It’s always better for an NFL team to enter its bye week after a win. It creates optimism and momentum during the week off. That isn’t the case for the Chicago Bears, who suffered a disappointing defeat against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, but this season is a unique one in Chicago. Even in the midst of a four-game losing streak and a 3-6 record, the arrow is pointing up for the Bears.
Sure, that sounds crazy. It’s insane to think a team that hasn’t won a game in a month actually has any reason to feel good about itself. But the 2021 season isn’t a traditional year for this Bears team. There’s a goal that, in a way, is bigger than the end-of-year record. The development of rookie quarterback Justin Fields is paramount, and with the way he’s been playing over the last couple of weeks, that development is happening at a rate faster than most pundits expected. And while Fields’ maturation may not be enough to save the jobs of head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace if the losses continue to pile up, the future still looks bright regardless of how the year ends.
The optimism surrounding this team isn’t solely because of Fields, either. The first nine games of 2021 have featured standout performances on offense by running backs David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert, the ascent of second-year wide receiver Darnell Mooney to the top target in the passing game, and tight end Cole Kmet’s improvement from his rookie season to Year 2.
The defense has some reasons to feel good, too. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson has solidified his standing as a true shutdown cornerback while linebacker Roquan Smith is playing like one of the best at his position in the NFC. Young edge rusher Trevis Gipson has flashed high-end sack potential, and veterans like Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Robert Quinn are doing their part by providing top-shelf play at a point in their career that feels like they still have some quality seasons remaining.
Despite those positives, the Bears are 3-6, even with a quality core of young talent that suggests the record should be better than that. The offensive line remains a big problem, but believe it or not, there are still reasons to feel like better days are ahead. Rookie second-round pick Teven Jenkins is inching closer to making his debut after battling a back injury since training camp, and fifth-rounder Larry Borom has outplayed his draft position at right tackle. There’s a chance—a good one—that Chicago landed their starting pair of offensive tackles in the 2021 draft. That’d be a huge win if both players prove they can stay (or in the case of Jenkins, get) healthy and become staples in the starting lineup.
Let’s stay on the 2021 draft class for a second. It has a chance to be a special one for this team. Obviously, Fields in the first round is the pick, and he’s delivering. There’s Jenkins in the second round and Borom in the fifth, and don’t forget about how dynamic Herbert, Chicago’s sixth-round pick, was in place of Montgomery while he battled a sprained knee. That’s four potential ‘hits’, and if you include the quality reps nose tackle Khyiris Tonga provided while Eddie Goldman was out, that’s five quality-to-special players added in a seven-player draft class. For all the criticism directed toward Pace, he hit some doubles, triples, and a home run last April.
Still, the Bears have twice as many losses as wins at the halfway point in their season, and calls for Nagy to be replaced are as loud as they’ve been since he became head coach in 2018. It’s easy to understand why. He’s under-delivered since Chicago’s remarkable playoff berth in his first season. Back-to-back .500 finishes prior to this season—which is trending for a record worse than that—isn’t good enough for a city that’s demanding better. Much better.
Nagy’s inability to guide the Bears to a respectable offense midway through 2021 has been his undoing. Chicago has the fewest passing yards in the league, the fewest passing touchdowns, and the second-fewest offensive touchdowns. For a coach who came to Chicago described as an offensive guru, he’s been an epic letdown. His system is failing worse in 2021 than it has in any year prior and it’ll be hard for him to salvage his reputation—if he even has one anymore—sans an unexpected and near-historic turnaround in the second half of the season.
Yet in all that negativity, there’s still reason to believe that 2021 will be the most meaningful year in recent Bears history. The seemingly never-ending quest for Chicago to find a quarterback, for once, feels like it’s over. Fields has been that impressive, particularly over the last two games. He looks the part. He’s playing like the part. On and off the field, the Bears finally have a quarterback who can put the team on his back, like he did in Chicago’s near come-from-behind win against the Steelers. Most living Bears fans have never experienced such a thing, which is why 2021 feels like the Bears are losing a series of battles but will ultimately win the war.
Let’s face it, no one expected the Bears to be competitive in 2021. Failing to make the playoffs won’t be a surprise. But there’s a difference between failing to make the playoffs in a year devoid of hope and experiencing a losing season while finding the answer to a problem that’s plagued the franchise since its inception. That’s what’s happening with the Bears right now, and whether they rip off a winning streak and finish the year with a respectable record or not, the Fields era brings hope for a much, much brighter future in 2022 and beyond.
Whether Nagy will be able to hold onto his gig to see this whole thing through is the next big question that needs an answer, but don’t expect that to come anytime during the regular season. Even if the wheels completely fall off over the second half of the year, Nagy should keep his job until bloody Monday. Then, all bets are off.
The Bears’ 2021 schedule won’t give them any breaks coming out of the bye. They face the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, and Seattle Seahawks in four of their next five games. A 4-10 record is a very real possibility, which is a great thing for the New York Giants, who own Chicago’s 2022 first-round pick because of the Fields trade, but not so great for Nagy and the rest of the Bears’ decision-makers whose heads are on the chopping block.
Football fans always want to end Sundays with a win. But trading a few losses for a decade or more with a quarterback who the team can build around is a worthwhile sacrifice. And it’s one the Bears are making so far in 2021.