2019 didn't go as planned for the defending NFC North champs
The 100th season for the Chicago Bears began with a ton of promise and expectations. After posting a 12-4 record, winning the NFC North, and making their first playoff appearance in eight seasons in 2018, the hope was that the Bears would have a repeat performance or better in 2019. Especially with a stout defense and an offense that seemed to have limitless possibilities.
The Bears made some changes to the roster and coaching staff to push them further in the offseason. They brought in Eddy Pineiro to be the new kicker after Cody Parkey's infamous double doink. They also hired Chuck Pagano as the new defensive coordinator after Vic Fangio left to coach the Denver Broncos. Rookie running back David Montgomery was expected to revitalize the running game with Jordan Howard's departure.
But instead, 2019 turned out to be anything but successful for the Bears. It started with the decision by head coach Matt Nagy to only play his starters for one series during the preseason. The intention was to keep his top guys healthy, but it came back to bite them when the team only scored three points and struggled to keep with the Packers in their nationally televised season opener.
After squeaking out a last-minute win over the Broncos the following week, the Bears dominated both Washington and Minnesota by a combined score of 47-21 and finally started to look like the juggernaut that everyone was expecting to see. They were clicking in all aspects of the game and seemed primed for a huge winning streak. Instead, the Bears would fall flat from there as they would lose five of their next six. They tried to rebound with a 4-2 finish at season's end, but it wasn't enough to make the postseason.
The end result was an 8-8 record for the Bears (3rd in the NFC North) in a year which saw regression on both sides of the ball. The Bears finished 28th in total offense (296.8 yards per game), 24th in scoring offense (17.5 points per game), and 25th in total points scored (280). Last season the Bears ranked 21st, 7th, and 7th, respectively, in those same categories. The defense was still strong but trailed off slightly under Pagano's version of the 3-4 scheme. The Bears would finish eighth in total defense (324.1 ypg), fourth in scoring defense (18.6), and 21st in takeaways (19) after finishing tops in points allowed per game and turnovers generated and third in yards allowed per game in 2018.
Injuries and inconsistency hit this team from top to bottom. There was also questionable play-calling, concerns about depth, and regression from a handful of players on the roster. Nagy didn't always have answers for his team's shortcomings, and there's even a call for changes in the front office. While a total rebuild isn't required, some changes will need to be made.
Here are the three biggest questions that the Bears must answer as they shift their focus to 2020.
1. What personnel changes need to be made?
The Bears have several positions that need re-evaluating heading into next season. Quarterback, backup running back, tight end, offensive line, outside linebackers not named Kahlil Mack, and possibly kicker will need a second look.
Mitchell Trubisky went from being a Pro Bowler to having his job status questioned. Chase Daniel has proven himself to be a dependable veteran, but there's doubt as to whether or not he can lead this team if Trubisky were to sustain a long-term injury. Then there's Tyler Bray, who keeps moving back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster, but the Bears must be careful with how they approach this position.
The Bears signed Mike Davis to a two-year deal to back up rookie David Montgomery but released him in November (19 rushing yards on five carries). They brought back Ryan Nall in the wake of Davis' release but saw mixed results (8 rushing yards, occasional special teams contributor). While Tarik Cohen hasn't exactly lived up to his reputation as "The Human Joystick" with a disappointing 669 total yards and three touchdowns this season.
Tight end is probably the most problematic position on this team. The Bears need to really consider whether or not Trey Burton will be able to help this team moving forward. Injuries have limited him to just 653 receiving yards since signing with the team two years ago. He also struggles as a blocker and isn't as explosive as most players at his position are. The Bears should end the Adam Shaheen experiment. They gambled a second-round pick on him in 2017, and he's only registered 26 catches for 249 yards and four touchdowns while also dealing with injuries.
The team's other options are not very appealing either. Ben Braunecker, also injury-prone, should be given his walking papers as well (13 receptions, 142 yards, TD). J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted (combined for 171 receiving yards) should get a second look as they came on strong as late-season additions, but the experiment of moving Bradley Sowell from offensive tackle to tight end didn't pan out. However, there will be plenty of talent at the position in the 2020 draft.
Offensive tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie have also struggled at times. Rashaad Coward has made the transition from defense a successful one, while the future looks bright for Alex Bars. From a statistical standpoint, Khalil Mack had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2019 (47 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, one fumble recovery). Not helping matters is the fact that Leonard Floyd, Isaiah Irving, and Aaron Lynch weren't very productive either (combined for just five sacks and eight TFL). The Bears may want to add depth to this position next year.
Some Bears fans are asking for another do-over at placekicker after Eddy Pineiro missed five field goals and two extra-point attempts. But what tends to be forgotten is that this was technically Pineiro's first full NFL season. He spent all of 2018 on injured reserve after getting injured in preseason play with the Raiders. I'd be surprised if the Bears are quick to pull the trigger at this position again.
2. Who will replace the recently departed assistant coaches?
The Bears have already started to implement some changes. On New Year's Eve, the team let go of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride (the son of the XFL's New York Guardians head coach Kevin Gilbride), as well as special teams coach Brock Olivo. With the offense taking a step back this year, and with the struggles on the offensive line and at tight end, these moves made sense. And perhaps Olivo is taking the blame for Pineiro's missed kicks.
How the Bears fill these vacancies will be watched closely. Will the next offensive coordinator enforce Nagy's playbook as Helfrich did, or will they bring in their own scheme? Perhaps they should bring in a play-caller who will run the ball more and maximize the abilities that Trubisky does have. As for the next special teams coach, they'll need to mold Pineiro — or whoever kicks next season — into a consistent performer.
The Bears have already started their coaching staff overhaul. The first new hire was Juan Castillo, who will replace Hiestand as offensive line coach. Castillo, like Nagy, is an Andy Reid disciple who worked under him in both Philadelphia and Kansas City. Castillo has also worked with the Bills and Ravens. Now he'll be tasked with taking Coward and Bars to the next level, while also elevating the careers of Leno, Massie, Cody Whitehair, and James Daniels.
Gilbride has been replaced by Clancy Barone who's been coaching in the NFL since the '80s. Barone has worked with some Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends including Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas, and Kyle Rudolph. He'll be tasked with fostering development at this position for the Bears.
3. How will the Bears approach the draft and free agency?
The Bears don't have a first-round pick in the 2020 draft because of the Mack trade, but the good news is they did net the Raiders' second-rounder in that trade. They'll still have to navigate a slightly tight salary cap — fifth lowest in the league, according to Over The Cap — situation since Mack's $26.6 million cap hit next season is tied for seventh-highest in the league, highest among all non-quarterbacks.
With this in mind, the Bears need to be very careful and make the right choices when adding to and upgrading next year's roster. They'll also have to be very picky in choosing which of their own pending free agents to bring back. The Bears have a long way to go if they want to contend again in 2020.
The Bears did get some mixed news with the somewhat surprising retirement of guard Kyle Long. While he was once a stalwart on the offensive line, injuries blunted the three-time Pro Bowler's performance over the past several seasons, and the team will welcome the $8.1 million in cap savings that come with his exit. Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson's four-year extension (worth a reported $58.4 million, including $22 million guaranteed) that makes him the highest-paid at his position in the league will eat into some of the money gained from Long's departure. But with the likelihood that additional cuts will be coming, general manager Ryan Pace should have some extra money to spend this offseason as he looks to address the many holes on his roster.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of chicagobears.com)