Chicago Bears Q&A: Why not go all-in on a rebuild? How many assistants does Matt Nagy need to hire? And what are the Bears’ plans for safety?

Chicago Bears Q&A: Why not go all-in on a rebuild? How many assistants does Matt Nagy need to hire? And what are the Bears’ plans for safety?
Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune
·19 min read

As the Chicago Bears formulate a plan for the offseason, Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag is full of questions about the quarterback situation, the coaching staff openings and ownership’s commitment to winning championships.

For two weeks we’ve been reminded how the Bears lead the NFL in culture and how they’ve mastered the art of spin doctoring. I know you can’t tell me who the quarterback is going to be at the start of the season right now, and the Allen Robinson situation is at least up in the air for the time being. Did we learn anything from a football standpoint from that crazy press conference? — Joe C., Chicago

While Chairman George McCaskey, President Ted Phillips, general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy spoke for nearly 90 minutes, they didn’t get into a lot of nuanced football discussion. You raise a good question, though, because at some point in the weeks ahead, the Bears have to put a plan of action in place that will guide them through the offseason and provide land markers as they prepare to enter free agency and then the draft. What do they want to do offensively? What do they need to accomplish defensively? So much is unknown because of the quarterback situation, but maybe Nagy laid a few breadcrumbs in his news conference after the wild-card round loss to the New Orleans Saints.

“Every year is different, and you look at this right now, I think identity-wise as an offense, you guys could see we felt like we created an identity,” Nagy said. “But how do we learn from that? Well, part of it is you see that in games like today, no matter what your identity is, you’ve always got to be able to run the football. You have to be able to do that. And when I say that, you might not run for 150 yards in the game, but you’re going to have a lot more second-and-5s and second-and-4s and second-and-3s, which then keeps you out of the third-and-longs. Third-and-longs versus any defense, let alone this defense, is hard. What we need to do in the next couple weeks is really start figuring out, ‘OK, where are we? How do we get better?’ We know this isn’t good enough.”

Was that a signal the Bears perhaps want to do more to run the ball more effectively in 2021, especially if their options at quarterback might not be great? If that’s the case, we could see them making more moves on the offensive line than they did a year ago to bolster that group, maybe adding a tight end and another running back to complement David Montgomery and working to become a physical unit that can win in the trenches. I don’t know if that’s the direction the Bears are headed, but I would be surprised if there aren’t at least some moves on the offensive line, and if you’re not sure you can do much better than find a game manager at quarterback, you better be able to run the ball at a high level.

Why would Deshaun Watson want to go to the Bears when he knows that Allen Robinson desperately wants to leave the team because of the way management treated him? He also knows the Bears have no salary-cap space and no high draft picks to improve the team after they trade for him. — @thomasbingaman

I never said Watson would want to come to the Bears. He hasn’t said what he wants at this point. All he has done is make it emphatically clear via social media that he’s unhappy (or worse) with the Houston Texans, and that has led to an avalanche of speculation with no immediate end in sight. The Bears can create the salary-cap space needed to add Watson. There are ways to do that, and the cap would not be an impediment to acquiring him.

When you speculate about the package of draft picks that would be required to acquire Watson, there really isn’t a team that would have a ton of picks remaining to then build a roster around him. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins have some extra draft capital and presumably could keep a few picks and add some pieces around him, but wherever Watson goes (assuming he is eventually traded), that team would be short on draft capital for at least a few years.

I wouldn’t say Robinson desperately wants out. I would say he wants to be paid at what he believes to be his market value, about $20 million annually with an appropriate guarantee. If he gets that from the Bears, I think he’s fine where he is. These things happen. From time to time, players and teams have extended staredowns in contract negotiations. It won’t scare off other players.

