Every year, the teams that play on the NFL’s Championship Sunday give the rest of the league a template of how they can become contenders. This season, some combination of the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, offer that blueprint. If the Bears, fresh off a Wild Card Game defeat, want to play deeper into next January: they should follow this squad’s example.
With eight straight AFC Championship Game appearances, the Patriots are the car trucking well past 100,000 miles on the odometer with no signs of slowing down. The Saints, having captured their first Super Bowl a decade ago, are looking for one last shot at glory before they go on a greatest hits tour of nostalgia around the globe. Sean McVay’s Rams aren’t exactly a reincarnation of the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams from two decades prior, but they are a symbol of how fun the league can be at it’s best. Meanwhile, the Chiefs somehow simultaneously are both a league darling and an example of allowing careers to be revived. They’re like a football fortune cookie, anything is possible.
There’s something to learn from each member of the NFL’s class. There’s something of value to apply if you look hard enough. To play deep into next January, here are lessons the Bears can take from this year’s version of Championship Sunday.
Don’t get stale
At 18 years and counting, the Patriots are in the middle of one of pro football’s greatest runs of sustained success. New England hasn’t had a losing season since 2000, and possesses the greatest quarterback and head coach pairing of all-time in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady has played in more Conference Championship Games (13) than he has playoff losses (10). The Patriots’ persistent run is a testament to a mission that never veers off course, even as the aging Brady starts to play well into his 40s.
To a lesser extent, the Saints are in the middle of their best period in franchise history, having made the playoffs seven times since 2006. That’s more postseason berths (seven) in the past 13 years than in the team’s previous roughly four decades combined (five). While they’re not nearly the same juggernaut that the Patriots are, the Saints are also focused on a stellar quarterback-head coach pairing with Drew Brees and Sean Payton, and they still stick out as an organization ran in the prototypical right way.
Every season, beyond basic roster flux, both who the Patriots and Saints are at their cores is slightly different, slightly retooled for the better. Their triumphs are built on adaptability while maintaining the same overall team identity at their core. Belichick and company in particular aren’t continually attempting to renew the wheel, but they know who they are and tinker as necessary. There’s a method to this madness.
The Patriots of the early 2000s were built on dominant defensive play along with impeccable situational awareness. The Patriots of the last decade or so have been rooted on offense instead while maintaining that situational awareness. This is an organization that knows what it does well, ingrains it into every bit of their foundation, and it helps them emanate their success. The Patriots have won at least one playoff game every year since 2011 because they never let themselves get complacent, and they always add a new wrinkle to account for somewhere. If they’re not built around their tight ends in Rob Gronkowski, they’re now about rookie runner Sony Michel. No one takes any situation and makes the best of it better than the Patriots do. It’s uncanny.
In 2018, the Bears had the NFL’s best defense by almost every relevant metric from DVOA to takeaways. Their defense was the catalyst behind a renaissance 12-4 season as Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks led a unit that consistently flexed it’s muscles on opponents. For the foreseeable future the Bears should have one of football’s best defenses, but it’ll be hard to completely maintain the level of play they enjoyed from this year. To break through and continue to be a January factor next year, the Bears have to become more offensively centered. A below average offense by most accounts cannot feature at the same level as they did this year if the Bears are going to break Chicago sports’ longest championship drought (35 years).
Young offensive cogs like Anthony Miller, Adam Shaheen, and James Daniels have to grow up quickly and morph into focal points. Mitchell Trubisky himself has to become a legitimate star quarterback capable of consistently lifting the Bears when the defense isn’t playing up to par. It’s not enough to be the most talented or most capable quarterback this franchise has had in decades. His standard has to rise, as must the Bears’ overall standard on offense.
If the 2019 Bears go into next fall without much of an evolution, and with largely the same principles, they’ll experience a drop off in the standings. Fortunately, the defense should shift somewhat and showcase fresh looks with a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Pagano. On offense, it’d be best for head coach Matt Nagy to take cues from the Patriots and begin the process of a relative full scale adaptation as soon as possible.
The 2017 Rams won 11 games and the NFC West for the first time since 2003. A plucky bunch led by all-worldly talents like Aaron Donald and an offensive savant like Sean McVay tore the NFL apart and recalibrated expectations for a previously struggling franchise. The 2018 Rams followed that up with improvements across the board, most of which a 13-3 campaign, consecutive division titles for the first time since 1978-1979, and the organization’s first playoff win since 2004. The last time the Rams won their division in two consecutive years, they had never considered moving away from Los Angeles.
In a league that’s inherently built on parity and the sale of hope – since 1990, there have been at least four new playoff teams every year – how did the Rams take their proposed one-off 2017 and actually get better? They didn’t stand pat. The Rams had a disappointing loss to the Falcons in last year’s NFC Wild Card Round, much like the Bears did to the Eagles this year, and they didn’t rest on their laurels. They knew they had a Super Bowl window open and grabbed a handy crowbar to keep it pried open.
