When the Chicago Bears reach the end of the season, Chairman George McCaskey and those he entrusts for their opinion likely will put a greater emphasis on the second half of the season than anything else.
If that’s the case, it would create an intriguing eight-game stretch for coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace as you wonder what in the eyes of McCaskey will constitute as “progress” for a team coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and a wild-card playoff berth a year ago while playing a rookie quarterback in Justin Fields, who is on pace to start 15 games.
There is a lot to process from the first nine games, especially coming off a 29-27 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which the Bears unlocked their downfield passing game in an impressive second-half rally. If it was an awakening for Fields and the skill-position players, combined with better protection from the offensive line, it bodes well for all involved with the team seeking to snap a four-game losing streak.
If Fields and the passing game discovered their identity against the Steelers with the quarterback making accurate throws to the third level, involving wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Allen Robinson and tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham, the latter of whom had been declared missing, the Bears will be considerably better equipped to challenge in the next two months.
Fields has averaged at least 10 air yards per passing attempt in three of the last four games and is averaging 7.15 yards per carry in that span. Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have seemingly reached a point at which things are beginning to click, and sometimes when they don’t, Fields still finds a way to keep drives alive with off-schedule plays.
One impressive thing: Fields, with the exception of the disastrous road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he had five turnovers, has done an especially good job of taking care of the football. It’s one thing when a rookie does that because he’s playing conservatively, but Fields has been challenging narrow windows downfield without crippling the team with a spate of turnovers.
Fields is doing a good job of expressing to the coaching staff what is working for him, and through trial and error, the Bears are learning what works better for him.
“We do feel like we are growing,” Nagy said. “Justin is getting better. But you’ve got to keep that going, and every week it seems like whether it’s (new) scheme, personnel obviously for everybody — and then we’ve got to be able to adapt to all of that.”
If the Bears (3-6) cannot pick up where they left off at Heinz Field, it could be viewed as an aberration for a struggling offense that has found momentum positively fleeting. That would be problematic from the standpoint the future of those with jobs on the line at Halas Hall is intertwined with success on the field and the development of Fields.
Nagy has struggled coming out of the bye since he took over as head coach in 2018. The Bears are 0-3 after their bye week under him — 0-7 over dating to Marc Trestman’s second season — and the Bears are 0-6 in the two games following the bye over the last three years. That’s unconnected to this season but also is an unsettling trend. The Ravens are 11-3 after the bye under John Harbaugh and has had 10 days to plan for the Bears since a disappointing 22-10 to the Miami Dolphins.
“I do know from where I came from, (Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid) has a pretty good record (post-bye),” Nagy said. “I tried to follow that early on in my career and it did not work. Not that you have to change. Some of it, too, is based off where you’re at as a team.”
The Bears are nearing a crossroad for Nagy and a coaching staff that is hopeful extra time to self-scout will prove beneficial. The Bears found a way to rally to a .500 finish in 2020 and backed into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed.
The development of Fields adds a layer to consider this season. The Bears knew entering last season — after declining the fifth-year option for Mitch Trubisky — they were almost certainly headed in a different direction at the position.
Now they have a player who perhaps finally can stabilize the quarterback spot, and Fields’ development is arguably as important as wins and losses. But winning matters, even while developing a young quarterback, and the Bears enter this game stuck in another familiar rut.
“OK, bye week, we’ve got to think about it even more,” Nagy said. “Guess what? We had a bye week last year too. We lost six games in a row with a bye week stuck in between. The only way to get back to it is to say, ‘OK, why is this going on?’ It’s no one’s fault other than everybody’s. Now we pick the pieces up and we get a chance to play a great football team that’s really well-coached, at home, and what are we going to do about it?”
It will be easy to assign fault if the Bears are incapable of using the rally against the Steelers as a launching point. Credit will be just as easy to distribute if they can break through in the final eight games and resemble the kind of offense everyone is waiting to see.
It’s all just another reason why the stretch run will matter most to McCaskey.
Mark Andrews, Ravens TE
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Mark Andrews, 6-foot-5, 256 pounds, is in his fourth season in Baltimore after the Ravens picked him in the third round in 2018 out of Oklahoma. A Pro Bowl selection in his second season, when he had 10 touchdown receptions, Andrews has four career 100-yard games, including a career-high 147 last month against the Indianapolis Colts.
Andrews is second on the team in receptions (48), yards (623) and touchdown catches (four) while averaging 13.3 yards per reception and 3.75 yards after the catch. He has been targeted 69 times and is catching 69.6% of the passes thrown his way.
“He reminds me of Travis Kelce because he has nuance and savvy in his route running,” the scout said. “The Ravens will scheme him open. He’s got a big, physical frame, and when Lamar Jackson is not right with the ball placement, he can make him look right because he’s got a huge catch radius to pluck balls outside of his frame. He understands how to use his body in terms of being able to create leverage to get open, to leave defensive backs outside and to cross their face and now use that massive frame and catch radius to secure the football at the point of attack. He’s a middle-of-the-field target for them but he’s also a vertical target. They will run him on deep overs and deep crossers to create explosive plays with him. As talked about as (Marquise) “Hollywood” Brown and Rashod Bateman are coming on in the offense, that passing game runs through the tight end position. If Andrews doesn’t produce, that is a down day for Baltimore.
“He’s the safety net guy for Jackson. He will make throws into contested windows, and when he does with Andrews, it’s a higher-percentage throw for him because he is so good at the point of attack. Not a burner down the field, doesn’t have the same high-level athletic traits of a Kelce, but in terms of his play style, he reminds me of him. Excellent after the catch, physical after the catch. He’s good in the run game. Not a dominant blocker but he can position block all day long. The thing about Baltimore is they can line up in 22 personnel and go 2-by-2 spread. They will use their formations to get you in what they want you to be in and spread you out. Andrews is a big part of that because he can play as an attached tight end, he can be detached, they can line him up in the slot or they can be the backside “X” wide receiver like you see with Kelce in Kansas City. He’s a top-five tight end.”
Source: Berkshire mont