Do you think the Bears’ desperation for a QB will help land Deshaun Watson? I don’t think the Dolphins or Jets would be willing to go as far as the Bears would to land a franchise QB. — @thegeorgeyou

Are the Bears really any more desperate than the Jets or Dolphins? The Dolphins have a young defense that got better as this season went along. They won 10 games, and one could make a case they are a high-level quarterback away from challenging the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen year after year in the AFC East. The Jets and Dolphins each own two picks in the first round. The Jets have the No. 2 pick and the Dolphins have the No. 3 pick (via the Texans). So how exactly could the Bears go far beyond those teams in making a bid for Watson? They would package the No. 20 pick in Round 1 and what other bundle of picks to go above and beyond what the Jets and Dolphins can put on the table? It would be challenging for the Bears to top an offer by the Jets or Dolphins if either team is motivated to add Watson. Not impossible but definitely very challenging.

The 2020 Bears defense seemed to have two seasons. They were very successful in the first half and dropped off dramatically in the second half. Is this a sign of age? — Bill F., Roanoke, Va.

I would be very interested to have a frank conversation with folks inside Halas Hall to get their take on what happened. It’s unlikely there was only one factor. A multitude of factors were likely in play. It’s possible some of the older players began to wear down a little as the season went along. You can’t point at the absence of nose tackle Eddie Goldman because he missed the entire season. You can’t point at the ineffectiveness of outside linebacker Robert Quinn because he was largely a dud from start to finish. If anything, you could make a case Quinn was somewhat better in the second half of the season. The Bears weren’t as good on early downs in the second half of the season, and that led to a dip in their performance on third down. The defense was playing at a crazy clip in the red zone early in the season, and realistically that was an unsustainable level. That evened out and opponents started scoring more touchdowns. The stars of the defense didn’t necessarily perform as stars, and there has to be explanations for that as well. Surely the Bears are hoping a change on the coaching staff will spark improvement in 2021.

Has Leslie Frazier been rumored as an NFL head coach candidate recently? If not, why? If so, is he a Bears candidate next year when the current group is let go after another .500 season? — Pete, Milwaukee

Frazier completed his second interview with the Texans on Tuesday and appears to be a very strong candidate for that job. I’m not going to spend time between now and next January dissecting possible future coaching candidates. I would suggest it will be difficult and probably impossible for the Bears to repeat with a .500 season. I say that because the NFL is likely to expand the regular season to 17 games.

Bears fans know all too well what it’s like to have a franchise quarterback on another team in the division — it can end up producing several years to a decade of frustration of not being able to compete consistently for division titles. Fans of teams other than the Patriots in the AFC East had the same problem for 20 years while Tom Brady was in New England. While the star system is a great marketing tool for the national profile of any professional sports league, it can produce frustration for individual NFL fan bases that feel their teams just don’t have a chance unless they somehow hit the jackpot at quarterback. Is there anything the NFL can do to address this? Can the importance of the quarterback position be reduced with rules changes? Can they enable teams to protect a special practice squad of two or three quarterbacks that are under constant development? Any other ideas? — Greg

You bring up an interesting question, and my initial reaction is the NFL doesn’t have nearly the issue the NBA faces when it comes to the star system. The league would point out that parity is alive and well when you look at the turnover in the playoffs from year to year. The Kansas City Chiefs have an opportunity to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Patriots won consecutive titles in 2003 and 2004. There have been at least four new teams in the playoffs every year going back to 1990. Seven of the 14 playoff teams this season (Bears, Buccaneers, Rams, Washington, Browns, Colts and Steelers) were not in the postseason a year ago. There were five new playoff teams last season, seven new teams in 2018 and eight in 2017. So turnover in terms of the postseason is a legitimate factor.

On the flip side, sustainable success is extremely difficult to manage unless you have a star quarterback, and the Bears are a perfect example. As far as a special practice squad for quarterbacks, there is no rule preventing a team from stacking its developmental squad with quarterbacks, and practice squads have grown in size in recent years. What could potentially boost quarterback play would be the development of a second pro league, but those outfits have struggled terribly to turn a dollar and stay afloat. With any luck, perhaps the XFL will return next year and find a way to make it. That way we could see potential development of linemen too, another area where there is a real need.

Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery shared the load before Cohen got hurt. With Montgomery’s success late in the season, do you expect him to stay in the 80% range or revert to about 50% when Cohen returns? — @mattheldstab

Montgomery really flourished in the second half of the season, and we got confirmation that he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield as well. I’d be surprised if the Bears split the backfield action evenly next season. Cohen is limited as a running back and struggles to run between the tackles. He’s a gadget player on offense, a guy they need to do a better job of scheming plays for. Montgomery needs to be the primary ball carrier, and to maintain that role, he has to dominate the playing time. I don’t know if he will get 80% of the action, but if they’re both healthy, it would be a mistake for Montgomery to play less than two-thirds of the time.

Why is the Bears ownership’s focus on business success and not winning championships? — @zelenikt

This is a common complaint I get when the Bears are struggling, and my first response is to point out the obvious — that the McCaskey family, above all else, is running a business. That business is always better when the team is winning, and I can tell you without reservation that George McCaskey cares very deeply about winning and seeing the Bears have success. The team’s standing in the league’s middle ground the last two seasons troubles no one more than him. If you’re looking for a team that takes all of the profits and pours them back into the club, you’re going to have to get on board with the Green Bay Packers.

How many position coaches need to be filled? I know much was made about losing Duce Staley, but aren’t most coaches signed to a three-year deal or two years plus an option guaranteed? — @dabayrz

As it stands, the Bears need to hire a running backs coach, a defensive line coach and an outside linebackers coach, and I imagine they will look to replace new defensive coordinator Sean Desai by hiring a safeties coach or an assistant defensive backs coach. What’s not known is if they will replace passing game coordinator Dave Ragone. There are plenty of quarterback coaches on the staff, including head coach Matt Nagy, so it’s possible that position is erased. I imagine the Bears would have liked to hire Staley, but the Detroit Lions hired him. The Bears hoped to lure James Bettcher even after he interviewed for the coordinator spot that went to Desai. Whether that would have meant a role as a senior defensive assistant or a position coach, I don’t know. Instead, Bettcher signed on with the San Francisco 49ers. Typically position coaches receive two-year contracts, and in many cases they are offered rollovers annually so they always have a year remaining on their contract. Coaches in demand, like Staley and Bettcher, can potentially use the Bears as leverage in negotiations with other teams where they feel the head coach’s status is more secure.

How badly is Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy being lame ducks affecting their ability to sign coaches? How much do you think it will affect them in terms of free agency? — @adam407

It’s probably a mischaracterization to say Pace and Nagy are lame ducks. They no doubt will be on the hot seat entering the season, but there’s a difference in my mind. As I detailed above, it doesn’t create an ideal situation for Nagy to attract coaches to come work with him, but enough coaches are in need of work that the Bears will land some with experience. It’s also possible they could promote an in-house coach or two. It won’t be nearly as much of a factor in free agency because, as I have written in this space previously, free agency comes down to money, money, money and money — and only then will players and agents begin considering factors such as the head coach’s status.

Why is everyone obsessed with Ted Phillips’ role in the organizational structure? For every team, the top football person is evaluated by a non-football person (often the owner). What would be the purpose of exchanging Phillips for a football person other than adding bureaucracy? — @patrick53762437

Anytime the Bears hit a rough patch — and they’ve certainly been in deeper holes than coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons — the fan base clamors for change. The push-button topics for fans are to call for the McCaskeys to sell the team or replace Phillips. The public wants to see someone pay with his job for the team’s struggles. They’re out for blood, and in the age of social media, that is only amplified. Phillips might not be the longest-tenured employee at Halas Hall, but he has been around for an awfully long time and has been in a prominent role for most of that run, serving as president and CEO since 1999. As you know, the Bears have had consecutive winning seasons only once during that span (2005 and 2006), and there are those who place the blame on Phillips’ doorstep for the ongoing struggles. I agree with you that eventually decisions are made at a level that doesn’t involve “football people.” The argument for a football person in the upper hierarchy is it would add an extra set of eyes to the operation, but ultimately, when a hire is made for a general manager, ownership has to sign off. Phillips doesn’t have a role in football decisions, but he is involved at the level of hiring a general manager. I can see both sides, but ultimately George McCaskey is the man who makes the call on the organization’s top decisions, and that would be the case whether Phillips is empowered or someone with a football background is hired to replace him.