Last February, Los Angeles acquired former All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters in a blockbuster trade with the Chiefs: an early sign that this wasn’t a team aiming to waste any time. Then in March and early April, McVay and friends pushed their betting hand in for a championship run. Over the course of roughly one month, Los Angeles traded away previous franchise mainstays in Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree, traded for Aqib Talib – one of the best cornerbacks of his generation – signed former All-Pro Ndamukong Suh to pair with their superb world-eater in Donald, and traded for the explosive Brandin Cooks. Months later in training camp, they locked up most of this core long-term to firmly set their sights on a Super Bowl prize.
Every step of the way, the Rams proved to be creative and aggressive, seeing places they could improve their roster and stand to get better and they didn’t hesitate. If the Bears want to continue to follow in the Rams’ example along these lines – a team they’re repeatedly compared to – general manager Ryan Pace and his staff must deploy largely the same strategy.
One could argue Chicago already had this kind of off-season, as in a half a calendar year in 2018, the Bears acquired Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, and Khalil Mack through free agency and trades. After that spending spree, the Bears don’t have much room to work with this year: roughly $14 million in salary cap space before cuts. That doesn’t mean they can’t finagle means to improve their team, and that they don’t have areas to improve upon.
The Bears’ offensive line, especially the right side, may need an overhaul with pending unrestricted free agent Bobby Massie and oft-injured Kyle Long as the current starters. As good as Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are as a backfield duo, Nagy’s offense could use a more complete three-down running back to take away elements of predictability. On defense, boundary cornerback depth behind Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara would be welcome. For obvious reasons, a Chicago placekicking carousel that’s pervaded on for three seasons must come to an end. If that means eating roughly $5.1 million in dead cap money on Cody Parkey’s free agent contract from last March, so be it.
Plowing through this to-do list in an off-season where the Bears have limited cap space and no draft picks in the first two rounds thanks to trades for Mack and Miller will be difficult, but it won’t be impossible. It’s about prioritization and finding a means to an end. Getting a stable kicker, for one, ranks higher than mere cornerback depth, unless the goal is further missed clutch playoff kicks. Bolstering an underrated but still growing offensive line also sticks out. Dominating the trenches never fails.
Whatever plan of attack the Bears do deploy, they’d be better served if it wasn’t timid, and if it wasn’t cautious. Their Super Bowl window is open now and the clock is ticking. Just like the Rams last year, the Bears have to act like they don’t have that much time left.
Take a flier when possible
To call the path the Chiefs have travelled to near the top of the mountain, traditional – a team that stands as a monument of what it means to properly build around a young quarterback for the long term – would be misguided.
Likely MVP Pat Mahomes was a major project coming out of the 2017 NFL Draft who so happened to land in the perfect situation that accentuates his abilities to a tee. None of Mahomes’ raw concerns to this stage have mattered as pro football’s premier magician. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce is ever the boisterous type, and had character concerns coming out of the 2013 NFL Draft. None of that has mattered en route to four straight Pro Bowls and an evolution into a household name. Pro football’s best right tackle in Mitchell Schwartz wasn’t retained by the Cleveland Browns – the team that drafted him – after the conclusion of the 2015 season. Schwartz has since become a wall many of the league’s prolific pass rushing greats like the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt and Denver Broncos’ Von Miller regularly struggle against. The most crucial cog in head coach Andy Reid is himself a castoff once doubted and unceremoniously fired by the Eagles after 14 seasons from 1999-2012. Kansas City has since missed the playoffs once, in 2014, in the six seasons since Reid took over.
So many core members of this Chiefs core have been overlooked and flat out unwanted for various reasons. In the long road back to the franchise’s first AFC Championship Game since 1993 – their first ever at home – none of their prior histories have mattered. Someone took a chance, let them get their foot in the door, and they’ve come together to help form what looks like a team that’ll be battling for AFC supremacy for years.
This final note for the Bears to replicate is related to more intangibles than anything concrete. It can’t be measured in raw, far more reliable data. But it can be seen in how teammates interact amongst themselves. It can be evaluated based off of how quickly newcomers ingratiate themselves into the building at Halas Hall. It’s something the Bears largely already possess. Nagy – himself a formerly unwanted grinder – has already crafted one of pro football’s best locker rooms and cultures that should allow for any young player or journeyman veteran to have a chance to make something of themselves.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks is on his third NFL team after previous stints with the Saints and Patriots. He just made his first-ever Pro Bowl and has morphed into a premier defensive lineman. Starting left tackle Charles Leno is a former seventh rounder. He hasn’t missed a start since 2015. Linebacker and heart of the Bears defense in Danny Trevathan is a former sixth-round selection that’s seen his knees go through the ringer dating all the way back to college. He’s come back stronger every time, with 2018 acting as unquestionably his best season in a Bears uniform.
These are only a few examples of players overlooked and doubted that have shined through for the Bears. If they’re going to be on the brink of a Super Bowl like the Chiefs are this year, or any of the other Championship Sunday participants, they’ll have to find more similar characters in this enveloping drama.