10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears went on an 18-play drive that lasted the final 8 minutes, 30 seconds of Thursday’s game at Ford Field to set up Cairo Santos’ walk-off 28-yard field goal to defeat the Detroit Lions 16-14 and end a five-game losing streak.
1. Matt Nagy got a reprieve as the Bears encountered a team that consistently does more head-scratching and unpredictably dumb football stuff than they do.
The Bears were able to take advantage — even if it required every second of all 60 minutes — and extend the misery of the Lions, who fell to 0-10-1 and have not won since a Dec. 6, 2020, trip to Soldier Field last season. The Lions are 0-14-1 since that afternoon, which was their first game after firing general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Lions opted to reboot their franchise over the holiday a year ago, and while it looked earlier this week like there was a possibility the Bears would begin a similar process, now it appears that plan is on hold. For how long, we’ll have to wait and see. Six games remain in the season, and you better believe Nagy will do everything in his power to start the Bears on a late winning streak. He’ll have to do so while facing a challenging schedule that has two first-place teams the next two weeks in the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers.
The Bears talked about overcoming distractions in a bizarre week, and the players should be credited for staying on task and earning a victory over the hapless Lions.
No one else involved with the organization deserves credit for overcoming distractions because it’s impossible to convince me the “Nagy will be fired after Thursday” story didn’t originate from the team. To what degree the story evolved as it was passed along, I would be only guessing. Once the Bears lost control of things Tuesday, I imagine that’s when plans changed on the fly, especially knowing a public relations disaster would not impress anyone the team is potentially interested in pursuing in the future. That’s my hunch on the matter.
If the Bears were candid, they would admit to bungling the situation after the report — which the team has now thoroughly pooh-poohed — broke Tuesday morning.
“There’s always going to be distractions,” Nagy said after the game. “It’s how you handle them. And again, we got the win today and it could have went a lot of different ways, but the reason why we got the win is because of how they (the players) handled the distractions. When you’re in this business and you lead people, it’s my job to make sure of honest and open communication, and I just can’t tell you how much this win means today to me because of what they did.”
Had the Bears responded proactively to the story with a clear and swiftly delivered message …
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor would not have had his media session hijacked by questions about Nagy’s future.
Nagy wouldn’t have been grilled endlessly about his future.
Nagy wouldn’t have required an unscheduled meeting with ownership sandwiched between walk-throughs Tuesday at Halas Hall.
Nagy’s message to players after the second walk-through that day would have had actual weight behind it.
Nagy might not have decided to cancel scheduled meetings for the remainder of the day.
Bears Chairman George McCaskey wouldn’t have felt compelled to address the team Wednesday.
In retrospect, a different approach would have been great, right?
“I don’t wish anything,” Nagy said. “I just know I was there that day to be able to go out there and lead those guys in practice and try to focus and do everything we could do to win this game today. Anything else that happens, I got people that work, that know what’s going on outside that building. They tell me, ‘OK, here’s the deal.’ And that’s it. I go about it that way and I listen to what they had to say.
“And I think it’s important in these type of times that you’re very open with your players. I’ve taken a lot of time and effort to build relationships over the 3½ years I’ve been here for these moments. Because what happens is, people try to take you down. They try to rip you apart. They think you’re vulnerable. I think today we just proved we’re not vul- … we’ve got guys that fight.”
Said tight end Cole Kmet, who caught eight passes for 65 yards: “I’m not going to lie, it’s tough. You don’t know what’s true, what’s not. Then you see things that are true because you were there for them, and you wonder how those things get out. So there’s a lot of confusion in that sense. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to just block it out and go play football.”
You’re never going to take away from a victory in the NFL, but the Bears barely managed to beat the worst team in the league. The offense has struggled to score all season, and putting up 16 points against the Lions doesn’t change that. Any questions McCaskey had about the direction of the team coming out of Sunday’s blown lead in a loss to the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens have not changed.
