By Robert Zeglinski
Eight months of consternation, over-analysis, and of course, anticipation have come to this.
The Bears return to meaningful football this week as they’re set to take on the rival Packers Sunday night. Just a few days ago, they were rightfully seen as an upstart perhaps a year away under first-year head coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. They possessed some intriguing pieces like Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, and Jordan Howard, but ultimately were missing that final element.
Trading for all-world superstar Khalil Mack over this past weekend changes their 2018 season outlook dramatically. That’s how good Mack and that’s how much expectations have been elevated. Instead of a young upstart, they will now be expected to duke it out with heavyweights week in and week out.
Let’s preview the major questions for one of the most highly anticipated Bears seasons in recent memory.
The Mack Effect
Any time you add a superstar like Mack the question then becomes who he most benefits and how. As one of the very best players in the NFL, the generational talent is going to have virtually everyone on the Bears defense take the next step: all to varying degrees.
Chicago’s secondary led by Kyle Fuller should enjoy a hefty amount of more opportunities at interceptions and takeaways with the increased pressure that Mack creates. Hicks and Leonard Floyd stand to see more one-on-ones against offensive linemen with attention diverted towards Mack. And Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith should rarely, if ever, see a clogged running lane with Mack’s proficiency for eating space as a stellar run defender.
The bottom line is that Mack makes this Bears defense special and a unit that by itself can have Chicago hover around .500. He takes the Bears from adequate and solid to matchup proof with his presence alone.
Pressure on Trubisky
A year after being arguably surrounded by one of the worst offensive supporting casts in football, Trubisky is arguably now buoyed by one of the most complete rosters there is just a year later. He has an elite defense spurred by Mack that should make up for any mistakes he makes. And he has a coach in Nagy as well as playmakers that will make life that much easier from play to play.
The question that needs to be asked: is Trubisky acting as even a game manager enough for this Bears team?
There’s just so much ability and energy surrounding the quarterback now that he doesn’t have to necessarily make that second-year leap in the mold of an Eagles’ Carson Wentz, for example. Make no mistake: Trubisky is still the key to whether the Bears contend for a championship in the near future. If he doesn’t turn into a superstar, even an average passer likely takes this team to play well into January.
The entire off-season mantra concerning Nagy and the Bears has been revitalization. Lifting the spirits of a roster eager to win. Being more creative offensively. And breathing life into a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason in seven years.
If Nagy is going to be successful as a coach he needs to first experience adversity. He needs to first weather the storm for the Bears when they suffer an inevitable bad loss or losing streak this season. He needs to adopt the cliche “next man up” mentality should Chicago suffer unfortunate injuries that decimate their prospects.
The tone that Nagy sets now with how he responds to these types of situations will reverberate through the rest of his tenure however long it lasts. 2018 is the foundation for either a short-lived bust of a coach, or one that can make the lakefront and Halas Hall home for a long time. Luckily enough, Nagy has the keys to a very talented, rising roster. He just has make to sure he doesn’t crash with the power in his hands.
Final record projection: 10-6, third in NFC North, miss playoffs
With Mack in the fold, the Bears are going to be in the thick of the NFC playoff race. They should be seen in even more primetime games than they’re already scheduled. Nationally, they’ll be propped up as one of the more enjoyable teams to watch in the NFL.
The only problem is that the NFC is so stacked with any number of teams like the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, Falcons, Rams, and Saints that it’s difficult to envision Chicago pushing one of those teams out of the way until it happens. Not to mention a competitive division with the Vikings, Packers, and Lions standing in the Bears’ way.
This is a young roster that has it’s arrow pointing straight up, yet they still have to learn how to win. That inexperience will ultimately cost the Bears in one or two games they won’t be able to afford come December, as they become the rare double digit win team to miss the playoffs. A new era has begun on 1920 Football Drive, but it will have to wait another year before they really jump out into the forefront of contention.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.