Though the Chicago Bears reached the playoffs during the 2020 season, that result seemed somewhat incidental given how they arrived there. The team pulled out five one-score victories over the first six weeks, all but one coming against the dregs of the NFL. A six-game losing streak followed, putting the future of the coaching staff and front office in a precarious position. The Bears would win three of their final four games — all against clubs that finished with losing records — before dropping their season finale to the division-rival Green Bay Packers.
Yet, despite ending on a sour note, the Bears qualified for the postseason thanks to some breaks elsewhere during Week 17. That berth bought head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace some time, but they must show proof of concept in 2021 to extend their stays in Chicago.
8-8, 2nd in NFC North
Points: 23 points per game, rank 13th
Yards: 5.4 yards per play, rank 10th (tied with 2 teams)
Football Outsiders ranking: 8th
Points: 22.4 points per game, rank 23rd
Yards: 5.1 yards per play, rank 27th
Football Outsiders ranking: 25th
2021 DraftKings Sportsbook odds
Super Bowl: +5000
AFC/NFC Champion: +2200
Win Total: 7.5 (Over +103, Under -125)
At the beginning of the offseason, the Bears did not have an apparent path to a potential franchise quarterback. The team seemed to acknowledge as much with its decision to sign Andy Dalton, a backup signal-caller for the Dallas Cowboys last season. Dalton offered only modest upside over Nick Foles, the underwhelming QB acquisition an offseason earlier, underscoring the lack of options available to Chicago.
That perception changed on the first day of the 2021 NFL Draft. After watching Ohio State superstar Justin Fields fall out of the top 10, the Bears pounced, trading multiple picks to the New York Giants in order to halt his slide. Fields immediately becomes the most decorated quarterback the franchise has drafted in more than a generation, giving genuine hope to a franchise that has struggled to consistently contend since the demise of the Mike Ditka-era squads.
Elsewhere, the Bears made some major alterations on defense. The league-wide cap crisis resulted in the team cutting All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller and starting right tackle Bobby Massie. Chicago did manage to create enough space to use the franchise tag on star wideout Allen Robinson, giving Fields at least one premier target with which to work in 2021.
Biggest question entering training camp
Barring injury, Fields will take over at quarterback for the Bears at some point this season, but exactly when the change will occur remains unclear. Nagy has downplayed the possibility of Fields starting Week 1, but if the rookie builds on his impressive work during OTAs and minicamp, he might force his way onto the field sooner. That would bode well for Chicago’s passing attack, as Fields possesses one of the better deep balls college football has seen in recent years.
What needs to happen for the Bears to win the Super Bowl?
The Bears would need numerous fortunate breaks in order to even reach the Super Bowl, but they might have already received a big one. If Aaron Rodgers and the Packers fail to make up before the start of the season, the NFC North suddenly seems up for grabs. Chicago would stand on comparatively similar ground with the Minnesota Vikings as the potential usurpers in that scenario.
But regardless of what happens in Green Bay, the Bears need significantly better play at the quarterback position to make any noise nationally. Fields certainly offers that upside in the long term, but he would need to deliver a spectacular rookie campaign to lift Chicago into title contention this season. Such a QB performance doesn’t seem quite as outlandish as it did a decade ago, but that doesn’t make it a realistic expectation either.
The Bears will probably flirt with playoff contention and irrelevance in roughly equal measure, ultimately netting out as a mediocre team. That doesn’t negate their bright future if Fields can indeed establish himself as a franchise quarterback, but it does mean the club remains a work in progress.