This isn’t to knock Nagy, who is leading a team that’s dealing with a lot of injuries to some of its highest-paid players. He got paired with a quarterback (Mitch Trubisky) he wasn’t part of choosing when he came on board in 2018. He has worked furiously to make it with a quarterback (Justin Fields) he was part of choosing while dealing with an offensive line that has gotten progressively worse since he arrived and limited talent at the skill positions. When Nagy said earlier this month it’s “no one’s fault other than everybody’s,” he’s right. The thing is, the coach becomes one of the first to fall when everyone is at fault.
So the music was bumping in the locker room after Thursday’s game as the Bears celebrated their first victory since Oct. 10 in Las Vegas. For perspective on how long ago that was, the White Sox also won that day.
“There’s some relief, for sure,” said quarterback Andy Dalton, who filled in for Fields after the rookie was sidelined with a rib injury. “To go on a losing streak, five games, that’s tough, especially the way the last couple have been. But for us, to have everything going on this week and everything on the outside, for our guys to just play to the very end and get a win on Thanksgiving, it’s special. That’s the biggest thing. We’re going to enjoy this one.”
2. In the big picture, I’m not sure the Bears got much out of this game.
Beat the Lions and you’re supposed to do that, right? Barely beat the Lions and that’s sort of damning, no? At 4-7, the Bears are at the point where the majority of interest internally and externally is on the development of Justin Fields. That process is on pause until he returns from an injury that the team is calling “day to day.” If he can get back on the practice field by the middle of next week, he’ll stand a decent chance of playing Dec. 5 when the Arizona Cardinals come to Soldier Field. Any time Fields plays, it’s a chance for him to grow, learn and possibly perform well.
Andy Dalton completed 24 of 39 passes for 317 yards Thursday, marking the first time this season the offense has topped 300 passing yards. With Allen Robinson (hamstring) sidelined for the second consecutive game, Darnell Mooney caught five passes for 123 yards, including a 52-yard shot play. Mooney had at least one drop, perhaps two, but he’s starting to settle in. He has gone over 100 yards in two consecutive games and three times for the season as he had 125 yards in the first meeting with the Lions.
I liked what Mooney had to say after the game when he was critical of his showing Sunday against he Ravens, noting that while he had five catches for 121 yards, they came on a whopping 16 targets.
“You see the five catches, the (121) yards, but you also see the (16) targets,” he said. “There’s a lot of things out there that if you really look at it, there’s two of them that are touchdowns. Anytime the ball comes to me, I feel like I should catch it. Regardless of it’s one hand, the tip of my finger, I feel like I should catch it.
“Some of the things (he and Dalton) worked on in the summer, we kind of had chemistry. So it was kind of easy to be on the same page during the game. Walk-throughs, I didn’t exactly know how it was going to be because Justin has been the quarterback and I’ve created chemistry with him. I guess the summer workouts and training camp helped out good enough.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor offered interesting thoughts on Mooney on Tuesday that provide a little insight into what has helped the second-year pro emerge as a player who could be considered the team’s clear No. 1 receiver before next season.
“The thing I’ll say about Darnell Mooney is his mindset,” Lazor said. “Just loves football, businesslike approach, professional approach, does not get distracted. I’ve never seen the guy get distracted from his job. Now, I’m not with him outside the building and all of that, but I’ve talked to him enough. The guy is focused on his job and being a great player.
“To me, it’s really impressive for a young player because all of us in life have these things happening outside this building that can get in the way, whether it’s of your doing or sometimes life happens to you. I’ve never witnessed anything get in Darnell’s way or him let anything get in his way of his job and being the best he can be. I really can’t say enough of how impressed I am by his mindset.”
Finding young players who are ascending not just on the roster but emerging as really good players at their position around the league is critical to the Bears developing with Fields. Mooney now has 46 receptions for 694 yards with three touchdowns, and what jumps out at you is the average of 15.1 yards per catch. That’s the big-play sizzle the Bears need in their offense.
