The Chicago Bears are scheduled to report to training camp Tuesday in Lake Forest, capping an unprecedented offseason featuring online-only coaching and Zoom calls while the NFL set safety protocols and guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the Bears return to Halas Hall, our team of writers weighs in on four timely topics.
1. My biggest question about proceeding with a football season amid the COVID-19 pandemic is _______________.
Brad Biggs: Whether the NFL and other major sports leagues can pull this whole thing off without putting those involved — and their families — in jeopardy.
The NBA and NHL have taken a different approach with a bubble as they attempt to tie a bow on their seasons that were cut short in March. A bubble doesn’t seem like a practical possibility for the NFL, and the league will march forward with the hope everyone involved does so responsibly. There will be positive tests and some illnesses, and it’s going to be a wild ride like no season we’ve seen before. Let’s hope the ride makes it to the end. Along the way, let’s hope there aren’t many games in which both teams are missing a handful of key players because of the coronavirus.
Colleen Kane: Twofold.
My biggest question is whether teams can stop an outbreak from seriously hindering their operations at various points this season. The NFL has stressed individuals are likely to test positive this year. The testing and contact tracing the NFL has planned for the teams is extensive and responsible, but there’s still the possibility of a player or coach spreading it to others before getting a positive test result back. What happens if multiple players in a position group or multiple coaches test positive or are around a player who tested positive leading up to a game? How will teams deal with that?
Of course, that all is secondary to my biggest concern — the possibility of death or serious health issues of people around the league and/or their loved ones because of COVID-19. Excitement for football to get going again doesn’t erase that worry.
Dan Wiederer: How well teams will manage the inevitable arrival of the virus to their team facilities.
From the get-go, the NFL has acknowledged this is a when, not if, scenario. At some point — and likely soon as camps open around the country this week — players and coaches will come down with the virus. Then what? How can teams prevent a few cases from becoming a spread? How can the league stop a spread from derailing the season. A big key will lie in having a testing infrastructure in place that is both reliable in its accuracy and quick with its ability to process and communicate results. The league has expressed confidence that it will be able to quickly identify, isolate and treat anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. But at this point, that’s merely an ideal-world hope that has to be backed up by real-world proof. The challenge is far greater in the NFL than in any of the other professional sports just based on the size of rosters and coaching staffs. Unlike the NBA and the NHL, the NFL won’t have the luxury of a protective bubble. Unlike baseball, football is a full-contact sport with countless collisions and pileups that add to the risks. Let’s see how each team and the league handle this unprecedented challenge.
2. After an online offseason and without preseason games, the quarterback who has the immediate edge in the Bears training camp competition is _______________.
Biggs: Nick Foles.
A team that announces it’s going to have a quarterback competition in March is behind a whole bunch of other clubs from the start because that’s an admission you’re not sure whom your quarterback is. Sure, competition is great, and in a perfect world, it raises the level of performance of those involved, but when you admit you don’t know who your starter is, there’s a possibility — and in some cases a probability — the ultimate solution isn’t on your roster. I don’t see either 2017 No. 2 pick Mitch Trubisky or Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles as having an edge because of these unusual circumstances that will prevent the Bears from conducting a practice in full pads until Aug. 17. How do you practice real football without pads? It’s very difficult. Matt Nagy’s plan to evaluate Trubisky and Foles in the preseason was spoiled when the NFL canceled the preseason. That’s the closest to true game action in the offseason and the best way to evaluate quarterbacks. Now, Nagy and his staff will have to create as many competitive situations as possible in a short time to evaluate the quarterbacks. I understand why some might figure Trubisky has an advantage because of the late start, no offseason and no preseason. I have a hard time agreeing with that. He needed the offseason program, a full training camp and preseason to prove to Nagy that he has made the necessary improvements to be considered a starter after leading one of the league’s worst offenses in 2019. How does limited work favor Trubisky in that instance? He has a ton to prove and little time to do it. Foles doesn’t have the benefit of time working with teammates in the spring, which certainly is no edge. I am sticking with my original assessment from when the Bears traded for Foles: The Bears didn’t deal a fourth-round pick and guarantee Foles $21 million to have him as a high-priced insurance option. A slow start to training camp and no preseason doesn’t change that.
Kane: Nick Foles.
That’s obviously a guess. Bears coaches have insisted the competition will be fair, even if the tests will have to be done internally instead of against other teams. I can see the argument that because Mitch Trubisky has a history with the offense and many of the Bears receivers, he should have the edge. I just think his history — rocky as it got last season — is a reason Bears coaches might be all the more eager to go with Foles. Coach Matt Nagy has been pretty quick to praise the way Foles has approached joining the team. Either way, Trubisky is going to have to be better than he was the last two training camps, when the first-team defense often gave him fits.
