubisky's future

Eight games. That's all that's left for Mitch Trubisky to resurrect his Bears career. He'll likely be on Chicago's roster next season regardless of his performance down the stretch, but if he wants to remain the starter, he needs to string together some of the best games of his life.

The question is, do you think he's capable of that? There are plenty of Trubisky doubters in football media, but NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms is still on the fence. He told NBC Sports Chicago that he doesn't think Trubisky is a lost cause.

"I do think he’s salvageable, but I think it’ll take a little bit to build him back up," Simms said. "Then, of course, you probably have to change a little bit of the identity of the offense, and Matt Nagy would have to figure out some different ways that make sense not only for the offense but for Mitchell Trubisky to have success on that side of the ball. But it is teetering on the edge here."

One thing Nagy could (and probably should) focus on is letting Trubisky play free. Let him get to the edge, make plays on the move, use his legs. He doesn't have to be a pocket passer to succeed; we've seen enough evidence to suggest that won't work.

But success as an NFL quarterback takes more than just physical ability and offensive scheme. It also requires mental toughness.

"The public pressure, the perception starts to become the reality in the locker room where players start to hear all the noise outside too and they start to question, man can this quarterback deliver, and all those things," Simms said. "I was a big defender of him last year, it’s hard for me to defend him right now.

"It’s not good. It’s missed throws, it’s bad decisions, it’s in the pocket, I don’t know what he’s looking at times, he’s not running around and making plays that way which he used to do when all else failed, so I’m a little worried about Mitchell Trubisky and his future, I definitely am."

Simms is all of us right now. On one hand, Bears fans want to believe Trubisky can turn it around. But the evidence screams otherwise. How many passes does it take before finally throwing in the towel on a guy who was selected so high in the first round? Will Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy let their ego stand in the way of logic?

We'll all know the answer soon enough.

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