In Matt Nagy’s first year as a head coach, he guided the Bears to their second-biggest single-season turnaround since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
The Bears’ 5-11 season in 2017 represented their fourth straight last-place finish in the NFC North and a fourth straight season of double-digit losses. But Nagy transformed the perennial losers into division champions for the first time since 2010, which was also the last time the Bears qualified for the playoffs.
The Bears’ 12-4 record was the best the franchise had produced since 2006. The 16-15 loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs was a bitter setback made even more gut wrenching by Cody Parkey’s missed 43-yard FG attempt with five seconds remaining. It caromed off the left upright and then the crossbar, his sixth kick that failed after striking one of the uprights.
But that did not distract from the monumental shift in the fortunes of a franchise that was resurrected.
In less than 12 months, Nagy transformed the culture at Halas Hall, urging his players to be themselves and to think in terms of “we,” not “me.” A favorite mantra of the 40-year-old Nagy’s was: “Be You,” which was written on his play-calling chart, lest he forget his own advice.
Nagy, the offensive play-caller, took chances that most NFL coaches wouldn’t, dialing up trick plays at the most unexpected times and utilizing personnel that shocked even his own players. In a refreshing twist, he wasn’t afraid to take responsibility when his best-laid plans blew up in his face.
“I know you guys are going to call me an idiot when things don’t work,” he told the media. “But I’m a big boy; I can take it.”
General manager Ryan Pace also deserves much of the credit for the Bears’ rapid rebuild. In addition to hiring Nagy, he swung a deal just before the start of the regular season to acquire difference-making OLB Khalil Mack. The elite pass rusher proved to be the final and perhaps most important piece of the rebuilding process.
Not only did Mack lead the team with 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, 18 QB hits and two recovered fumbles, he made every member of an already-great defense better and added even more swagger to a locker room that had just begun to take on the confident persona of its head coach.
Mack was one of five Bears voted to the Pro Bowl, including DE Akiem Hicks, CB Kyle Fuller, S Eddie Jackson and RS Tarik Cohen. Hicks was the only one of the five who did not also make All-Pro.
That group illustrates the different avenues that Pace has traversed in his quest to build sustainable success.
Hicks was picked up as an under-the-radar unrestricted free agent in 2016 and then rewarded with a lucrative extension when he played up to his vast potential after having just scratched the surface previously. Fuller was inherited by the Pace regime and appeared to have one foot out the door when the team declined his fifth-year option. But the 14th overall pick in 2014 rebounded from missing the entire 2016 season to tie for the league lead with seven interceptions.
Jackson and Cohen, the 5-foot-6 dynamo, were drafted by Pace within seven picks of each other in 2017, which should go down as the best fourth round in franchise history.
While it was a havoc-wreaking defense that fueled the Bears’ resurgence in 2018, there was no denying the role that second-year QB Mitch Trubisky played in elevating an offense that was often a laughingstock in 2017. With some help from a defense that scored six touchdowns – more on that later – the Bears scored 24 points or more 11 times in 2018, something they managed just three times a year earlier.
Trubisky, the second overall pick in 2017, was guided every step of the way, not only by Nagy, but by offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and QB coach Dave Ragone. It was Trubisky’s first year in a new system, and his third scheme in as many years, going back to his senior season at North Carolina.
Still, his passer rating improved from 77.5 to 95.4, and he was sacked seven fewer times while throwing 104 more passes because he became much more proficient at escaping pressure and turning potentially negative plays into positive yardage.
Adding a degree of difficulty, Trubisky was working with an almost entirely new cast of skill-position characters. Of the Bears’ top five pass catchers in 2018, Cohen was the only one who had ever caught a regular-season pass from Trubisky entering Week One. Nagy envisioned a well-balanced passing offense with an equitable distribution of the ball, and that’s exactly what he got.
Cohen led the way with 71 receptions and was second with 725 receiving yards for an impressive 10.2-yard average. He was followed by three veteran free-agent additions, WRs Taylor Gabriel (67, 688, 10.3) and Allen Robinson (55, 754, 13.7) and TE Trey Burton (54, 569, 10.5). Rookie WR Anthony Miller (33, 423, 12.8) slumped badly late in the season when he was impeded by a recurring shoulder situation that will require postseason surgery, yet he still led the team with seven TD catches, followed by Burton (six), Cohen (five) and Robinson (four).
The run game was a work in progress throughout an inconsistent season, and it remains a major question mark going forward.
Powerful Jordan Howard seems miscast in Nagy’s offense and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, nearly a full yard below what he did in his first two seasons. Howard backers complained that he didn’t get the ball enough to hit peak efficiency, and there were games in which the running attack appeared to be an afterthought. But Howard had 250 carries, just two less than his rookie season of 2016, when he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and he appeared slower and more tentative than in the past.
His only two 100-rushing yard outings came in the final four regular-season games, but he received only 10 carries and totaled only 35 yards in the playoff loss.
Cohen fits better because he’s an exceptional receiver, but he’s not built to be an every-down back and spends far too much time running east-to-west when he should be heading north.
On paper, the run game didn’t look that bad – at first glance. The Bears were 11th in rushing yards but that was skewed by Trubisky’s 421 yards on 68 attempts (6.2-yard average). The more telling stat was average gain per rush, where the Bears finished 27th.
Some of the blame for run-game failures must go to an O-line that was without RG Kyle Long (foot/ankle) for eight games and incorporated rookie LG James Daniels into the starting lineup at midseason, just a few weeks after his 21st birthday. But the group did a good job protecting Trubisky, allowing him to be sacked 24 times in 14 starts.
Trubisky and the offense benefited from the knowledge that their defense was good enough to win most of the time with only marginal production on the other side of the ball.
That defense, and the team as a whole, took a brutal beating in Week One, when a 20-0 lead in Green Bay turned into a 24-23 loss. But the Bears gave an indication of the turnaround that was to characterize the entire season, when they bounced back with three straight victories.
Just in the first month alone, Mack demonstrated beyond any doubt, that he is a special player. In his first four games as a Bear, without the benefit of training camp or preseason, he had four sacks, four forced fumbles, four tackles for loss and a pick-6.
But the Bears got knocked back again after their Week Five bye, with back-to-back losses to the Dolphins in overtime and the Patriots at home. This time they responded with a five-game win streak and nine wins in the final 10 weeks to close out the season.
The win streak featured the rare play-making ability of the defense. Jackson’s 65-yard fumble return and OLB Leonard Floyd’s 19-yard interception return led the 41-9 rout of the Bills the first weekend in November. That was followed by three victories in 11 days, all of them against NFC North opponents. Jackson’s 27-yard pick-6 clinched a 25-20 victory over the Vikings, and four days later, his 41-yard interception-return TD closed out the scoring in a 23-16 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Lions.
After one final roadblock, a 30-27 overtime loss to the Giants on the road, the Bears regrouped to finish with a flourish, beating the NFC’s No. 2 seed Rams convincingly and then avenging the earlier loss to the Packers, surviving the 49ers on the road and pummeling the Vikings in Minnesota.
The final push summed up how much progress the Bears made in one season. It left them with a 7-1 mark at home, their best since 2005, and a 5-1 record in the NFC North, their best since 2010. They snapped a 10-game losing streak within the division and reversed a 4-20 record in the NFC North dating back to 2014.