Tight end Cole Kmet was targeted a career-high 11 times and made eight catches for 65 yards. He has been more involved in the offense and needs to continue to show growth, which he can do only when he gets an opportunity each week. Remember, he was targeted only twice last week against the Ravens.
By the end of the season, the Bears ought to have a decent handle on where rookie right tackle Larry Borom is, and maybe Teven Jenkins gets on the field before then. It’s a little early to make any judgment on Borom, and the only thing worse than the Lions pass rush is their collection of wide receivers. They claimed Josh Reynolds off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams, and he’s their best receiver. Borom working against a lousy Lions pass rush doesn’t tell us a whole lot, and he already put encouraging work on tape against better players.
Otherwise, I don’t think much from this game will resonate — other than the memory of a wacky week.
3. If the Bears are considering firing Matt Nagy before the end of the season, keep in mind it’s something they’ve never done.
Obviously it’s not happening coming off the win over the Lions, and I don’t think it’s a situation where you say, “Is he fired the next time the team loses?” The impetus to firing Nagy in season would be if the Bears want to take advantage of a rule change this year that allows teams to request permission to interview candidates in the final two weeks of the season if the team has fired its coach or informed him he will be fired at the end of the season.
Otherwise, there’s no competitive advantage to firing a coach early and joining the Las Vegas Raiders as the only team currently seeking a new head coach. The regular season runs 18 weeks (17 games and one bye), so the window for those interviews would begin in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Releasing Nagy to set the stage for hiring a new coach would be the easy part. Identifying what qualities you’re seeking in a new leader, what parameters for a background you’re going to put on that search and then successfully hiring a new coach is the difficult part. We see teams go through this cycle every year. Typically there are between five and eight openings — as much as a quarter of the league turns over every year — and two or three years in, those names that looked hot at the time often don’t look so great anymore. Good teams with good rosters and strong front offices rarely go in search of a new head coach. So the new coach almost always is walking into a situation where there is a ton of heavy lifting to do, the margin for error isn’t great and patience can evaporate quickly.
I don’t see the Bears being able to use an early window to interview candidates unless they have a clear picture of who will conduct the search and be in charge of the hiring. If they’re going to fire general manager Ryan Pace — and there’s considerably more chatter about the coach than the GM — it’s highly unlikely they would be able to replace him quickly. Maybe George McCaskey is working behind the scenes to consider a high-level football executive in a new role for the franchise. Who knows? I just know from a practical standpoint, the only reason to fire your coach early would be to try to start interviewing candidates early, and you can’t pull off that move if you don’t have things set on the food chain above the head coach.
4. Andy Dalton did a really nice job on the game-winning drive when the Bears ran 18 plays to set up Cairo Santos’ game-winning kick.
It’s the third game the Lions have lost on a game-ending field goal. The Bears had to convert only two third downs on the drive and got to 18 plays when you include three kneel-downs by Dalton and Santos’ kick. The Bears have had only one possession with more plays since 2001 and only three other 18-play drives.
19-play drive in a 31-7 loss at Baltimore, Dec. 20, 2009 (drive resulted in turnover on downs)
18-play drive in a 27-20 win at Green Bay, Nov. 4, 2013 (drive resulted in field goal)
18-play drive in a 10-6 loss at San Francisco, Nov. 12, 2009 (drive resulted in interception)
18-play drive in a 35-7 win at Green Bay, Dec. 23, 2007 (drive resulted in touchdown)
Dalton was 4 of 6 for 39 yards on the drive and also picked up 9 yards on a first-and-10 scramble. The key play came on third-and-5 from the Bears 37-yard line. Right tackle Larry Borom gave up a pressure right away, and Dalton was able to react and extend the play. He’s never going to challenge Justin Fields with his athletic ability, but Dalton has a feel for the pocket and slid to his right before Damiere Byrd sprung free and they connected for a 13-yard gain to midfield.
