The team had just finished a season in which they finished third in their division, with the 27th-best scoring offense and third best defense. Against all odds, they had made the playoffs the year before, but they were stuck.
The young coach seemed like a great leader. The defensive coordinator had his unit set. The offensive play caller was dialing up winners. But they weren’t winning because the No. 2 overall pick quarterback simply could not execute the offense.
There were no easy answers.
Now that team is one win away from going to the Super Bowl.
Most of that probably sounds very familiar because the 2019 Tennessee Titans entered the season in the same spot as the 2020 Chicago Bears. But the Titans weren’t afraid to do exactly what the Bears have to do. They sat Marcus Mariota on the bench.
Through six games, the Titans were averaging 16.3 points and 307 yards per game, but they finished the season 10th in the league scoring 25.1 points 12th averaging 363 yards per game.
And the only major change they made was the quarterback.
They didn’t revive Steve McNair or cash in on a hot streak by Kerry Collins. The Titans took a quarterback another team was giving away and plugged him in. Ryan Tannehill is far from great, but he’s evidence of how big a difference going from incompetent to capable can make.
In 10 starts, Tannehill threw 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions, with a passer rating of 117.5.
And suddenly the running game started to open up. Derrick Henry ran for just 416 yards and averaged roughly 3.7 yards per carry through six games. In the 12 games since then, he has run for 1,507 yards and has not had a single game with less than four yards per carry.
The difference is really simple.
Tannehill is more willing and able to stretch the field. The current Titans starter has averaged 9.5 intended air yards per throw, more than two yards per pass better than the guy he replaced. Tannehill has a passer rating of 108 on passes of 15 yards or more, while Mariota sits at 63.3, completing a Trubisky-like 39 percent.
This isn’t just a fluke, I already wrote about the difference a quarterback made for the top-seeded team in the NFC.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, the reality is that if the Bears get merely adequate quarterback play, they’re going to start scoring points. Certainly enough to contend for the playoffs with their defense and very likely enough to contend for a Super Bowl.
We know the Bears aren’t going to trade for Cam Newton or Nick Foles and we can be darn certain they’re not going to sign Teddy Bridgewater after GM Ryan Pace’s proclamation that Mitch Trubisky is the starter.
But, there are options.
If Alex Smith can play — and the Redskins grant him his release — the Bears should sign him and they’d immediately be in business. Andy Dalton wouldn’t be a sexy addition but, like Tannehill, he is a professional quarterback.
We’re not talking about finding a franchise quarterback here. Pace simply needs to find a professional quarterback who can hit open throws and read defenses. There are going to be plenty of them available, he just has to be willing to look.
For Pace, admitting a mistake is going to be the most difficult part.