There is a familiar feeling in the air around Chicago. As average temperatures begin to fall, a familiar wind blows in off the lake. This wind brings a symbolic end to the summer, but also serves as a reminder for many that Bears football is upon us. As the Bears prepare to kickoff the NFL’s centennial season on Thursday night, they do so with a feeling surrounding the team far less familiar to Chicagoans than chilly Lake Michigan winds. No, tomorrow they begin a season with the feeling that this team is not just good, but perhaps magical.
Take a moment and consider what it means that the NFL chose the Bears and Packers as the game to kickoff their biggest season ever. Normally opening night Thursday matchups are reserved for the defending Super Bowl Champions. The last time two teams that did not win the Super Bowl appeared in the NFL Kickoff game was in 2003. Choosing the Bears as the hosts of the league’s biggest kickoff event ever is a tangible reflection of how far the Bears organization has come since Ryan Pace took over following a disastrous 2014-15 season. Things did not get better quickly for the Bears after Pace took over. The team slagged through three consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC North, before even a glimmer of real hope appeared in Soldier Field.
Following the second of those three consecutive losing seasons, the Bears, or more specifically Ryan Pace, pulled off one of the most shocking moves in franchise history in trading up for Mitch Trubisky in the draft. The move stunned everyone, including reportedly the teams own Head Coach John Fox. After all, after an unfortunate situation in Tampa Bay had cost Mike Glennon his shot to star in the NFL, the Bears were ready to be the team to give Glennon his shot. As most remember, Glennon didn’t work out, John Fox couldn’t nurture a rookie quarterback, and the season was a mess. There had been some glimmers of hope on the roster besides Trubisky. Of course Pace had signed Akiem Hicks prior to the Jay Cutler’s final season in Chicago, and he had already begun to blossom as one of the dominant defensive tackles in the league. Following John Fox’s final season in Chicago, the big question was simply, what now?
The Bears had a top-two pick at quarterback. They had some interesting young talent scattered around the field in Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks and Tarik Cohen to name a few players. But they were also coming off of a 5-11 season which saw Kendall Wright’s 614 receiving yards pace the team. They also lacked a legitimate pass rusher, as Leonard Floyd continued his battle to stay on the field. Ryan Pace’s first big investment, Pernell McPhee, would also play his final snap in Chicago that year. In other words, the roster was interesting, but there were still a ton of spots to fill, including most importantly, Head Coach.
Enter Matt Nagy. Nagy came to the Bears fresh off of leading a Kansas City Chiefs offense that finished fifth in the NFL in yards per game. A tough first-round playoff loss to the Titans ended that Chiefs season early, and also led many to question Nagy’s play calling. With many directly blaming him for Kansas City’s early playoff demise. Nagy also came from a long line of Andy Reid assistants that had seen more success league-wide than perhaps any other coaching tree in the NFL. Nagy along with Pace brought a suddenly modern look to an organization that had traditionally lagged behind when it came to modern trends in the NFL. He also brought a personality that played perfectly to a media and fanbase that had had just gone through perhaps the three consecutive least interesting Head Coaches in the NFL. Most importantly, Nagy brought a complete culture change to Halas Hall.
John Fox, despite his flaws, had done his part in reviving the organizations’ off-field culture. Marc Trestman’s final season in Chicago brought with it unprecedented chaos and resulted in one of the league’s proudest franchises to be reduced to a laughing stock. The butt end of every meme or joke on Twitter. Fox had at least brought back respectability to the organization off the field and in the locker room. But while Fox had done well in building a culture which repaired the teams’ image and brought back some form of order. Nagy brought one in which winning was expected. The team was obsessed with winning.
In addition to adding Nagy, Ryan Pace managed to overhaul a receiving corp with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. The team entered training camp last season with their sights set on a winning season. Playoffs? They would have been nice but probably not. They still needed a pass rusher, as Leonard Floyd still had yet to break out as the franchise pass rusher Pace had envisioned when selecting him with the eighth pick of the 2016 Draft. Well lucky for the Bears, the Raiders had used their off-season to hire Jon Gruden to lead them onto Las Vegas. Gruden’s first big move in his new role was to trade Khalil Mack. To the Bears. Seriously. Nothing Ryan Pace could have done would have affirmed his obsession with winning quite like trading for Khalil Mack. The Mack trade sent shockwaves through the league and instantly signaled that the Bears meant business.
Mack had an immediate impact on opening night and truly signaled a corner turning for the long-suffering franchise. One thing led to another and suddenly the Bears won the NFC North. Khalil Mack led a resurgent defense that featured Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith and Kyle Fuller to establish themselves as defensive cornerstones. The defense, as we all know, led the league in takeaways, and the Bears won 12 games, They rolled into a Wild Card weekend game with the defending Super Bowl champs at home. There was a missed kick with a famous nickname, and the season ended.
That brings us to Thursday. Where the NFL has taken the Bears and made them the face of their 100th season. As if to signal to everyone, the Monsters of the Midway are back. Yes, questions still exist about the roster. Is Mitch Trubisky the quarterback this franchise has spent most of its existence looking for? Is the defense capable of coming close to its performance last year under a new Defensive Coordinator? But there is no mistaking the fact that this team has its most legitimate Super Bowl shot since they last played in the big game. The defense could hold true, or even progress as younger players continue to grow. Trubisky could break out and finally be the quarterback fans have hoped for so long. There’s no denying the fact that many signs last year pointed towards this team continuing to trend up. Including Trubisky leading perhaps his best drive of the year against the defending champs in the fourth quarter to set up that game-winning field goal. Signs like those, do not come around often.
As we begin what is sure to be one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history, be sure to stop and take a look around. Be thankful for how far this organization has come in a short time. Enjoy the feeling of real hope. Teams and moments like these are fleeting. These are the teams that make all the bad seasons worth it. The Bears’ moment has arrived, and they appear poised not to let it slip away. What better way to begin it than with a win over the Packers on Thursday Night. Bear Down.