Dannehy: Pace and Nagy Must Be A Package Deal

| October 20th, 2021

When it comes to Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, the Chicago Bears have to keep both or neither.

It was this calendar year that Ted Phillips and George McCaskey attempted to sell the fan base on the collaboration that would occur between the team’s head coach and general manager. The men were now on equal footing and, more likely, Pace was no longer the top football mind in the organization. Reports about the Bears investigating Nagy’s good friend Mike Borgonzi as a possible replacement for Pace didn’t come from thin air. Pair that with Louis Riddick’s insistence that it is no longer Pace’s show and it’s logical to conclude that Nagy signed off on keeping Pace.

But now another season has began and the Bears offense is still bad.

Pace won over fans because he’s seen as the roster builder and that approach led to the Bears landing Justin Fields. The reality is that it was Nagy who was doing the legwork on Fields and had the final say in picking Fields over Mac Jones. But nobody cares about reality during the course of a season. The Bears offense is the worst in the league and both the GM and head coach have blame to share.

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Dannehy: Bears Must Let Fields Do More.

| October 13th, 2021

The Chicago Bears have found a winning formula the last two weeks. The recipe is good, it just needs minor tinkering. If they are actually going to make any noise this season, they have to let Justin Fields do more.

Rookie quarterbacks are usually at their best when they are complementary pieces. Three of the more recent success stories — Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson — all played for teams that were in the bottom three in passing attempts. The Bears are attempting to hide Fields even more, and letting him do less than other recent rookie successes: Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert.

There is no easy way to compare rookie quarterbacks. The players are always as different as the situations. But when you combine passing attempts, rushes and sacks, Fields has had the ball in his hands with a chance to make a play roughly 26 times per start. That’s considerably less than Wilson (33) and Prescott (34) and it’s even further behind Jackson (42), Murray (43) and Herbert (46).

This recipe has worked because the Bears are playing to their historical best: running the crap out of the ball and playing defense like a top-five unit.

But we can see flaws in that defense. The Raiders had numerous opportunities to make plays down the field with open receivers, as did the Browns — but both missed with either errant throws or dropped passes. The Lions and Jared Goff have made a living of shooting themselves in the foot this season and, well, pretty much every season for the past 50 years. But the caliber of opponent changes drastically this week and the Bears must adjust.

Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are not going to miss the passes that Goff, Derek Carr and Baker Mayfield did. And the Bears running game goes from playing bottom-ten to top-ten fronts. If the Bears are going to win either of the next two games, they’re going to need more than 20 points and they’re going to have to do it without running for 150 yards. That means the passing game. That means Fields.

And there’s reason to believe it will work.

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Dannehy: Switch to Dalton Would Put More Pressure On Nagy

| October 6th, 2021

If Matt Nagy switches back to Andy Dalton, it would be a move for the present.

It would place an enormous amount of pressure on Nagy to win games right now, this season.

It would put his job in even more jeopardy than it already has been.

While fans always expect victories, fairly or not, no matter who is under center, the organization paying $10 million to the veteran quarterback certainly would expect results should the coach choose to play that veteran over the future.

If Nagy were to stick with Justin Fields, he could spin 2021 as a rebuilding year. He’d be able to tell ownership they are focusing on the long-term future of the club and that teams don’t typically have success with rookie quarterbacks. (The data on that would overwhelmingly support his argument.) Nagy could even point to last week’s game plan, with the Bears dropping back to pass on just 37.5 percent of their plays, to show the rookie is learning on the fly.

With Dalton, though, there is going to be an expectation that they run an actual, competent NFL offense. And doing so got a lot more difficult last week when David Montgomery had to be helped to the sidelines. It could be said that the Bears need a more accomplished passer without Montgomery and Dalton has completed 73.5 percent of his passes to Fields’ 48.1 percent, with a passer rating 30 points higher. The quick passing game that Dalton executes so well (and Fields not at all) could now be the key to any short-term success.

But as we have seen throughout Dalton’s career, he needs almost as much help to succeed as rookies. If they can’t run the ball well, it doesn’t really matter if Dalton throws a four-yard pass on third-and-10 or if Fields takes a sack.

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Dannehy: The Curious Case of Matt Nagy

| September 29th, 2021

After three weeks of the season, two things are unquestionably true:

  • Matt Nagy installed an unforgivable game plan against Cleveland and was not able to fix it.
  • Matt Nagy was right in that Andy Dalton should be the starting quarterback.

Sunday’s game was among the worst we’ve seen. The backlash against Nagy has been every bit as bad. And that’s fair. There is no excuse for managing just 47 yards and one net passing yard in a league where every single rule change is engineered for more passing, more yards, more points. It’s hard to figure out Sunday is even possible. But is it possible. It happened. And the blame has to be tossed on Nagy’s lap.

But does this season warrant a second look?

The Bears offense is close to the bottom of the league pretty much across the board, but it didn’t start that way. While few are willing to accept that Justin Fields really just may not have been ready, it’s hard to find another legitimate explanation. When Dalton quarterbacked the team, the offense was nothing short of competent. In the 11 drives Dalton served as the primary quarterback, the Bears averaged 43.1 yards, that mark would be good enough for fourth best in the league, according to Football Outsiders.

