Bears’ special teams must become special to contend
By Robert Zeglinski
Over the course of a renaissance 2018 season, the Bears did many things right and to a tee. They had the NFL’s best defense led by superstars Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks. They enjoyed the production of a young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky on the rapid ascent. And they accomplished it all thanks to the likely 2018 Coach of the Year in Matt Nagy: a man who looks like he’s already established a culture that could last for over a decade in Chicago.
The one area where the Bears consistently had largely nothing but valleys, no peaks, was on special teams. Where the Bears’ defense was elite, and the offense showed signs of fantastic progress, special teams’ coordinator Chris Tabor’s group was endlessly anything but special.
On the season, the Bears ranked 26th overall on special teams in accordance with Football Outsiders’ DVOA. That meant they ranked among the least efficient and least productive third phases in pro football. A lot of that is admittedly sunk by a paltry performance against the AFC Champion Patriots back in Week 7, where the Bears allowed two touchdowns on special teams. But on the whole, the unit did not perform up to a palatable par anyway.
Placekicker Cody Parkey missed 11 field goals or extra points, including the playoffs. Parkey at this stage may not even have a future in Chicago as a kicking carousel that’s pervaded since 2016 carries on. It’s through the inconsistency of Parkey that the Bears’ short 2019 playoff run ended before it ever had a chance to get off the ground.
On the limited kick return opportunities they received at 23 attempts, the Bears produced the 30th least amount of yards with 440. It didn’t matter who was back there. From Josh Bellamy, to Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller, no one deployed to take kicks back for the Bears did much of anything consequential after the defense had allowed a score. For a play that’s already rendered often meaningless because of shifted special teams rules, you’d think the Bears would be able to take advantage of improved position.
They didn’t, with many chances, anyway.
It was the same story for their kickoff coverage ranked at a paltry 24th. For a play that sees the ball often kicked out of the end zone, the fact the Bears ranked in the bottom third is unacceptable through every envisioned manner. They put themselves behind the eight-ball more often than they had to.
It doesn’t help when the Bears’ punting and punt coverage featured at a regressive rate as well. Punter Pat O’Donnell – who played on a short term one-year deal in 2018 – was just 22nd in net yards in pinning opponents back. Considering that punting is still very relevant in the confines of defining field position within individual games, that’s a problematic development when you have a defense like the Bears. A defense like the Bears was therefore placed in less advantageous positions than they should’ve been.
Then when the Bears can’t manifest much of anything themselves on punt returns – they had the 24th worst punt return team – you have the recipe for a team that can’t flip the field when given an opening.
To be fair, a lot of what the Bears accomplish in 2019 will be almost primarily dictated by the exploits of Nagy, Trubisky, Mack, Hicks, Jackson, and friends. Special teams is not as important of a unit as it was even five years ago. The game played in the NFL now has evolved to the point where it could theoretically go without kickers, punters, and special teamers by the means they’re deployed. Wins and losses are decided on offense and defense to the highest degree we’ve ever seen.
That being said, until there’s any type of widespread ban instituted on the application of this phase, the Bears can’t continue to be hampered by the exploits of their special teams. If it’s still a part of the game at large, the Bears need to be able to take advantage of it’s benefits. Their kickoff and punt coverage needs to improve to the point to where the Chicago defense isn’t always playing on it’s heels from the moment possession changes. Kickoff and punt return yardage needs to graduate to a level that occasionally gives Trubisky and the rest of the offensive Bears a leg up and a useful short field.
The Bears don’t have to be special on special teams either. They just need to be middle of the pack: like the 16th and 17th ranked Patriots and Rams, respectively. The Super Bowl LIII representatives are not defined by their third phase, but they don’t perennially put themselves in a position where they can lose games there. That’s a key distinction.
Tabor, a Dave Toub disciple – who is regarded as one of the best special teams coordinators ever – was brought in to fix this and make the Bears elite on special teams again. The fact that the Bears are increasingly getting the same poor results despite improved talent on the rest of their roster is an indictment on a coach and group that will have no excuses not to excel next season.
If the Bears are going to end a 35-year championship drought, they can’t be dragged down by a special teams group that is far less important than it needed to be. They can’t be harmed by a kicker that can’t be relied upon or trusted. There are more pressing needs and questions for a team that fancies itself a Super Bowl contender, sure, but this concern looms over their overall exploits.
The fact of the matter is, if the Bears don’t want to see another painful “double doink” defeat next January, their special teams’ luster has to pick up dramatically.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.