The Chicago Bears are off to their best start at 5-3 since the 2013 season. That year provided a disappointing finish, with an 8-8 mark in Marc Trestman’s first season, as those Bears lost in Week 17 to the Packers with a home playoff game on the line.
But things feel a bit different this time around in Matt Nagy’s debut season. Even with some bumps in the road, such as crushing late road losses at Green Bay and Miami, the Bears have been a good football team more often than not.
Most importantly, it feels like there’s room to grow and improve — and they’re very much in the divisional race. The Bears are holding on to first place in the NFC North for now with the Vikings nipping at their heels and the other two teams still in stalking position. There also are five more divisional games remaining, so there’s heavy lifting yet to be done.
Inspired by our friend Larry Holder, who covers the Saints for The Athletic, we decided to do a version of what he wrote for that team and apply it to the Bears: a midseason list of superlatives.
Instead of just going unit by unit, here’s a different kind of snapshot of the highs and lows of the Bears’ 2018 season:
Best offensive play
Mitch Trubisky’s second TD vs. Tampa Bay
Entering the Buccaneers game, Trubisky had looked good on only a handful of drives in the Bears’ first three games — most of them during the scripted portions of Nagy’s game plan. That was concerning, and even after a late TD pass against Seattle, Trubisky entered Week 4 against the Bucs with the critics ready to pounce.
All Trubisky did was have his finest game as a pro, helping build his confidence and boost the Bears to 3-1 at that point. On his first TD pass, the Bucs defender fell down, making for a relatively easy connection. But on his second scoring pass, Trubisky showed everything you want in a young QB — touch, timing, patience and accuracy — on his 14-yard TD to Allen Robinson in the corner of the end zone.
Considering where Trubisky and the Bears’ offense was at that point, the throw came like a bolt out of the blue and highlighted a massive breakout game in a blowout win. Since then, we’ve seen more flashy individual efforts. But at that moment, this was the type of play the Bears and their fans badly needed to see from their assumed franchise QB.
Worst offensive play
Trubisky’s end-zone interception at Miami
After a scoreless first half, the Bears’ offense opened up in the second half with 21 points (with a little help from Kyle Fuller’s interception) in the first eight minutes of the third quarter.
And at the start of the fourth, the Bears had the ball at the Miami 13-yard line. The Bears had just had a touchdown taken off the board on a bad offensive pass interference call against Trey Burton, but they still had three cracks at the end zone on first-and-goal and a chance to go up 28-13 on the road with less than 15 minutes remaining.
That’s when Trubisky uncorked a terrible pass — or should we say he made a bad decision? — toward Ben Braunecker in the end zone with a Pro Bowl safety in his hip pocket. Watching the tape, it’s clear Trubisky had Braunecker open early but held onto the ball too long. But throwing it when he did, Trubisky made a poor decision. Either of the other two tight ends on the field, Dion Sims or Burton, would have been better options on the play.
The pass was picked, and Miami came down to tie the game on the next possession. It was just poor execution at the worst time — and it ended in an overtime loss.
Most under-the-radar offensive play
26-yard pass to Trey Burton at Buffalo
The Bears played a sloppy game against a good Bills defense, with Chicago’s defense making enough big plays to turn it into a laugher. You can’t say Trubisky played one of his better games (without Robinson on the field), but it was not a lost effort, either.
On the first play from scrimmage to start the second quarter, the Bears were facing a third-and-15 at the Buffalo 42-yard line. It was a scoreless game and it looked like every point was going to matter at this stage of the contest. The Bears were outside of field-goal range, so going vertical against a Bills defense that ranked in the top five in yards per attempt allowed was the only option here.
Nagy dialed up a great play, and the Bears executed it beautifully all around. Burton got behind playmaking LB Matt Milano, and Trubisky delivered a strike right in front of S Jordan Poyer for a huge 26-yard gain. Credit Trubisky for stepping into the throw with the pocket collapsing from both edges and to Burton for bracing for the tough hit he knew was coming.
The Bears capitalized on the drive with a Jordan Howard touchdown to gain the lead and early momentum. Prior to that throw, the Bears had not converted a third down all season with more than 10 yards to go. The pass also represented 20.6 percent of Chicago’s passing yards in the game, showing how tough they were to come by last Sunday.
