While the grumbly and casual fans of football disapproved mightily, this year’s Super Bowl put the unmatched defensive brilliance of Bill Belichick and Wade Phillips on full display, something more deeply enlightened football minds and high school coaches wholeheartedly enjoyed. But on the league’s largest stage that often pits two offensive juggernauts, seeing defensive wit and game planning decide a game between the two of the top four finest offensive teams is both remarkable and a tad curious.
The most prominent takeaway from this game is that it seemed to re-ignite the old-timey notion of “defense wins championships” in a modern sphere. Heck, the last decade of Super Bowls saw an average of thirty points scored comparatively to the league scoring average of 22.6 points over the same period. Defenses never lost their importance. After all, teams like the Seahawks or Broncos still received their justice. But scoring, whether for the disregard for the art form or for the entertainment value, seems to have taken center stage in the Super Bowl.
A Tom Brady-Sean McVay (sorry, Jared Goff) Super Bowl seemed like a volcanic combo, especially after the fireworks of last years Super Bowl featuring half of the same teams. But the lowest scoring Super Bowl on record revived the extent of effectiveness of lockdown defenses in a playoff environment.
So enter the Chicago Bears. Clearly built as a defensive superpower and one of the league’s hottest teams going into 2020, the Bears bolstered themselves for playoff football through suffocation of opposing offenses. Instead, the team softly crumbled in their first playoff game since 2010. But after the Super Bowl melted into this total slugfest between two defensive masterminds, it has to egg the question-how could have the Bears fared in this environment?
Schematically, the Bears’ found themselves in Bill Belichick’s very own bag of tricks, citing the spectacularness of Vic Fangio and the overall effectiveness of his defense (I know he’s not in Chicago anymore but we can get into it later in this article). Factor in the arguably superior talent to the Rams and Patriots and this squad can not only hang with the heavyweights but potentially dominate defensively right alongside Belichick.
How impressive is the Patriots defense? Sean McVay KNEW after the first play that New England was using the Chicago Bears blueprint, and the Rams still couldn’t do anything. pic.twitter.com/xYg8cCLohz
— Danny Schaechter 🦅 (@CoachDShack) February 10, 2019
Yet, despite the on-paper talent, the highly successful inaugural Bears team of the Matt Nagy era couldn’t even conquer the hobbling Eagles, let alone attempting to rival the playoff Patriots. The question of whether or not the Bears could have beat the Patriots is smugly an unanswerable one, smirking at Bears fans still hearing double doinking echos. Truth is, without a deep playoff run to brandish, the Bears can’t and didn’t prove themselves ready for the ultimate goal.
The separations between the Bears and the elite due to the quietly glaring weaknesses rearing their ugly heads against the Eagles all derive themselves some more troubling inconsistencies that plagued the Bears over the regular season. Once the talent gaps and coaching gap shrunk as the playoffs tend to do, the hidden holes in the lineup ripped open and launched their chances out of the ship like Alien.
Losing key tight end Trey Burton may have been taken much harder than Nagy likes to admit, needing to reel back the offensive gameplan for a tight end who thinks he can hurdle a defensive back. Omitting Eddie Jackson left the defense without a significant playmaker and in such an ugly game, a player of his nature might have had the potential to blow it wide open. Either way, having an All-Pro safety on the field will be a massive boost to any defense. Then toss in a painfully rough outing from the special teams and it may not be that surprising the Bears weren’t ready yet, purely from a mindset standpoint.
But this is not to debunk the Bears as contenders. This is to examine why they couldn’t this season and what needs to change next season. Personnel-wise, the team looks deep in every aspect and barring injury, have some of the finest showcases of positional groups in the league. Few teams can stand with the interior linebacker, defensive back, or offensive tackle starters of the Bears. But in spite of the championship-caliber talent, the Bears didn’t prove themselves as a championship team.
So in order to truly stand among the titans of the league, the Bears will need sharper offensive consistency specifically reverberating from Nagy down. Though a remarkable offensive year in comparison alongside the general Chicago offensive expectations, complete with some really high points, offensive play calling and the obvious quarterback play has been a bit of a hit-or-miss for the Bears. Often flashing some refreshing funk, Nagy clearly has an ingenious playbook at his disposal but it feels as if bright lights, nerves, or straight distrust caused him to take his foot off the gas a little too much.
Philadelphia didn’t see him attack the vertical until midway through the fourth quarter. It took far too long for Nagy to begin picking on Eagles corner Avonte Maddox, a rookie defensive back who struggled mightily against double moves. The offense started chugging once Allen Robinson settled in as the deep threat but with stakes playoff-high, this should have been the gameplan. Also completely forgetting about the Bears top offensive threat Tarik Cohen is nearly unforgivable.
Even though the Patriots may not have won the Super Bowl with fireworks, Tom Brady and company put the rest of the playoffs on ice with back-to-back thirty-five point bombs. When required of them, the Patriots can go toe-to-toe against the most meteoric of offenses. On the other hand, the Bears can’t win without a choke out defensive performance. Even though enough this may have been enough for twelve wins in the regular season, attempting to topple playoff titans without a viable enough offense would end up, well, like the Eagles outcome.
