When the Bears won the NFC North in 2018 after years mired in or near the bottom of the division, several factors had to line up for them.
The most significant of those factors were Matt Nagy becoming coach and Jon Gruden deciding to trade Khalil Mack to Chicago.
Already this year it's possible one major factor could fall the way of the Bears, although it's definitely something the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions could benefit from, as well. That's Aaron Rodgers' possible departure from Green Bay. Nothing has been reported one way or the other but ESPN's Adam Schefter said on Chris Collinsworth's podcast that Rodgers "would rather not be there," and "it's very hard to play with an angry quarterback on your team."
Even if Rodgers returns and is not traded, there's the lack of offseason work weighing against him now and his overall unhappiness with the organization which simply isn't going to vanish.
It's obviously going to take more than the Rodgers situation to put the Bears into a spot where they can win the division again.
The 2018 team was a younger group coming together under Nagy but this is a veteran team with players who are looking more to find something they've lost rather than it is one of discovery.
Here are five things Bears players need to find if they hope to become a serious division challenger.
5. Tarik Cohen regains his health
The difference in losing Cohen to an ACL tear was dramatic for their offense last year. The passing game suffered without its best yards-after-catch target. The running game went into a tailspin after the injury. They went seven games without hitting 100 yards rushing in a game as a team. While they still had David Montgomery, they didn't have the counterpunch on the ground and they really didn't have a backup running back to spell Montgomery who was a threat. Cordarrelle Patterson isn't a back and couldn't get this done. If Cohen comes back from the ACL tear at close to full speed and maneuverability, another dimension is added to the offense. They do have Damien Williams this year, so Cohen could even continue rehabbing right up to the start of the season if he needs the extra time.
4. Eddie Jackson finds the football again
Jackson has gone 16 games without an interception. His last pick was in a meaningless 2019 win over Minnesota. It's been suggested by some analysts that Jackson was overrated to begin with, based on two good seasons to start his career. It seems more than coincidental that his stretch of two interceptions in 32 games covered the entire Chuck Pagano era. Putting Jackson back in a Vic Fangio style of defense under Sean Desai might be the catalyst Jackson needs, but it's definitely not going to be easy without Kyle Fuller in the secondary now and with Desmond Trufant or Kindle Vildor playing left cornerback. Jackson needs to be put into position to make plays on the ball, but then he needs to make them. He had several last year that he failed to make when they were there for the taking.
3. Eddie Goldman locates Halas Hall
He used to know how to get there. Maybe a better GPS? Goldman couldn't be blamed for taking an opt-out, but there's no excuse for not being back at work and all of the video evidence suggests he's headed there in less than two weeks. When you put Goldman and Akiem Hicks together on the Bears defensive front in 2018 and 2019, the end result was about 79 yards rushing allowed per game. When one of them isn't available, it jumps about 30 yards a game. If you hold down the opposing rushing attack, you're forcing teams to pass. They're no longer dictating the flow of play, the defense is.
2. Andy Dalton rediscovers his arm
Time was when Dalton wielded the "red rifle" and used it. He hasn't done this since 2016. In that year, he threw for 4,206 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt. His highest since then is 7.0 and he's been in the mid-6s the last two years. The scariest thing about it is he had great weapons in Dallas to get the ball downfield, although the offensive line became a huge issue. In Cincinnati he didn't have much of a line the last few years, either.
The Bears have the A.J. Green type of X-receiver to make Dalton comfortable in an Allen Robinson, at least for now. They have a speed threat in Darnell Mooney and other possible speed threats like Dalton had in his prime with the Bengals. If the pass blocking materializes and Dalton gets it down the field, they could climb back out of the hole they've been in for two years. In 2018 they were 14th in the league in net yards per pass attempt at 6.5. Last year they were 26th at 5.6 and in 2019 last in the NFL at 5.3. Getting it downfield can open up the rest of the passing game and if Dalton doesn't do it, there's a player wearing jersey No. 1 willing able to try.
1. Robert Quinn recovers his lost ability
This is not something the Bears have had yet, because he was a non-factor last year. Quinn had only two sacks but he doesn't even need to finish the sacks. If he gets the heat applied more often this year, Khalil Mack or Akiem Hicks can finish the sacks. It would be nice if he had more than two, though.
Still, when Quinn was the best in the NFL at pass rush win rate in 2019, he beat blockers in under 2.5 seconds 33% of the time according to Next Gen Stats. Did he leave this in Dallas? In 2018 and 2019 he had 63 pressures and last year had only 16. This is No. 1 on the list because if Quinn becomes the force he was in Dallas, there is no way for defenses to cope with Mack and Hicks and the front dominates against the run and pass. Quarterbacks under pressure throw to places where it can be picked off, and Jackson gets turnovers. This creates a scene like in 2018, and if Dalton does his part and plays better than Mitchell Trubisky did in that season, this could become the kind of year when everything lines up correctly in Chicago.