Haugh: Resounding playoff loss to Saints exposes Bears as a franchise in need of change

Stuck in neutral, the Bears are in need of an overhaul.
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(670 The Score) Nothing happened Sunday at the Superdome in New Orleans to make anybody at Halas Hall feel comfortable about his job.

Not the general manager who picked the wrong quarterback and set the franchise back years.

Not the head coach of what again looked like one of the most undisciplined teams in the league.

Not the quarterback who reminded everyone of his limitations when facing a legitimate defense.

Conventional NFL wisdom says the most important roles in any organization are the general manager, head coach and quarterback. In a resounding 21-9 loss to the Saints in the NFC wild-card round, the Bears gave chairman George McCaskey ample reason to consider making changes at all three key positions.

The defeat ended general manager Ryan Pace’s sixth season with the Bears, and he’s still waiting to celebrate his first playoff victory.

Nagy, expected around the league to return for his fourth season, was supposed to fix a broken offense, but the Bears have now scored 24 measly points in two playoff losses over three years – not to mention committed unacceptably dumb unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that accentuated their defeat Sunday.

As for Mitchell Trubisky, a late-season resurgence deepened his niche as a serviceable NFL quarterback, but nothing about bringing him back in 2021 would bring the Bears closer to the Super Bowl.

BREAKING: The goal of every NFL team remains winning the Super Bowl.

If that's still the McCaskeys’ No. 1 objective, they must realize how far apart the Bears are compared to the Saints and the Packers, their last two opponents who each won by double-digits. A championship needs to be the standard for the NFL’s charter franchise. The Bears care deeply about tradition, but you have to wonder if a team so steeped in the past fully understands what’s best for its future. After six years of Pace and three seasons of Nagy, the Bears aren’t a team on the verge of anything but becoming deeply mired in mediocrity. This goes down as an 8-9 team with one victory all season against a team with a winning record. This is an organization stuck in neutral in need of an engine overhaul.

The good part about backing into the postseason as the No. 7 seed in an expanded field was that it allowed the Bears an extra game in which, theoretically, anything could happen. The bad part about it was giving teams like the Bears another chance to be exposed.

Can we agree now that the 2020 Bears were a team that made the postseason but never looked like a playoff team?

“Making the playoffs was great, but what we did today has to be a lot better,’’ Nagy understated. “It’s not where we want to be. We understand we’ve got to grow from this.’’

The Bears actually showed growth early against the Saints, but the momentum shift every underdog needs never came. Their best chance at gaining some disappeared in the first quarter when the ball inexplicably slipped through Javon Wims’ hands in the end zone at the end of a well-conceived flea flicker. David Montgomery took the snap out of the Wildcat formation and lateraled to Cordarrelle Patterson, who pitched the ball back to Trubisky, who put a pretty 50-yard spiral in the exact spot necessary.

Years from now, Wims dropping Trubisky’s pass will be the play Bears fans associate most with the wild-card loss to the Saints. You lose some, you Wims some.

While not having the impact of Cody Parkey’s double-doink two years ago, Wims’ drop in a playoff game will go down as a defining moment of postseason infamy. It won’t warrant an invitation to the "Today" show, but it should earn Wims a ticket out of town. He has made himself expendable. If his name rings a bell, the last time you heard it so often during a Bears game was when he was ejected on Nov. 1 for punching Saints cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson. More on Gardner-Johnson later.

The Saints exhaled after the near-touchdown miss, and the Bears mentally recoiled. Instead of tying the game at 7, the Bears turned the ball over on downs three plays later when Trubisky ran out of bounds on fourth-and-4 two yards shy of the marker. Maybe Trubisky was still reeling from watching the Bears’ best shot at an upset bid literally slip through their fingertips.

“I’d be sitting here lying to you saying that didn’t hurt,’’ Nagy said.

Other concentration lapses by the Bears made a tough challenge tougher.

Rookie tight end Cole Kmet drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a one-yard reception at the Saints’ 9-yard line. A questionable call was made after Kmet exchanged words with Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and flipped the ball to the official, but the penalty turned third-and-5 into third-and-20. The Bears settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown they needed.

“The explanation was he was throwing the ball to the player and Cole said he was throwing the ball to the ref,’’ Nagy said. “That was a big play in the game.’’

Anthony Miller’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty later loomed equally large. Miller smacked Gardner-Johnson in the facemask after a third-quarter play and was ejected. In two games, Gardner-Johnson coaxed two Bears receivers into getting ejected. You won’t find a better bouncer on Bourbon Street. Not only did the ejection cost the Bears their No. 2 wide receiver in a game that Darnell Mooney missed with injury, the gaffe underscored how undisciplined players have become under Nagy. If that sounds unfair, that’s the way it works in professional sports. Head coaches receive the credit and blame for how their teams keep composure. Having resilience is one thing, but the Bears showing that kind of fight is unacceptable.

“We spent time literally showing and explaining a particular player’s actions in games … and teaching it,’’ Nagy said. “That’s taking 10 or 15 minutes out of your day. When you do that, it’s a valuable lesson. It’s something our guys have to understand we’ve got to be stronger and can’t let that happen. That’s two times that happened, and we can’t have it.’’

The Bears can tolerate physical shortcomings, such as when right guard Alex Bars was overpowered by Sheldon Rankins for a sack and an eight-yard loss. But too many unforced mental errors too often interfered with real progress. This wasn’t a young team playing for a new coach. A fine line exists between the positive culture Nagy has established and the permissiveness such an environment fosters. Two veteran players – Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson – jumped offsides in the biggest game of the season, making it hard to call the Bears well-coached.

Nagy also raised eyebrows about his own judgment at the end of the first half. All week, the Bears talked about how they had nothing to lose and felt no pressure, even invoking the disrespect shown to them – the way any No. 7 seed should approach the opportunity. Then, when getting the ball at their own 18-yard line with 1:49 left in the first half and down 7-3, the Bears called three straight running plays to run out the clock. If the Bears truly wanted to practice what they had preached, they would've aggressively pushed the ball downfield to give themselves a chance at a Cairo Santos field goal before the half.

The passive play-calling revealed a coach afraid to make a mistake and a lack of faith in Trubisky -- in his fourth year as a starting quarterback. Add that series to the evidence of how limited the Bears’ ambition would be if Trubisky returns.

“Yeah, I think I could definitely see myself back here next year,’’ Trubisky answered when asked about returning. “It feels like home. It feels like we have unfinished business.’’

Trubisky completed 19 of 29 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown but, except for the flea flicker, rarely threatened the Saints downfield. It was enough to diminish Trubisky’s success against lowly rated defenses in December. It isn’t so much what Trubisky does as much as what he doesn’t do. The Bears didn’t lose because of Trubisky, but they didn’t win a game because of him either, and that’s the kind of quarterback the organization will need as the window closes on a once-great defense.

And watch your fingers, Bears fans. Based on the second half of the season, that window is closing fast.

Safety Tashaun Gipson showed up against the Saints with two pass breakups and a forced fumble, but the secondary missed injured cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Buster Skrine. They also missed linebacker Roquan Smith. A shorthanded unit showed improvement with a gutsy effort, but too many signs of the regression obvious for the past six weeks resurfaced. Jackson capped a bad season with another poor game in coverage and tackling. Khalil Mack never wrecked anything. Depth issues at linebacker forced Manti Te’o to make his season debut in the playoffs as a starter. Alas, the Saints had too many weapons with Drew Brees and the return of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and the Bears committed enough mistakes to wonder about defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s future too.

But, at the moment, the Bears have more pressing items on the agenda.

Doing nothing can’t be one of them.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-9 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.