Can the Bears Overcome Disappointing First Half to Compete in the NFC North?

It’s been a weird season in Chicago so far, as injuries have hampered the defense and Mitchell Trubisky has taken a step back in the offense. Where does the team go from here?
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Matt Nagy, Mitch Trubisky

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Inside the Bears spacious new locker room, RB Tarik Cohen loudly FaceTimes a friend without his headphones on. Backup QB Chase Daniel strolls the room with a to-go cup of coffee, greeting every teammate he passes. WRs Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller sit side by side laughing.

On this midseason weekday, the Chicago locker room feels energetic—not like a team in the middle of a three-game losing streak, in last place in the uber-competitive NFC North and stuck in an offensive identity crisis. But underneath the facade, all the signs of a frustrated team are there.

There was the players-only meeting, held after the ugly 36–25 loss to the Saints in Week 7. Players-only meetings have long been a tell-tale sign of a team on the verge of imploding, but Daniel says, “It was four to five minutes max, and just sort of a get right, let's stop, let's reevaluate where we are. ... We hashed out a lot of stuff in that time that we needed to.”

And there was the establishment of the us-vs.-them narrative, another square on the dysfunctional team bingo. After the Saints loss, head coach Matt Nagy told reporters, “I talk about horse blinders and earmuffs. Don't listen to anything outside because right now it's not going to be good. So what happens is people from outside try to pull you down, and the last thing that anybody is going to do, whether it's you guys or anybody else outside, you're not pulling us down.”

This has been a weird season in Chicago, one that has thrown all types of new challenges Nagy’s way. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is on injured reserve and can’t return for at least six more weeks; linebacker Roquan Smith was mysteriously held out of the Vikings game for personal reasons which the team kept quiet; quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who missed time with a left shoulder injury, has taken a major step back this season; and Nagy’s playcalling acumen has come under fire as the offense has struggled.

Trubisky, in his second year in Nagy’s offense, was supposed to take a big step forward to reach what Nagy has called level 202 of his offense. Instead, the QB has regressed. He’s struggled to hit open receivers, and has rarely shown the athleticism and ability to make plays with his legs that gave defenses trouble last season. He’s currently 30th in quarterback rating (31.8), dead-last in passing yards per attempt (5.6) and has only passed for five touchdowns in seven games this season. The Bears are currently 29th in the league in total offense.

After the loss to the Chargers on Sunday, Nagy gave Trubisky a homework assignment: Watch the TV broadcast of the game and pay attention to his facial expressions and how he carried himself. The QB took the assignment seriously, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“It was mostly just like a guy who looks super serious, kind of tense,” Trubisky said. “And that's really not me. Especially when you're going out on the field and playing the game you love. You should be out there having fun, which I usually am. But I'm not showing that."

While Trubisky’s confidence has become a topic of conversation, Daniel doesn’t think it’s an issue.

“For him, it is a one-week-at-a-time mentality, and quite honestly, I think the Chargers game was one of his better games. Everybody wants to talk about a missed throw, [but] everybody misses throws. So his confidence is as high as it has ever been right now. He feels very good, and we feel—as a whole, as an offense—really good where he is at.”

The Bears’ run game is another issue. Despite beefing up the unit in the offseason—drafting David Montgomery in the third round and signing Mike Davis for $6 million—the run game had been nonexistent. Nagy only called seven run plays against the Saints. So against the Chargers, who are weak against the run, Nagy fought his West Coast-offense philosophy and found success running plays from the I-formation, with a running back and a fullback (tight end J.P. Holtz is used as a fullback). Montgomery had his first 100-yard rushing game, and Chicago scored its only touchdown on a Montgomery rush cleared by Holtz. It was a change of pace for Nagy and his pass-happy playcalling.

“Philosophically, that's not him,” Daniel says. “He'd be the first one to say that. But it shows how adaptable [Nagy] is. You're going to stick with what works. It's not like the guys were coming in and begging like, we need to run the I-formation, it was a strategy for a game and that part of the game worked.”

Daniel noted that this was the Bears most efficient game on offense, so it will be telling to see what Nagy does with his playcalling going forward. Will this be a permanent shift to put less pressure on Trubisky’s shaky passing or only situationally, if the opponent’s defense dictates it?

Above the Bears’ lockers, there’s a Walter Payton quote spelled out in large capital letters on the wall: WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER THAN WE ARE ALONE. And the players are embracing this attitude as they head into a crucial game at Philadelphia. Linebacker Danny Trevathan reiterated his trust in Nagy: “Trust isn’t an iffy thing,” he said. “It’s all about having each other’s backs.”

Nagy said players—Trubisky included—have been coming up to him this week saying, “Coach, we’ve got this.”

“I love that,” Nagy said. “That keeps me going.”

But in a stacked NFC North, confidence might not be enough to overcome a disappointing start.

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