Can the Bears withstand the overwhelming pressure of their 2019 season?
Even during a resurgence that remains a work in progress, the Chicago Bears haven’t just had to endure pressure — they’ve been slapped in the face by it.
Last season, the Bears showed they have become a legitimately competitive football team. But when the stakes were highest, Chicago behaved like naughty children at summer camp tiptoeing into the pantry to poach a late-night snack: nervous, tentative, and ultimately exposed.
Never mind their 12-4 record and a stroll to the NFL North title; last season will largely be remembered for two key stumbles. First was the season opener that saw Aaron Rodgers lead his Green Bay Packers to a hobbling, one-legged, 20-point comeback victory. And then there was that kick — the one that dumped the team out of the postseason and turned Cody Parkey’s name into a cuss word in the Windy City.
As a new season beckons, tensions are rising around a Chicago fan base desperate for a championship run — 33 seasons and counting since its lone Super Bowl win. There is a sense this team could be seriously good, but no one is quite sure if the squad is equipped to handle those make-or-break moments when they inevitably arrive.
There’s no better test of the Bears’ mettle right off the bat than their season opener. Like a ghost rapping on the window at night, the Packers and Rodgers will reappear on Thursday for an Opening Day do-over. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago defense, led by the incomparable Khalil Mack, will be in the spotlight again, with a chance to show they’re now made of sterner mental stuff.
“As crushed as we were to go 12-5 and lose where we did, the players now believe that we can win it all,” head coach Matt Nagy told reporters. “That’s half of the battle. Now it’s, ‘OK, how do we do that?’”
How, indeed? Nagy won NFL Coach of the Year for having hoisted the Bears from last-place ignominy and sparking the feeling that a Super Bowl run was possible. He has built an on-field powerhouse in rapid time, but that’s not enough by itself.
"When you take Trubisky over Deshaun, over Mahomes, you can't just say, 'He's just going to be a caretaker.' Give him the ability to show … he can be not just a passenger on the ride, but a few games a season the guy driving the car for your team to win." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/WQWxd4yLzG
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) September 5, 2019
There is no doubt they are an excellent team, with a defense that is a true, collective monster, anchored by one of the best and biggest NFL acquisitions of recent years in Mack. They are strong at nearly every position (let’s not talk about kicker), but they’re not proven perennial contenders … not yet.
The key is winning when it matters, and the intensity of the desire in Chicago can be both a boost and a curse. The players feel it. Will enough of them prove to be the special type of athlete who thrives on the pressure and uses it as fuel? Or will another hapless Parkey-style goat emerge at some point over the coming months — albeit probably without the drama of the now-infamous double doink?
Nagy has tried everything to not just get his team physically and tactically ready, but to simulate pressurized situations. There were moments in camp where only Trubisky, a receiver and a defender were on the field, with everyone else lined up on the sidelines. If a pass was completed for a gain, the entire defense had to do a physical drill. If it was incomplete, the whole offense had to do likewise.
The coach’s obsession with recreating pressure turned his search for a kicker into a farce, if you listen to some of those who took part in the competition. The man who earned the dubious privilege of winning role was Eddy Pineiro, formerly undrafted, and now with what ESPN calls the “most unstable job” in the league. Chicago holds its collective breath.
“If you have a critical missed kick early in the year, given the heartbreak they suffered last year, that could be worth a couple of losses,” FOX Sports’ Nick Wright said on First Things First.
"If somehow the Bears lose and their kicker, Eddy Pineiro, is involved … if you have a critical missed kicked early in the year for Chicago given the heartbreak they suffered last year with the 'Double Doink', that could be worth a couple of losses." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/MUdbLZwRp0
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) September 5, 2019
Starting the year against the Packers is poetic justice. This is one of the great rivalries in the league, as well as its oldest. Trash talk between the teams isn’t even necessary, because it has been a constant two-way barrage between the cities ever since the schedule was released.
“Like a gross glop of melted cheddar oozing down the side of an arterially offensive Wisconsin butter burger, the Green Bay Packers are heading south toward Soldier Field to lose to the Chicago Bears in Thursday night’s NFL season opener,” Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke wrote this week.
There is no shortage of hype, and Chicago’s army of support is amped up to the max. In that sense, they perhaps have the perfect quarterback in Trubisky, who talks and plays as if he’s downed a shot of rocket fuel for breakfast.
It has not always worked out. In a 15-6 signature victory over the Los Angeles Rams that was largely rescued by the defense last season, there were concerns about the young QB’s impetuosity. He promises to be a little more composed this time around, if not calmer or quieter.
“If we get caught up in the moment and you let your adrenaline take over and you don’t do what the team needs you to do, then you could do things that are out of character,” Trubisky said. “You put your team in a bad spot. We just need to settle down, play our game, have a great week of practice, and make sure that carries over to the game, and really just have tunnel vision heading into Soldier Field.”
The Bears have tunnel vision for their season. They are sick of losing over and over again. They want to take this opportunity — with a stacked team and an enterprising young coach whose rivals can’t yet figure out — and make it count.
Such things aren’t always as easy as they sound, though. Not when you have Aaron Rodgers — and a pesky little adversary called pressure about to reenter your life.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 5, 2019