“I mean, you get in that situation, that drive was so important for us, however it happened,” Dalton said. “It’s all about getting points. But to go 18 plays and to run the clock out with 8 minutes left is huge. To get down and get into that position where we were able to kick the field goal at the end, it’s just a testament to our guys’ no-quit attitude and finding a way to get it done.”
Taking 8:30 off the clock marked the third-longest possession of the Matt Nagy era. The Bears had a 9:38 scoring drive in the Week 1 opener against the Los Angeles Rams and a 9:05 possession in a 24-10 victory at Minnesota on Dec. 30, 2018.
The long drive kept the defense — which allowed game-winning drives in the final minute the last two times out — from having to go back on the field.
“I said I don’t expect to go back out there because I think our offense is about to run this clock out,” outside linebacker Robert Quinn said. “So I kept my sweat pants and beanie on and sat on the sideline and watched the offense close the game out. That was a great feeling. After the nonsense everyone had heard and the five-game skid, you know it’s just good to close out the game how we did.”
Dalton didn’t have a single practice as the starter during the week because of the condensed schedule, but he delivered. If he’s needed again, perhaps the offense can remain on course. Keep in mind, no more games with the Lions this season.
5. Matt Nagy and Sean Desai were careful not to place all the blame on second-year cornerback Kindle Vildor for his poor play last week against the Ravens.
But they were plenty critical of Vildor, and it takes a lot for players to be called out in that manner. Entering this week, among cornerbacks who have been on the field for a minimum of 100 snaps, Vildor had allowed the second-most explosive plays (completions of 16 yards or more) in the league. He had allowed the ninth-most total yards, sixth-most first downs, seventh-most touchdowns and had the seventh-worst passer rating when targeted at 119.7.
The solution was to replace him with veteran Artie Burns, who had been inactive for the previous three games. While Burns had appeared in five games this season, he was limited to special teams. That’s the direction the Bears had to go because Vildor didn’t have only one poor game. Opponents have noticed his struggles and gone at him.
What happened to Burns? Wide receiver Josh Reynolds beat him for a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Reynolds ran a dig-and-up, and Burns stopped his feet on the double move, a no-no. A deep over route held the safety, and the Lions had the schemed one-on-one they sought for Jared Goff. Other than that, Burns hung in there against the Lions’ lousy receivers and finished with two tackles and a pass breakup.
“I would say Kindle has been in a little bit of a rut,” Desai said Tuesday. “And it’s hard when you’re the only corner getting targeted because Jaylon (Johnson’s) targets have been down And he’s a young corner. He’s going to have to go through those growing pains a little bit. He’s going to have to endure it, and it’s a good challenge for him to make sure he’s mentally tough enough to go through that. And we’re here to support him to go through that, and we’ve got to make sure that we help him out when we can … even if it’s rotation or whatever it is that we’ve got to do to make sure he is put in a situation that he can excel in to help him come out of it.”
The Bears aren’t giving up on Vildor, but pulling him out when he’s having a tough time makes sense. There’s a good chance the Bears will need to prioritize the position in the offseason, but Vildor will get another shot to show what he can do and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s starting again before this season ends.
6. What’s worse than a rocky start? The beginning of the Dan Campbell era in Detroit.
You keep hearing how hard the Lions are playing for the first-year coach, and there’s no disputing how bereft of talent the roster is. But Campbell did a miserable job in Thursday’s loss.
Before we get into his timeout snafu in the closing moments, how about the third-and-32 the Lions had on their 49-yard line with 6:04 remaining in the second quarter. The Lions led 7-3 at the time. Try to put yourself in Campbell’s position. You’re 0-9-1. The team you took over hasn’t won in nearly a calendar year. You have a capacity home crowd in a nationally televised game. Get aggressive. Show some chutzpah.
“Those are tough-to-find calls for third-and-32 or whatever,” Campbell said. “When your defense is playing like it is, you don’t want to do anything to mess that up either. Now you’re taking the chance of (Robert) Quinn off the edge and you hold it a little long and you get a sack/fumble. There’s a little bit of being smart. Now, we did throw it deep a couple of times too on third down. The bottom line is we put ourselves in those third-and-a-mile situations, and that’s on us. It’s just too much, man. Those things kill you.”
