By MADDIE TOPLIFF
The NFL offseason is torture for football fans. What am I supposed to watch until August, golf? I don’t think so. It does not help that the NBA exists solely to taunt me in the meantime; basketball seems to almost never have an off-season.
Perhaps what makes the wait even more excruciating is the repetitive dwelling on how a team’s previous season turned out. And some might disagree with me, but I think it’s harder to face next year when your team actually did well the year before, especially as a Chicago Bears fan–when a playoff appearance comes around once in a blue and orange moon.
The last time we talked, the Bears had just been handed a surprising loss by Eli Manning and the New York Giants on Dec. 2. Since then, the Bears have been busy.
Best defensive effort of the season
What made the Giants loss so troublesome is that it was not the ideal loss the fan base was saving up for. The Los Angeles Rams, the second-best team in the National Football Conference after the New Orleans Saints, were expected to hand us a loss the following week, and two losses in a row so close to the playoffs is all a team needs to lose essential momentum. Luckily, the Bears traded in a surprising loss for a surprising win and beat LA in a super low-scoring game at home: 15-6. This was one of, if not the best showing of defense by the Bears all season, and it was needed since quarterback Mitch Trubisky did not show up well for his first game back after a shoulder injury.
NFC North champions decided
The Bears stayed at home the next week for a huge divisional matchup against the Green Bay Packers. At this point in the season, the Packers had all but counted themselves completely out of the playoffs. But for Chicago, the divisional title was up for grabs. The Bears have finished last in the division the past four years, and the last time that Chicago won the NFC north was in 2010. The game is always exciting down to the last few seconds when Aaron Rodgers is the opponent, but the divisional champions were in fact the Chicago Bears, clinching a playoff berth for the first time in 8 years. Yes, it did taste extra sweet to have made a loser out of our arch enemies in the process.
The last two games of the Bears’ regular season were on the road, first in San Francisco and finally, in Minnesota. Although we were able to beat the San Francisco 49ers with a score of 14-9, they did not let us leave the west coast without feeling bad about ourselves. Former Bears place kicker Robbie Gould kicks for the 49ers now and of course scored all of their points during the Dec. 23 matchup. Gould walked away from Chicago after a paycheck dispute in 2016, but not before becoming the team’s all-time leading scorer. It is no secret that the Bears seriously lack in the kicker department currently; Bears place kicker Cody Parkey was the second-worst kicker in the league during the 2018 season. That is…terrible and unacceptable. But more on that later.
The regular season finale
It was a huge relief for the Bears to be able to play the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 30 without having to worry about making or breaking a playoff spot. But there were still conditions on the line. If we could beat the Vikings, by any margin, then they would be out of the playoffs. If they won, they were automatically in; the game was not contingent on any other matchup around the league. The home crowd called it #WinandIn.
I never realized how much being indoors amplifies the sound of a crowd until I attended that game. And the thing about being a fan of the visiting team is that you are never able to be fully confident because everyone around you wants your team to fail and will let you know. Very loudly.
Despite a worse-than-usual game by Bears running back Tarik Cohen and missed kicks from Parkey, the Bears were able to outscore the Vikings, a win solidified in a rare stellar fourth quarter effort.
Foes in Philly
So, instead of a third game against the Vikings on the season, the Bears hosted the defending Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles in Chicago during Wild Card weekend. Mystery clouded the air pre-matchup, however, when one of Trubisky’s most trusted targets was announced as inactive the offense wouldn’t be the same. Former Eagle but present-day Bears tight end Trey Burton cited a groin injury and sat out of the game despite practicing all week. Burton had six touchdowns during the 2018 season and 54 total receptions.
But the show must go on, even down a trusted man. The Bears defense did a lot of heavy lifting, especially in the first half, holding the Eagles to a single field goal. At the top of the 3rd quarter, the Bears were up 6-3 with two FGs of their own. The Eagles retaliated right before the 4th quarter with the first touchdown of the game. There were earlier TD opportunities for both teams, but costly penalties postponed anything noteworthy. Shortly after another Bears field goal, Trubisky finally found WR Allen Robinson II and the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown, putting the Bears back on top with nine minutes remaining.
To say the atmosphere was tense is an understatement; the tension was palpable. Of course the Eagles had to make it sickeningly stressful by scoring with only 56 seconds remaining, giving them the slightest advantage at 16 points to 15. All the Bears needed to do is kick a field goal to put themselves over the top and into divisional play against the Saints.
Unfortunately, I must remind everyone that Bears place kicker Cody Parkey is the absolute last person any Bears fan wants anything to be dependent on ever. Parkey was affectionately known around the league this year as one of the worst kickers around, missing seven FGs and three extra points. What a time, right?
But it gets worse. Parkey lined up for his last kick of the season, a 43-yard FG and made it through the uprights just as the Eagles called their last time out of the game. Then, Parkey subsequently missed the same exact kick, ending his team’s season. Of course.
To give Parkey the benefit of the doubt, analysis was released the day after saying the kick was actually tipped by an Eagles player, but still. Good and high kicks don’t get tipped.
The mourning period was extended when first-class defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was announced to have traded in his blue and orange for…more blue and orange in order to become the new head coach of the Denver Broncos. At multiple points during the 2018 season, the Bears were ranked as the number one defensive scoring unit in the NFL and third in their overall defensive effort. Fangio did wonders for the program in his three years.
Taking Fangio’s place in Chicago is former Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who will be expected to build his own staff as the majority of staff either followed Fangio or left in general. However, his on-field strategies strongly resemble Fangio’s, which is an advantage if the Bears are able to retain key players during free agency.
After only his first year in Chicago, head coach Matt Nagy was announced on Jan. 17 as being chosen for NFL Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America. PFWA also named Fangio NFL Assistant Coach of the Year. It’s hard to get a pulse on whether Fangio’s departure will deeply affect the team’s 2019 season. The players are still in Chicago and should hopefully only continue to succeed, but it’s too soon to make the call.
In the off-season, the Bears need to focus on:
- Finding a new kicker–The fanbase, especially me, will not idly sit through another season of Parkey. We need to either sign Robbie Gould or the next best thing; games cannot be routinely thwarted by the kicker.
- Smart pass coverage–It is undeniable that the Bears are great at preventing a successful run game in stressful circumstances, but the same does not always apply for the passing game. Being aware of the ball while also not drawing a penalty is something the team could work on before August.
- Fourth quarter endurance–The end of the season was way better than the beginning in terms of playing consistently down to the last second, but the team still could use some work. Either put the game away early in the third or be ready to fight in the fourth; playing under pressure is no time to get tired.
- Taking each game at face value–This is not really an area that needs improvement; it simply serves as a reminder. The Bears need to make each season and each game unique and not focus on what happened in the past. Yes, they exceeded expectations this season. But 2019 is a new year. Again, the Bears do a great job of this currently; it simply needs to continue.
Maddie’s Monsters of the Year:
LB Khalil Mack: Three words. Worth. Every. Penny.
- WR Allen Robinson II: He is who I would throw to with the game on the line.
- (Tie) S Eddie Jackson: Best safety in the league. 6 interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
- (Tie) RB Jordan Howard. Almost 500 more rushing yards than any other Bear. Trubisky needs to feed him the ball even more in 2019.