With the New York Giants getting set to host the Chicago Bears on Sunday, let’s learn more about this week’s opponent. Jeff Berckes on SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron drops some Bears knowledge on us in this week’s ‘5 questions’ segment.
Ed: What has Khalil Mack meant to the Bears? Not only on the field, but symbolically in terms of the Bears morphing from a perennial loser in recent years into a team that is going for it and trying to win?
Jeff: Mack the player: Getting a player of Mack’s abilities entering the prime of his career is ridiculous. He already has a Defensive Player of the Year award to his resume and multiple 1st team All Pro campaigns on his resume. In other words, his career is on a trajectory that will one day add to the Chicago Bears amazing linebacker legacy with a Hall of Fame bust. His ability to convert speed to power on his rush is the best in the game today. I loved this guy coming out of college, was a big fan from afar in his Raiders days, and have to pinch myself every time I see that navy and orange 52 on the field wreaking havoc on offensive tackles. I 100 percent respect the traditions of the New York Football Giants great defensive players so maybe this is the one other franchise that will truly understand this – it is more gratifying and fun to watch a guy like Mack than it is a great player at another position. When you cheer for the Bears you know that linebacker play is the soul of this franchise.
Mack the teammate: One of the things that you have to love about Mack is what he’s done to unlock his teammates to reach greater levels. Mack is unselfish on the pass rush, crashing down and taking multiple offensive linemen with him on stunt packages. The extra attention he brings has allowed other good players to thrive in one on one matchups like Akiem Hicks, who is having himself an All-Pro caliber year as well. Of course, the pass rush helps out on the back end, with the Bears leading the league with 20 interceptions leading to a league best turnover differential. I think the Bears were going to be a good defense this year without Mack. With a healthy Mack, they’re elite.
Mack the symbol: I saw a lot of people at the time of the trade laughing at how silly the Bears were for giving up two first round picks and committing such a big salary to Mack. I said at the time that we’d look back on it and say the Bears got a steal – and given the Raiders terrible season and the Bears enjoying a stranglehold on the NFC North, I’d say the narrative has shifted. The fact that the 2020 1st rounder from the Bears will be offset by the 2020 2nd rounder from the Raiders is going to be a fun side bet to see what the difference ends up being (32 and 33 would be ideal). It was an incredible move by Ryan Pace to cap off a pitch perfect offseason where he swung and connected on every important decision (Nagy, Allen Robinson II, keeping Vic Fangio and Kyle Fuller, letting Cameron Meredith walk). Acquiring Mack was the moment this team went from “we’re going to be better” to “we think this team can compete now” and it’s reinvigorated a fan base that’s endured a rough half decade.
Ed: What are your thoughts on first-year coach Matt Nagy?
Jeff: Swaggy Nagy? Love the hire. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup a year ago, but when the Bears hired the Chiefs Offensive Coordinator and Andy Reid disciple, I was very excited. Nagy is still learning – he’s far from a perfect tactician and is going to make some mistakes in game management and play calling decisions – but so far, you have to be impressed with the results. He was able to adjust the offensive install to match Mitchell Trubisky’s learning curve and put the young QB in a position to succeed. He’s been able to mold together a young group of guys into a team that plays fast and loose. It’s a really fun team to cheer for and while Ryan Pace needs to get a ton of credit (including hiring Nagy) the success on the field is an excellent reflection of the young head coach.
One thing I’d like to see improved is to keep the foot on the gas pedal. The Bears have been a great first half team but either aren’t making good adjustments at half time and/or shifting into a more conservative mindset when they jump out to an early lead. But two thirds of the way into his first season, I’d say the arrow is definitely pointing up. It’s not a stretch to say that he’ll be on the short list for NFL Coach of the Year honors.
Ed: If you could take a single player off the Giants’ roster and put him into Chicago’s lineup, who would it be? Why?
Jeff: That’s an easy one – Saquon Barkley. As a fantasy football enthusiast, I faded Barkley at the draft table because I simply did not believe in that Giants offensive line. In the Giants games I’ve watched, it does seem as though I was right about the line, but it doesn’t matter. He’s a big time player that can do it all and I couldn’t have been more wrong about his ability to impact the game despite limitations around him. He’s got one or two big plays a game that make you stop and stare, but even those 3-yard runs where he spins, stiff arms, and runs a guy over are amazing. He’s the real deal.
As the year has progressed, it has become obvious that Jordan Howard isn’t a good fit for Matt Nagy’s offense. Howard had two very good years to start his career and fit well in the last offensive system but he simply has been unable to find success this season. Barkley would take this offense to an elite level – I could see Barkley serving as the equivalent to Todd Gurley II. That would be fun.
Ed: On paper, can you see a single place where the Giants have an obvious advantage in Sunday’s game?
Jeff: Special teams. I don’t think it’s been talked about enough but the Bears special teams have been pretty bad all season with the exception of the punt return game. Cody Parkey and the kicking game have actively hurt the Bears all year – and not just the game where he doinked the uprights 4 times. New England scored two special teams TDs against the Bears to really break that game open and every time the ball is kicked to Chicago I just hope it goes into the end zone for a touch back.
From what I can tell, the Giants special teams has been a bright spot in pretty much everything except the punt return game –the opposite of the Bears. That should give Giants fans something to watch for on the change of possession plays. If the game is close, that could certainly be an important factor.
Ed: Is Mitchell Trubisky a quarterback the Bears can win Super Bowls with?
Jeff: Short answer: I don’t know and I think anyone that tells you otherwise (yes or no) is operating with a limited data set.
Long answer: Coming into this season, I think the question was – can Trubisky be a competent signal caller? I think those that are arguing that he hasn’t cleared that bar are simply in denial and trying to support their draft day takes. Just a bit of a Captain Obvious comment but John Fox isn’t good at developing young QBs. Shocker. Surrounding Trubisky with creative offensive minds led by Matt Nagy and a set of professional wide receivers has done wonders to his development. He’s certainly made his fair share of bad throws and more than his fair share of bad decisions, but he’s so early in his development that you have to believe he can improve. His play from opening night to the win against a stout Vikings defense two weeks ago shows an incredible leap in his play. He has put together a bevy of highlight reel throws and his ability to move the sticks with his legs is elite.
The next questions for Trubisky to answer are – can he take the Bears to the playoffs? I think we can safely say yes to that question. Can he take this team on a deep playoff run? That will be interesting to see this year. With the defense playing as well as it is, this is not unlike other teams with good defenses and young QBs on their rookie contracts making a run – the best recent example being the Russell Wilson Seahawks. It won’t be an easy road as early season losses have the Bears looking at a likely No. 3 seed if they can capture the NFC North crown. Traveling to LA and/or New Orleans is a tall order but it will be fun to find out. That window of his rookie contract is good for another two years plus the fifth year option. Most of the major pieces on both sides of the ball are in place for the Bears to compete in that window so I expect multiple years of data to answer that question.