Yes, you read that right.

The common rebuttal to that is that the team didn’t score enough. And that’s true, their 1.91 points per drive would be just 24th in the league – almost equal with Tennessee.

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Rookie QBs: Hope For The Best, Prepare For the Worst

| September 22nd, 2021

While recent NFL history has plenty of success stories when it comes to rookie quarterbacks, Bears fans should prepare themselves for the most likely scenario: rookie quarterbacks struggle.

The 2021 season is the perfect case study.

All of the rookie quarterbacks were tremendous in the preseason. Trevor Lawrence went 11-for-12 with two touchdowns in his last action and Zach Wilson finished 9-for-11 with two scores. Those two are currently the lowest-rated passers with at least 20 attempts in the regular season. If you drop the number of minimum attempts to 15, the four lowest-rated passers in the league are Fields (38.2), Wilson (56.1), Lawrence (57.1) and Davis Mills (58.1).

Not good.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Fields had a dropped touchdown pass that went right threw Allen Robinson’s arms. Even with that completion on Sunday, his passer rating would’ve only been 71. Maybe better chemistry with Darnell Mooney could’ve led to a couple of more completions, but the interception and the fumble still happened and were nearly catastrophic.

In August, Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic did a story looking at rookie quarterbacks, wherein he determined that 24 of the 31 were below average. “The median rookie season was Mike Glennon,” Kapadia wrote.

In the last five years, there have been 17 teams that have had rookie quarterbacks play extensively. Only two of those teams finished inside the top 15 in terms of scoring and three were in the top half of the league in yardage. From 2016 to 2019, the worst offenses in the league were all quarterbacked by rookies.

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ATM: Would Justin Fields Be Able to Save Mistake-Laden Bears Offense? Doubtful.

| September 15th, 2021

As different as the Chicago Bears offense looked on Sunday night, familiar mistakes and a suddenly leaky defense opened the question on if we should even want Justin Fields to deal with this mess.

The Bears did a lot of things differently and were even good in some aspects. This wasn’t the same as the group that struggled to get past midfield against the Rams a year ago. They actually moved the ball well until it was a two-score game late in the fourth quarter. The running game was exceptional and Andy Dalton was able to find open receivers underneath to keep the chains moving. The veteran quarterback even showed some mobility, running on one first down and scrambling before throwing for another.

The Bears gained 40 more yards than the Rams allowed on a per game basis last year.

Matt Nagy has, in the past, been killed for his unwillingness to be aggressive on fourth downs, but we saw four attempts during this game. Had any of them been successful, the stat nerds would’ve rejoiced.

But they weren’t.

And the same flaws that have killed the offense for four years were still there.

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ATM: Don’t Sleep on Mooney

| July 21st, 2021

As the deadline to extend tagged players with the Bears and Allen Robinson failing to reach an agreement, fans began to panic about the future of the team’s wide receiver position. But with Darnell Mooney, it seems to be in good shape.

When projecting future depth charts, fans often forget what front offices can’t: improvement often comes from within. Nobody should expect Mooney to be better than Robinson in 2021, but it isn’t a stretch that he could become one of the 20 best receivers in the league by 2022. Who knows what could come after that?

Mooney was in the top-10 amongst rookies in receptions (fifth), yards (sixth) and touchdowns (eighth) and most of those ahead of him benefited from more functional offenses — specifically at the quarterback position. He out-produced multiple first-round picks and most of the other players drafted ahead of him.

At roughly 5’11” and with legitimate 4.3-speed, Mooney showed the ability to run past defenders and make catches on 50/50 balls.  His 3.2 yards of separation per target were the second-best on the team — behind Cole Kmet’s 3.6 — per NextGen Stats. His statistics would be significantly better if the team had a quarterback who could hit him in stride regularly.

Nearly every report from Bears offseason practices has indicated that Mooney has stood out again, looking even stronger and faster than he was a year ago.

The Bears stopped short of betting on Mooney, but they have put him in an ideal situation to prove himself. By using the franchise tag on Robinson, the Bears bought themselves another year to see what Mooney is. If he doesn’t take another step forward, the Bears could certainly tag Robinson again next offseason. Per Albert Breer, tagging Robinson in 2022 would cost the team $21.6 million — probably less than if they had agreed to his terms for an extension. The team absolutely should already be planning on tagging Robinson for that price, even if it’s just to trade him.

Extending Robinson’s contract is still the most ideal way for the Bears to go from here. That seems like a long shot at this point, but that doesn’t mean the future of the position is doomed. The college game is producing high-level wide receivers at an incredible rate, the Bears seem to have found one in Mooney and we shouldn’t dismiss what he can become.

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Grading the Roster: Defense & Specials

| July 20th, 2021

Today, we look at defense and special teams.