Best defensive play
Khalil Mack’s strip sack at Green Bay
Maybe the most important defensive play came the next week when Prince Amukamara jumped an out route for a pick-six against the Seattle Seahawks. And let it be known, it was an excellent individual effort — even if Russell Wilson stared his receiver down.
The most dramatic in the moment could have been Akiem Hicks’ strip of Miami Dolphins RB Kenyan Drake. Considering the time (overtime) and place (on the road), it was huge even if the Bears couldn’t capitalize in the form of a victory.
But for sheer athletic and football prowess, Mack — in his first action with the Bears — stripping Packers QB DeShone Kizer in Week 1 was as breathtaking as it gets. The Packers were facing a third-and-goal at the Chicago 10-yard line right before halftime, trying to cut into a 10-0 Bears lead with Aaron Rodgers knocked out of the game. On the play in question, Mack jammed WR Davante Adams, bench-pressed RT Bryan Bulaga, took down Kizer and yanked the ball out of his hands all in one fell swoop.
Mack had been a Bear for eight days and had to cram just to get ready for that contest. It was a massive play and the first indication that GM Ryan Pace had landed a special player for the high price it cost to pry him loose from the Oakland Raiders. Granted, Mack’s pick-six a few minutes later might have been a more stunning play, but Kizer pretty much handed the Bears those points.
The sack, however, was just a brilliant individual effort, and it already had people talking about Mack as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate less than 30 minutes into his Chicago career.
Worst defensive play
Randall Cobb’s 75-yard TD in Week 1
Of course, we know how that game ended up. The Bears couldn’t put the Packers away, and Rodgers returned — gimpy leg and all — to stun them late.
Two plays prior to Cobb’s touchdown, CB Kyle Fuller dropped a would-be pick-six, so that certainly was a candidate for this category. But Rodgers still had three-quarters of the field left to drive and was facing a third-and-10 with 2:29 remaining, down six points. In no way, shape or form should this defense have allowed Cobb to weave his way through it for a score.
Eddie Jackson just lost sight of Cobb, who was on the same page as Rodgers after he flushed the pocket. Bryce Callahan was turned around and couldn’t make a play. Neither could Adrian Amos, Leonard Floyd nor Mack. That stunningly put the Packers up 24-23, and it dealt Matt Nagy a gut-shot loss in his first game as head coach.
Most under-the-radar defensive play
Eddie Goldman’s sack vs. Seattle
Trubisky had been picked on back-to-back possessions in a game the Bears led 7-0, but it felt tenuous at best as Seattle took over at the Chicago 43-yard line with momentum on its side and a great chance to even the score.
On first down, the Seahawks came out in “22 personnel” (two backs, two tight ends), which they typically throw out of 70 percent of the time this season. But Russell Wilson dropped back against the Bears’ six-man pressure and had a wide-open wheel route to Rashaad Penny down the sideline for what could have been a touchdown had Wilson been able to get the throw off.
The Bears’ pressure was crucial on preventing this play from developing, and had Goldman not taken Wilson down, there was a chance for him to either find Penny or scramble for decent yards. Goldman’s one-arm sack put the Seahawks behind the sticks and into a clear throwing situation, and the three-and-out to follow kept the Bears in the driver’s seat in a game they’d take control of in the fourth quarter.
That play was sneaky big, even if we didn’t realize it at the time or have since roundly forgotten it.
Best coaching move
Toying with Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals
Nagy was questioned for some interesting timeout usage in this game, but looking back he handled a few situations quite adeptly. With the Bears trailing 14-zip late in the second quarter, they had a fourth-and-goal from the Arizona 2-yard line. They lined up to go for it, prompting the Cardinals’ rookie head coach, Wilks, to call timeout.
The Bears came back on the field and opted to kick a field goal. Nagy got them to burn a timeout, and he clearly felt the Bears needed some points there. It proved to be a wise, patient move as the Cardinals didn’t score in the remaining 90 seconds of the half — or for the remainder of the game, it turned out.
