The Chicago Bears are a team torn in different directions.
Their season is about developing quarterback Justin Fields, while simultaneously improving on an 8-8 record and winning a playoff game behind veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. The jobs of coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace could depend on achieving two goals so seemingly in conflict.
One of only two NFL teams never to have a 4,000-yard passer, the Bears need to see their rookie QB make strides without playing. If he plays, they've most likely been losing.
Dalton has the job as long as the offense finally assists an aging defense, which so often in the past carried the team.
It's in Dalton's hands to delay the inevitable coming of Fields.
"So if Andy controls Andy and we have success on offense and we play well and we're winning, that's a good thing," Nagy said. "I think we'd all understand that's a good thing while this kid develops and continues to grow and learn and watch tape."
When losses ensue, the Fields era begins. And how could that actually be bad?
Nagy claims to understand the importance of the running game as he returns to calling plays after he quit doing it midway through last season. It was a harsh lesson learned after the team averaged only 52.7 yards rushing during a seven-game stretch.
Running backs David Montgomery and Damien Williams make this approach possible, yet the offensive line may not. They also may have trouble simply protecting Dalton.
The Bears must get by with 39-year-old left tackle Jason Peters and right tackle Germain Ifedi, who was originally their right guard. The starting line played together only one half of three preseason games due to injuries, including a back problem for second-round tackle Teven Jenkins.
Yet there is optimism from seeing a quarterback not named Mitchell Trubisky throwing the ball, and from additions like wide receivers Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin and Breshad Perriman. The Bears bought themselves speed to join starting wideouts Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney, and hope they're now able to spread the field better so tight ends Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet become more effective underneath.
"I think for the most part having a lot of new pieces is exciting in itself," Robinson said. "It’s like when you are in school and go from seventh grade to eighth grade. Now you have new people coming in. You have new stuff."
Once again, they face conflict. Does Nagy allow the running game to take root and bind together the offense or become pass-happy with his new gadgets?
And do they even give Dalton a fighting chance before turning to Fields?
"I'm focused on me and what I can do, helping this offense and helping this team," Dalton said.
Meanwhile, all of Chicago focuses on Fields and the promise at last of a mobile, explosive deep passer.
While the offense is moving forward, the defense is trying to dial it back to 2018 before coordinator Vic Fangio left. As a Fangio disciple, new defensive coordinator Sean Desai has generated energy and excitement with his plan.
"Vic, understanding not only his defense but the players, put us in position to play to our strengths and this something that Sean is planning as well—putting every player on the field in the best possible situation in order to shine and make plays and get turnovers and feed the offense," outside linebacker Khalil Mack said.
The defense had 36 takeaways that year to lead the NFL, including 27 interceptions.
"That's our main focus right now, is just trying to get back to that, defense getting turnovers and the playmakers starting to make plays again," safety Eddie Jackson said.
The pass rush of Mack and Akiem Hicks generated pressure to force mistakes. Hicks, linebacker Roquan Smith and nose tackle Eddie Goldman snuffed out running games to force quarterbacks into predictable situations.
Several participants in that dominant defense remain but Desai now has a group with five starters in their 30s, and one starter from that 2018 secondary.
"I mean we're not changing the expectation because somebody's younger or old," Desai said.
Where youth exists, it is in abundance in the secondary with cornerbacks Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley and Jaylon Johnson. Jackson and veteran safety Tashaun Gipson could spend as much time cleaning up messes as making big plays.
If they prevent them, the defense can hold up its end.
"The thing about a team sport is everybody’s got to carry each other," Mack said.
For too long in Chicago it's been the defense doing the carrying.
The hope is this finally changes, whichever quarterback makes it happen.
Bears Record: 8-9
Expected Depth Chart
QB: Andy Dalton, Justin Fields
RB: David Montgomery, Damien Williams
WR: Allen Robinson, Breshad Perriman
WR: Darnell Mooney, Damiere Byrd
WR: Marquise Goodwin, Nsimba Webster
TE: Cole Kmet, Jimmy Graham
LT: Jason Peters, Larry Borom
LG: Cody Whitehair
C: Sam Mustipher
RG: James Daniels, Alex Bars
RT: Germain Ifedi, Elijah Wilkinson
OLB: Khalil Mack, Trevis Gipson
DE: Akiem Hicks, Angelo Blackson
NT: Eddie Goldman, Khyiris Tonga
DE: Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards Jr.
OLB: Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu
ILB: Roquan Smith, Alec Ogletree
ILB: Danny Trevathan, Christian Jones
LCB: Kindle Vildor, Xavier Crawford
S: Tashaun Gipson, DeAndre Houston-Carson
S: Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush
RCB: Jaylon Johnson, Artie Burns
NCB: Duke Shelley, Marqui Christian
K: Cairo Santos
P: Pat O'Donnell