Wiederer: Mitch Trubisky.
But it’s only a slight edge. And it might last for only a few hours. The Bears have promised Trubisky he will be the first quarterback for the first series of the first practice of 2020. He will start on equal footing with challenger Nick Foles in the battle for the QB1 role. And he will have an advantage in terms of familiarity with his surroundings at Halas Hall and rapport with the other offensive players. Now, whether Trubisky can demonstrate significant improvement and consistency to win the job is a different story. At the very least, however, he starts camp with control of his situation. And to that end, that’s all he can ask for.
3. Other than the quarterback competition, the on-field storyline that most intrigues me is _______________.
Biggs: How the Bears can take the field in Week 1 with a significantly improved offensive line.
That’s going to be a massive challenge for new line coach Juan Castillo because he has yet to work with his players in person and he’s not going to have them in full pads until Aug. 17. Everyone knows real evaluation of line play doesn’t begin until the pads go on, and the missed time in the first half of the month creates a challenge for the Bears, who need to be better in the trenches if they want to be significantly improved on offense. It’s going to be interesting to watch how the Bears can prepare to hit the ground running — hopefully opening some holes — when the pads go on.
Kane: Seeing what impact Bears newcomers can have, given their odd transition to a new team.
Bears coaches have noted it will be a challenge for second-round picks Cole Kmet and Jaylon Johnson to get up to speed because they didn’t have any on-field time together before training camp. But both rookies come in at positions at which the Bears need serious help. Johnson could fill the void at cornerback left when the Bears cut Prince Amukamara. Kmet could make an impact at tight end, which has been a sore spot for the Bears in recent years. But is there enough time for them to acclimate? On the veteran side, I’m curious to see if coaches will accomplish their mission to be more productive with their pass rush now that Robert Quinn will be playing opposite Khalil Mack, and if Quinn can match the success he had with the Cowboys last season.
Wiederer: The rebirth of the tight ends.
Last season, a half-dozen Bears tight ends combined for just 46 catches, 416 yards and two touchdowns, a production void that badly hindered the offense. Trey Burton couldn’t stay healthy. Adam Shaheen continued to be a major disappointment. And a hodgepodge of others — Jesper Horsted, J.P. Holtz, Ben Braunecker (who was cut Friday), Eric Saubert — did their best to fill in as needed. Still, this offense can’t function without some sort of pop from the tight ends. So the Bears changed tight ends coaches last winter. Out went Kevin Gilbride Jr., in came Clancy Barone. Then general manager Ryan Pace invested big in free agency in “U” tight end Jimmy Graham while using his top draft pick on Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, who will fill the “Y” tight end role. Graham, who seems to be in the final stages of his career, and Kmet will have to be significant contributors for this offense to realize its potential. Their acclimation in August will be worth keeping a close eye on.
4. Matt Nagy’s biggest task of training camp will be _______________.
Biggs: Balancing the need to make up for lost time while remaining meticulously organized to best protect his players, staff and the support staff at Halas Hall for the season ahead.
Will the Bears hold position meetings via the internet? Surely some meetings will be done in person, but Nagy needs to set the tone for a structured program that will give the Bears the best chance of avoiding pitfalls in the midst of the pandemic. It won’t be surprising if the Bears get creative with work off the field in terms of keeping players and staff separated as much as possible.
Kane: Either reviving the offense or keeping players focused under difficult circumstances. Those seem equally important and difficult.
The offense needs better quarterback play, yes. But it needs a lot more than that, including a more consistent running game, frequent contributions from wide receivers beyond Allen Robinson and better tight end play. The task of keeping players focused is probably as monumental as ever during a pandemic and a national social justice movement. NFL teams will face challenges they couldn’t have imagined five months ago. It’s on Nagy to deal with those while preparing his team in a new way given the COVID-19 restrictions and the elimination of preseason games.
Wiederer: Getting his team to make the most of every minute of every day.
After the Bears — like every other NFL team — had to scratch 16 spring practices off their itinerary, there’s a ton of on-field work to catch up on and not a lot of time to do so. The Bears have a quarterback competition to settle. Their bottom-five offense needs to rejuvenate its running game. The offensive line needs to rediscover itself. And an overhauled group of tight ends — headlined by newcomers Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet — has to jell in a hurry. A Week 1 kickoff in Detroit is closing in faster than anyone at Halas Hall would like. Thus it’s imperative for every minute of every day to mean something toward this group’s goal of establishing an identity and generating momentum. With a significantly abbreviated load of training camp practices, Nagy and the Bears must hurry but not rush.
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.