Then with a fourth-and-1 at the Arizona 19, the Bears changed things up again. The 37-yard field-goal try might have been tempting, but with K Cody Parkey having missed from a similar spot in the first quarter, Nagy opted to go for it. Trubisky’s 1-yard pass to Robinson was just enough for the first. They’d go on to score their first and only touchdown of the game to finish the drive and cut the lead to 14-10.
With Arizona leading late, 14-13, Nagy appeared ready to go for it again on fourth-and-1, this time from the Arizona 25. The timeout he called prior to the play left the Bears with only one for the remaining 4:34 in the fourth quarter, which was a risk. But following the timeout, Nagy called for the field-goal unit to come on and Parkey converted for what would be the game winner.
Nagy appeared to know his defense had fully taken control by that point, adjusting completely after two poor possessions to open the game — and rookie QB Josh Rosen was warming up on the sideline, ready to replace starter Sam Bradford.
Ideally, the Bears would save the timeout there, but the gamble worked out well. Both men, Nagy and Wilks, were coaching their third NFL games. But one looked like a veteran; the other did not. Nagy helped usher Trubisky through a game in which he struggled and handled most of the game-management situations with aplomb. It’s an area where a lot of first-time head coaches can struggle, but not Nagy here.
Worst coaching move
Not being more aggressive in OT at Miami
We certainly could pick Vic Fangio’s decision not to rush Tom Brady more, but we’re not pegging the Patriots game as one the Bears should have won. The Dolphins loss, however, was a tough one to swallow — one that ultimately could be the difference between making the playoffs and not.
The Bears had the ball in overtime following a dramatic turnover by the Dolphins on the Chicago 1-yard line and moved the ball deep into Miami territory, poised for a game-winning score. Very early in the game, Nagy showed some gumption by going for it on fourth-and-1; it was the right call despite the Dolphins cutting down Tarik Cohen for a no-gain and turnover on downs.
They were aggressive there, but not on the OT possession. Nagy called for three straight runs to set up a 53-yard field-goal try for Parkey, which he missed. Miami would go on to win on the next possession. That’s where throwing a high-percentage pass (or two) appeared to make sense, even as Howard started getting going a few plays earlier.
Nagy said he had “ultimate trust” in Parkey in that situation, and the kicker had a history of making long kicks in the past, but it was almost viewed as Nagy not trusting Trubisky, who was up and down in the game, in that spot. Lesson learned.
Even missing two games and being hobbled for most of the Miami game, he’s been the Bears’ best individual player at full health. Pace trading two first-round picks for Mack was a steep price, and paying him as an elite defender was a fascinating gamble, but the Bears also got a few picks back in the deal and have seen firsthand just how much of a difference Mack can make when he’s a full go.
It’s saying something that we’re picking a player who has made 81.5 percent of his field-goal tries and all of his extra-point attempts. That’s an indication that GM Ryan Pace has had his best offseason to date with the team.
But Parkey’s late miss at Miami — even with the coaching error we noted above — was a big one, especially on a field where he’s kicked a lot. He also boffed a 47-yarder early in a hard-fought win at Arizona and failed to convert on a 40-yarder against the Jets in Week 8. Missed kicks early aren’t the worst thing in the world, but they can discourage an offense that’s still developing.
Again, Parkey hasn’t been bad, really, but he’s had a few that have gotten away from him. One cost the Bears in a big way.
You could make a case for Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Danny Trevathan or Kyle Fuller in this spot. All four have been mostly excellent. But they’re all better when Mack is doing his thing.
You probably can’t pick either running back. There’s no obvious candidate at receiver or offensive line, really. Trey Burton has caught five TD passes, and he fills a key role in this offense, but MVP might be a stretch.
It’s easy to nitpick Trubisky’s flaws, and he clearly is in the developmental stage. But he’s also been the Bears’ best running option, adding a dimension to this offense that hasn’t been there previously, and has taken decent care of the football (10 turnovers in eight games) for a quarterback with just over a season’s worth of NFL starts and only 33 total since high school.
It’s not the sexiest choice to make, and it’s clear Trubisky gets a lot of help from the system, the multitude of playmakers at his disposal and a defense that puts the team in a very favorable situation most games. But we’re picking him as the where-would-they-be-without-him choice for now.
He’s not as good as his draft status would suggest, and he’s not as bad as his critics would have you believe.