Defensive Line: 8

Key Players: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards

Roster Depth: Angelo Blackson, Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel, LaCale London, Daniel Archibong

Akiem Hicks is still a stud, Eddie Goldman is back after opting out in 2020, and Bilal Nichols can now man the defensive end spot where he is best. That gives the Bears an excellent starting trio. They’ve also improved their depth, re-signing Edwards and bringing in Blackson at defensive end while adding two competent nose tackles in Tonga and Pennel in case Goldman goes down with injury. This group should be a clear strength for the Bears in 2021.

Edge Rushers: 7

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu

Roster Depth: Trevis Gipson, Charles Snowden, James Vaughters, Ledarius Mack, Austin Calitro

Khalil Mack remains one of the best all-around edge rushers in the NFL, but his pass rushing productivity took a dip from great to good last year. Robert Quinn had a horrible 2020 as he battled through injury. Both players are now over 30; can they rebound? Chicago’s defense is built with the idea that this will be a dominant duo, but the pass rush was surprisingly mediocre in 2020, and they will need to be markedly better in 2021 to mask holes on the back end.

The addition of Jeremiah Attaochu as a 3rd rusher is a real upgrade and provides depth and insurance in case Quinn continues to struggle. The Bears have also spoken highly of toolsy sophomore Trevis Gipson this offseason, but it’s hard to put too much stock into offseason praise until we see it on the field.

One area that is overlooked here comes in pass coverage. Neither Quinn nor Mack (nor Attaochu) can do much there, but the Bears have typically had a versatile OLB who gets a decent number of snaps (Leonard Floyd through 2019, Barkevious Mingo in 2020). Undrafted rookie Charles Snowden fits that mold of player, and I won’t be surprised if he earns a roster spot and potentially a role on defense.

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Grading the Roster: Offense

| July 19th, 2021

Camp approaches, which means it’s time for me to grade the roster. Like I did last year, I’ll grade on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best, and 5 being an average NFL unit. Let’s get right down to it.

Quarterback: 3

Key Players: Andy Dalton, Justin Fields

Roster Depth: Nick Foles

Veterans Andy Dalton and Nick Foles are not good. Rookie Justin Fields is Chicago’s best chance at getting good QB play this year, but rookie QBs aren’t usually good either. I mainly grade now based on proven production, so Fields’ draft status doesn’t factor in much here. If I was just basing it on certainty going into the season, this would be a 2, but Fields’ upside prompted me to round up.

Running Back: 7

Key Players: David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, Damien Williams

Roster Depth: Khalil Herbert, Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, CJ Marable

David Montgomery broke out as a sophomore in 2020, but a lack of explosive plays limits how good I think he is. The Bears were forced to rely on Montgomery heavily in 2020, so they spent the offseason improving the group of players around him. They get Tarik Cohen back from a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2020 season, and they added solid depth in both free agency (Damien Williams) and the draft (6th round pick Khalil Herbert). I’d give Montgomery a 6 – an above-average NFL starter – but the quality depth around him bumps this up to a 7.

Wide Receiver: 6

Key Players: Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Anthony Miller, Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin

Roster Depth: Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, Dazz Newsome, Rodney Adams, Thomas Ives, Chris Lacy, Khalil McClain, Jester Weah

Allen Robinson is a stud. Darnell Mooney had a solid rookie season, and is somebody the Bears should feel pretty good about as a WR2. Anthony Miller took a step back in 2020 and seems maxed out as a situational WR3 for passing downs only. Javon Wims and Riley Ridley were awful depth last year, so the Bears brought in Damiere Byrd (who should even push Miller for playing time) and Marquise Goodwin, which should bump those two off the roster. Bears fans seem to love Dazz Newsome, but I’m not overly optimistic about the prospects of an unathletic 6th round pick. Anything he gives the offense will be a pleasant surprise.

This grade really hinges on Mooney, who needs to be the guy at WR2. If he can establish himself as a quality starter this year, the Bears’ WR group will be a clear strength.

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ATM: Rodgers Question Lingers Over NFC North

| July 13th, 2021

“I never said I’m unhappy with my boss,” Aaron Rodgers replied to a jab made by Tom Brady in a video that was released last week. The video was mocking a game of Jeopardy between the two star quarterbacks, Rodgers the 2020 NFL MVP and Brady the Super Bowl winner. The answer was “He’s an NBA owner, a self-taught guitarist and has guest-starred on both The Office and Game of Thrones” to which Brady added “He’s unhappy with his boss and has no options. Who is Aaron Rodgers?”

But Rodgers had the response ready and it seems to be a safe bet that he’s going to use that line again.

Rodgers has said a lot since the end of the 2020 season that would lead one to believe he wanted some sort of commitment from the Green Bay Packers. He didn’t get it and the day of the NFL Draft there were reports that he wouldn’t play for the team again. But, as Rodgers was quick to say: he never said that.

As training camp nears, the question of “will he” or “won’t he” lingers over the entire league, especially the NFC North, where Rodgers playing could have a very direct impact on what kind of season the Bears have.

Should Rodgers play, we’re probably penciling the Bears in for two losses. If he doesn’t, two wins or a split at worst. That one game could be the difference between the Bears making the playoffs or missing out. With seven teams making the cut, it isn’t hard to see how the Bears could once again be in contention for that final spot.

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