Campbell chose to hand the ball off to Jamaal Williams, who gained 1 yard before the punt.
Alternative idea for Campbell: Put two blockers on Quinn and have Jared Goff throw a deep shot in the hope of a completion or pass interference. Or even try a Hail Mary. If it’s picked off in the end zone, so what? It beats the give-up run play for a team that hasn’t won.
Campbell showed his inexperience after the Lions stopped David Montgomery for 1 yard, setting up third-and-9 for the Bears from the Detroit 16-yard line. Campbell used his first timeout to stop the clock with 1:54 remaining. Then the Lions lined up for the play and all hell broke loose. The defensive backs couldn’t get on the same page, so Campbell raced down the sideline and called a second timeout. Problem is, you can’t call consecutive timeouts without a play being run. So the Lions lost their second timeout and were called for a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty. Andy Dalton connected with Damiere Byrd for a 7-yard gain to move the chains, and at that point the Bears were able to run out the clock before Cairo Santos’ winning kick.
“Well, obviously you can’t do that, but we had a miscommunication,” Campbell said. “Half of our secondary had one call, half had the other. So, yeah, took a timeout. The first thing in my head is, ‘Well, we’ve got a blown coverage and they’re about to score a touchdown,’ so I do it, which you can’t do and now it’s a penalty. But I know that if he threw it out in a flat, it was about to be a touchdown. Can’t do it.”
Said inside linebacker Alex Anzalone: “We were kind of in Cover-0, and they went to max (protection). We checked to two high, Cover-2. And that’s why I was trying to relay the call. After that, I’m not really sure what happened. I think that we called timeout, and I’m not sure if everyone was on the same page.”
There’s your proof the Bears aren’t the only team to come out of timeouts with confusion. It tends to happen more on offense for them.
The Lions are in a tough spot. If more than 10 or 12 players on the current roster are still with them in 24 months, they’ve had a massive personnel failure. The offensive line has some talent. Running back D’Andre Swift is a solid player. Otherwise, they have huge needs, and the shame of it for the Lions is there isn’t a slam dunk No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. There’s much work to do, and Campbell needs to get better.
7. The Bears have to be hoping it’s only a minor hamstring issue for inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who left in the second quarter and didn’t return.
Smith entered this week tied for third in the NFL with 110 tackles with the Atlanta Falcons’ Foyesade Oluokun, trailing only the Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner (115) and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Denzel Perryman (114). Of those four players, Smith is tops with three sacks, and he and Oluokun each have one interception. Smith was fourth in Pro Bowl fan balloting for inside linebackers, but the real issue now is how much time he could be forced to miss.
Free safety Eddie Jackson returned Thursday after missing two games, with the bye week in between, with a hamstring injury. The Bears placed nickel cornerback Duke Shelley on injured reserve this week with a hamstring injury suffered against the Ravens.
“Roquan is a monster,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “Just going back and watching the film. During the game, I’m in the moment, I’m not really seeing everything he’s doing. I’m focused on what I need to be focused on. But after watching the film and looking back on, and even talking to my brother, it was funny, he gained a whole different respect for Roquan. And I was like, ‘Why did you say that?’ And he was like, ‘He’s just a monster. He runs sideline to sideline, hitting people, run back, rinse, wash, repeat, hitting people.’
“I mean, when you think about it, you take it for granted when you’re on his team. But I just sat back and was looking like, ‘Damn, he’s a monster. He really leads our team, he really brings us all together, he plays with a different mindset.’ You can see it on the field.”
Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee) is on injured reserve, and for most of the rest of the game, the Bears used Christian Jones alongside Alec Ogletree. Rookie Caleb Johnson got on the field briefly and was over tight end T.J. Hockenson when he scored on a 17-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
If there’s any silver lining here, maybe it being a Thursday game helps Smith a little bit. It’s an extra 72 hours of recovery.