Do the Bears believe that with a proper offseason and a built-up offensive line, Nick Foles can be their starter next year? If not, who of the potential free agents or trade options would the Bears most likely be able to get? — @jjak60

I suppose it’s possible Foles could be in the mix to compete for the starting job, but right now I can’t imagine Foles starting Week 1 would be Plan A for the Bears. He struggled mightily in the time he had, though the line certainly was a major issue when he was in the lineup. But leaning on Foles to be the full-season starter, something he rarely has done during his career, would be suboptimal. I think the Bears look at him as a quality backup option going into the season.

Would the Bears benefit from a switch to a 4-3 defense next year? — @bangngn1

The odds of the Bears switching to a 4-3 base defense seemed remote, and after Sean Desai was promoted to coordinator, the chance of a conversion is close to zero. A shift to a 40 front would marginalize the ability of their defensive linemen. How do they play Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols at the same time in a 40 front? I don’t think there is any question they stick with a 3-4 base scheme.

What are the Bears’ plans for safety? Tashaun Gibson, Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson are all free agents, but I never see the position listed as an area of need for the draft. — @jberman321

That’s the same situation the team was in a year ago, when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Bush and Houston-Carson were slated to be free agents. The Bears re-signed Bush and Houston-Carson and added Gipson for less money than Clinton-Dix was making. It would not surprise me if the Bears targeted a safety in the middle rounds of the draft with the idea of pairing a young guy alongside Eddie Jackson. But they likely will consider re-signing some of their free agents at this position, and Houston-Carson was particularly valuable on special teams and in the dime package. We’ll get a much better idea of whether they plan to draft a safety based on what moves they make in free agency.

Do you see Danny Trevathan being one of the starting linebackers for the upcoming season? — @richrbreez

That’s a great question. Trevathan looked a lot slower this season, and it’s difficult to imagine at 31 and entering his 10th season that he will regain the range he played with earlier in his career. Trevathan is due to earn $7.125 million in 2021, and his base salary of $2.5 million is fully guaranteed. He also has an option bonus of $3.625 million, and if the Bears decline that, his base salary escalates to a fully guaranteed $6.625 million. So there isn’t a cheap out for the Bears after signing Trevathan before free agency began last year. They placed a high value on his leadership when they brought him back on his third NFL contract, and while he played a little better as the season went along, I would imagine they can find a cheaper alternative with greater range. The question is how much do they continue to value the intangibles he brings and what would the replacement cost be?

Why don’t the Bears go all-in on a rebuild? Muddling in the middle or worse every year and not having a star drafted QB seem to coincide with drafting in the teens and 20s every year. I guess we will watch Detroit attempt a total rebuild, and their ownership is on board. — @kevintmerk

They are clearly not headed down that path with Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace in a position where the team needs to show improvement this season. I agree with you that when a team is stuck in the middle ground, it can be difficult to take a step forward without first going backward. But the Bears believe they still have the makings of a defense that will put them in position to compete if they make the improvements on offense they have been waiting on. The Lions are in a different position with a new GM and new coach, and they pick seventh while the Bears will be selecting 20th in the first round. It’s a lot more difficult to begin a rebuild when a team is picking as low as the Bears are. George McCaskey wants to see the team compete for a championship next season, and they’re going to try to dig their way out of the middle ground.

If Jacksonville is going to take Trevor Lawrence, would that make Gardner Minshew a possible target for the Bears? A young quarterback who had some success who could compete with Nick Foles? — Samantha M., Plano

The Bears have to put every possible option under the microscope in the weeks ahead, and certainly Minshew is worthy of a look. I remember talking to an NFC scout last summer who was pretty excited about Minshew and his playmaking ability. Obviously things fell apart quickly for the Jaguars this season and Minshew isn’t quite as interesting anymore, but the Bears should have pretty good intel on him as quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo spent the 2019 season with Minshew in Jacksonville. I have to imagine the Bears will aim higher than Minshew, but they are in a position where they literally have to consider every possible option and put together at least three or four plans of attack — maybe more — considering the large number of teams that will be doing the same thing.