So honestly, to answer the initial question posed, the Bears probably would have fallen apart just as they did against the Eagles if given opportunity against the Patriots, only because Belichick would have preyed on the offensive woes very similarly to the Rams. And it would suffice to state the Bears ALREADY lost to the Patriots during the regular season, albeit in surprisingly bitter fashion.
If the Bears want to go deeper, this conservativeness must change. Taking risks has to be the roadmap and failure to do so cost the Bears a divisional round appearance. Strangely enough, he has shown himself able to open up the offense. It just needs to be more willing, especially under such stakes. But this doesn’t land purely all on Nagy, as some of it does rest on Mitchell Trubisky’s shoulders. He continuously struggled deeply in his decision making and his often shoddy arm made some cringe-worthy placements.
This is not to disparage the clear steps he took under Nagy. He put some fantastic scrambling ability on display this season and this upcoming season needs to hone in on that even further. It’s almost difficult to judge whether he should be left off the chain more or have his leash shortened but either way, good Trubisky showing up is a knockout punch.
Whichever it may, it will be up to Nagy to position Trubisky in a low-pressure environment that simultaneously gives him the keys to the offense yet doesn’t force him to be the primary playmaker. Though a deeply intricate offense, simplifying Trubisky’s progressions and limiting his room to make a mistake, but not neglecting his rushing abilities will be what has to be achieved to draw out Trubisky’s full potential. Obviously, Nagy cannot outright abandon the inherent wonkiness of Trubisky scrambling or the complexities of the playbook, because when the stars align, Trubisky could turn in a masterpiece a la Detroit or Tampa.
But remember Trubisky doesn’t have to be a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback because of the defense on the other side. This, however, doesn’t have to exempt him from being granted the opportunity to be one. While not to speculate Canton, Trubisky sometimes flashes both efficient gunslinging and eye-popping throws, an arsenal fit for a Super Bowl offense. The difficult balance to manage and the challenge for Nagy comes in how to maximize these plays while matting out his mistakes. It’s a frustrating tightrope to let him spread his wings while constantly reeling him in. Too much freedom leads to costly turnovers and mistakes but not enough undoubtedly leaves yards and points on the table.
When Nagy nails this gamble, Trubisky can be really good as a quarterback and good Trubisky means the offense can be really good. Last season, every time except one Trubisky threw for at least 300 yards, the Bears scored thirty or more points and scored twenty-eight in the one exception. A flourishing offense supplementing the already-stifling defense could spell doomsday for the rest of the league, but it all hinges on Nagy’s ability to ascertain this symmetry.
On top of the offensive consistency, the special team units all around need to be both more explosive and more reliable next season, and not just in the lazily-blamed kicking performances. Though Cody Parkey cannot be the longterm option at kicker, especially after a season where he landed third-worst in kicking percentage in the league, the special team concerns run a little deeper than just mishaps and heartbreakers.
Yeah, Cohen may have been voted into the Pro Bowl as a punt returner but only ranked fifth in yards per return and didn’t have a single touchdown off returns. Heck, the entire team didn’t have a return touchdown all season, highlighting a feeble lack of explosiveness in special teams. Though not necessarily a game breaker, special teams can be a game changer, something the Bears didn’t have the luxury of. A flashy kick returner should be a priority in this upcoming draft or at least a target in free agency.
Next to special teams, the question obviously remains if newly appointed defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano can equal the Fangio firepower (told you we would get into it). Considering how little will be lost this offseason (sorry, Adrian Amos, we love you), it stands to contest nothing will change. Bringing a far more aggressive mindset could fare special for a team that ended up top three in the league in sacks. With the wealth of talent at his disposal which might as well only improve after free agency and the draft, there shouldn’t be much to be worried about defensively. He has experience enough to sustain the game planning standards.
After an offseason of retooling, the Bears should be in a prime spot for a deep playoff run so long as the rigorous schedule doesn’t deal them a bad hand. Taking on essentially all of the league’s elite will make every week a war but thanks to a locked cradle on the division, a playoff spot should be the most basic of expectations this season. And frankly, if the Bears are to be the next Super Bowl darlings, then they need to find a way to handle tough teams like the Chiefs or Patriots.
Admittedly, these criticisms all feel sort of like nitpicks and micromanagement because honestly they probably might be nitpicks and micromanagement. The separation between contenders and Super Bowl champions remain in the nuances and details, not overt talent or roster construction, and for the Bears to reach their mythical pinnacle, these slight misalignments need to be smoothed out. Even though it boils down to a relatively small mindset change on one side of the ball and an ill-forgotten facet of football, Bears fans have seen first-hand how they can be season-enders.
Ryan Pace has done an awesome job of revitalizing the Bears back to relevance and after only a single season of this bright core in place, there really isn’t much to fret about. As a team contractually built to last, the championship window hasn’t closed yet and won’t for a few more glory years. Very little holds the Bears back and for such a youthful team, that should put the rest of the league on notice.
A Super Bowl shouldn’t just be a hope anymore- it should be the expectation.