8. In a busy and short week, I didn’t want some other stuff cornerback Jaylon Johnson said Monday to go unnoticed.
Johnson not only has been very good on the field for the Bears, but he’s really beginning to assert himself as a leader in the locker room and especially on the defense. It’s pretty evident and it’s easy to envision him being a fixture for the team for many seasons to come.
On whether the team needed a speech after the heartbreaking loss to the Ravens on Sunday:
“No. I mean, honestly, how many games have we lost in a row? Yeah, there’s nothing to talk about. We aren’t going to beat a dead horse. Like I said, we are all men. Coming in here and saying, ‘We have to figure out a way,’ to me it’s BS. Like we aren’t going to keep talking. We have to find ways to win. We just have to get it done, whatever it is. But there’s nothing to keep coming in here and talking about and having all these rah-rah speeches. We’ve had five weeks of rah-rah speeches. I don’t think that talking is anything we need to be doing.”
Fortunately, no need for rah-rah this week.
On what Johnson said when teammate Kindle Vildor had his head in his hands on the bench at the end of the Ravens game?
“I’ll tell him what I told the whole defense: Pick your head up. The way I think about it is we’re men before anything. You never want to show weakness in a time like that. OK, somebody messed up and things didn’t go our way. But that don’t mean you put your head down. That don’t mean you start blaming and pointing fingers. I just don’t think those are manly characteristics. I was more so on the sideline picking guys up to not allow people to see that word ‘defeated.’ I mean, yeah, OK, it’s football. But we’re men before anything. I went to the D-line and told them, ‘Pick your head up.’ What do we have our heads down for? We’re competitors but we don’t show weakness like that.”
9. It’s a big week for Devin Hester as the former Bears return specialist is one of 26 modern-era semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022.
Hester is one of seven first-year eligible players on the list along with Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, Robert Mathis, Steve Smith, DeMarcus Ware and Vince Wilfork. It should be fascinating to see how it unfolds for Hester in Year 1 of his eligibility. I think he’s a slam dunk to get his day in Canton, Ohio, and without a superstar quarterback or a player with overwhelming statistical greatness on that list of seven players, I think that gives Hester a real shot this year. Also on the list of semifinalists is pass rusher Jared Allen, who spent time with the Bears late in his career.
I had conversations with Hall of Fame voters Peter King and Mike Sando about Hester’s eligibility back in September, and they said some very interesting stuff. If you missed it, check out thought No. 5 coming out of the otherwise forgettable game in Cleveland.
10. This was the first game this season the Bears held their opponent scoreless in the fourth quarter.
The defense entered this week ranked 28th in fourth-quarter scoring defense, having allowed 94 points. The only teams to surrender more points were the Atlanta Falcons (116), Las Vegas Raiders (112), Indianapolis Colts (104) and Miami Dolphins (99). The top five defenses in fourth-quarter points allowed — and No. 5 might come as a surprise: the Arizona Cardinals (33), New England Patriots (35), Denver Broncos (43), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (43) and Jacksonville Jaguars (49).
10a. Bears players will have the weekend to rest up and then will get in a bonus practice Monday to begin preparation for the Cardinals.
10b. I checked in with Jim Nagy, director of the Senior Bowl, and at this point the showcase event has not invited any players from Illinois schools or Notre Dame.
10c. The more I watch return specialist Jakeem Grant, the more there is to like. He’s fearless and aggressive, and I have to think the Bears will at least discuss attempting to re-sign him. He is scheduled to be a free agent and has been toughing it out on a sore ankle. He had a 22-yard punt return Thursday.
10d. I should not have gone this far before mentioning two second-year defensive players making nice plays to force fumbles, with Jaylon Johnson and Trevis Gipson popping the ball out. Both were very aware plays, and Gipson’s resulted in a takeaway after a Matt Nagy challenge flag.
10e. Hope you had a terrific Thanksgiving.