Bears exceed expectations despite tough exit, now look for more pieces

The Chicago Bears ended the season with a heartbreaking 16-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to finish the year at 12-5. Here’s a recap of the season and what’s next.

Season grade: Near perfection. The Bears came out of nowhere to win the NFC North, their first division title since 2010. First-year head coach Matt Nagy changed the entire culture of the team. The Bears entered the playoffs winners of four straight and nine of 10. The team won a total of 14 games under John Fox from 2015-17. The Bears wildly exceeded expectations, and for that, Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace need to be commended. They just couldn't keep it going in the playoffs as Cody Parkey once again hit an upright to keep the Bears from advancing.

Season in review: Nagy’s first order of business was to fix the offense. The Bears had been dreadful offensively in the Fox era, but Nagy brought the Andy Reid system with him from Kansas City, and the results in year one were encouraging. The Bears went out in the offseason and assembled a better supporting cast (Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller) for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who had a mediocre rookie year in 2017. But under Nagy, Trubisky improved and finished the regular season with 3,223 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 95.4. Chicago’s real strength, however, was its defense. The acquisition of linebacker Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders turned an already good Bears defense into a great defense. The Bears led the NFL in virtually every statistical category. They took firm control of the NFC North in the middle of November and never looked back. Chicago had five players voted to the Pro Bowl (Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks, Tarik Cohen, Kyle Fuller and Mack) and became the first Bears team to go from worst to first since 2005.

He said it: “The coaching staff is doing a great job of creating a culture that caters to the players. It’s not like public school and it’s not like private school, it’s just in the middle where we have enough boundaries but we have room to be who we are in those boundaries. It’s working.” -- Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara

Key offseason questions

Future of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: Fangio is expected to interview for head coach openings in Denver and Miami, and perhaps others, as early as Monday. Fangio is the architect of the Bears’ 3-4 defense, and losing him would be tough. The Bears could opt to replace Fangio with respected secondary coach Ed Donatell, but Chicago’s best-case scenario is for Fangio to return for a fifth season.

Backfield in motion: Running back Jordan Howard finished the regular season on a high note, but questions remain as to whether Howard is a long-term fit in Nagy’s offense. At some point, Howard is going to want a new contract. Are the Bears prepared to pay him? Chicago could look to trade Howard and recoup a draft pick. The Bears probably need to make a decision on Howard in the offseason. Howard is entering the final year of his original rookie deal.

Kicking quandary: The Bears guaranteed Parkey $9 million last offseason, but Parkey missed 10 total kicks (seven field goals, three extra points) during the regular season, and he missed the game-winner in the playoff loss to the Eagles. Chicago’s kicking game has to improve in 2019. Interestingly, the Bears’ all-time leading scorer, Robbie Gould, will be a free agent. There’s no guarantee Gould re-signs with San Francisco, even though he had two terrific years for the 49ers: Gould made 72 of 75 field goal attempts from 2017-18. Gould may want to return to the Midwest. The Bears should be all over that.