As the Bears left for a Week 5 meeting in London as a heavy favorite to wallop the Oakland Raiders, they had a chance to enter their bye week as one of the top teams in the NFL and a serious contender for the NFC title.
They came home disappointed and, one would hope, embarrassed after absorbing a physical beating from the Raiders that analysts both local and national had previously thought unimaginable.
Now, the Bears are left to spend their in-season vacation licking their wounds, deep in self evaluation, or self scouting, as the football jargon would have it, and preparing to enter the meat of their schedule a week from Sunday with much still to prove in all areas of their game.
The Bears are nowhere near as bad as they appeared in London – we all have bad days and there were plenty of extenuating circumstances – and they still are one of the more talented young teams in the NFL.
However, the goals for this year must be improving on the team that earned the No. 3 seed in the NFC last year.
The team we’ve seen through the first five games – not just the one that messed the bed in London – clearly is not better than it was last year, particularly on offense, and is no lock to even make the playoffs, let alone make a January run.
There is much work to do, so at the bye week, my grades for each of the three phases and Matt Nagy's work thus far this season:
OFFENSE: The continued ascension of Mitch Trubisky at quarterback after a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year, dramatic improvement in the ground game with three of last season’s four running backs swapped out and position changes on the offensive line at center and guard, and upgrading of the receiving corps with the development of a key youngster and addition of a bunch more new talent all seemed a fait accompli during the offseason and training camp.
None have occurred.
In fact, the QB play and running game have taken significant steps backward, and while Allen Robinson is off to a Pro Bowl-caliber start, he has gotten precious little help from the rest of his group.
It is reasonable to assume the WR group will improve with better play behind center and a running game to take the pressure off and create more space in which the receivers can operate.
Of course, Trubisky first has to get healthy, then he will also need some help from the rushing attack before we can finally say these are his shortcomings and this is where he’s been limited by defenses with no concerns the Bears will beat them on the ground.
Unfortunately, that run game right now is a Rubik’s Cube.
David Montgomery has shown a few flashes of being the real thing, but it takes a while for rookie runners to learn how huge the step up is from their college days to the show, and he will never be successful without better blocking up front.
Mike Davis was a No. 3 or a No. 4 when the Bears signed him, and he’s shown nothing to suggest he will ever be more.
Tarik Cohen can be so much more, but he is also desperately in need of better blocking, and the way he is being used is a mystery to most, perhaps even at times to Nagy.
The offensive line is clearly the biggest issue. It earned high marks in pass protection prior to the disaster last Sunday in London, but it has consistently failed to block the run and piled up penalties faster than Congress is issuing subpoenas these days.
There is no unit in football more dependent on teamwork, cohesion and timing than the offensive line, so trouble cannot be pinned solely on individual players.
But in addition to diving deep into the wisdom of his own scheme and sequencing when it comes to the run, Nagy will have to decide if Charles Leno and Kyle Long are still his best options at left tackle and right guard, respectively.
DEFENSE: Forget local bias, which clearly always exists: National analysts everywhere were calling this unit “generational” until it missed its wake-up call overseas — and it still can be.
While the Bears, as usual, are being unnecessarily mysterious about the status of Akiem Hicks’ elbow injury, it was clearly serious and he is going to be missed, but if they can get Bilal Nichols back soon, they are still very talented up front and loaded everywhere else.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine have been even better than expected, and any fall off from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano has been miniscule, if any exists at all.
Special Teams: This group has been good overall but suffers from a few more momentary lapses than you’d like — with the running into the kicker last Sunday the most obvious.
Eddy Pineiro has a chance to be very good, Pat O’Donnell is having his best season as a pro and Cordarrelle Patterson and Tarik Cohen easily form the most dangerous return duo in the league:
Coaching: This is the most difficult piece to assess because there is so much involved. For all we hear about the Bears culture, and it is strong and impressive, there is a slightly different vibe around these Bears than last year’s.
It is certainly fair to wonder if their annual exhibition season vacation has helped them lose focus at least a little bit on how physical you have to be to remain consistently elite at this level.
While the defense is elite and special teams has been good, the offense is a real problem at the moment, and we all know where that points first.