The Bears have returned from their off week and are preparing for Sunday's contest against the Packers at Soldier Field, a game that could set the tone for the remainder of the season.
Over the first eight games, the Bears looked like a team making strides in several key areas. And a two-game winning streak in October — the team's first such surge in nearly two years — heightened outside optimism about the overall direction.
But just how much progress have the Bears truly made? What are the biggest storylines to track in the season's final two months? What are realistic goals for the team to accomplish over the final eight games? Bears reporters Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell hash things out in this edition of "Real Talk."
Dan Wiederer: Rich, you heard my advice back at the end of September 2016, when the team was winless and hopeless and struggling mightily to stay competitive. My recommendation then was that it was OK for Bears fans to reduce their investment, to tend to other interests, to free up their Sundays and to become more productive in other aspects of life. And I promised we would ultimately send out the alert when the Bears truly became relevant again. Well, consider this my opportunity to stand on the front stoop and ring the cowbell. Maybe, just maybe, this is the stretch where it all becomes ultra-compelling again.
To be clear, at 3-5 and still in last place in the NFC North, I'm not envisioning these Bears making some unforeseen run to a wild-card berth. Heck, finishing 8-8 may still be a pipe dream. But looking at this upcoming schedule, there's definitely a window of opportunity the Bears should be pushing to take advantage of.
Sunday against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad? At home? With the Bears favored for the first time all season? And coming off their bye week while the Packers face a quick turnaround?
Then, a Week 11 home game against the Lions? And another home contest against the still-winless 49ers the first Sunday of December?
Yes, a Nov. 26 road game against the Eagles will prove daunting. But there's a legitimate chance here for the Bears to gather momentum, to perhaps win three of the next four, and to prove to the rest of the league they are no longer a bottom-feeder.
Rich Campbell: That advice of yours never quite sat right with me because it was given to fans who are invested so deeply that they subscribe to our coverage. (Thanks for reading, everybody!) To that point, though, congrats to all the die-hards who stuck it out and finally - maybe - sense a light through the darkness.
While we're discussing advice, here's my latest: Resist the temptation to zoom out and digest the upcoming eight games all at once through a predictive lens. Apologies for the buzzkill, but I suggest following the team's lead by taking this thing one game at a time.
Sure, the Bears won't consistently face the high caliber of quarterbacks they did in the first half of the season. On the other hand, they're one or two injuries away from the offense sinking to whatever level is below anemic. In other words, just focus on this Packers game, which sets up as a favorable matchup. Rodgers' replacement, Brett Hundley, lacked poise and command Monday night against the Lions. Plus, the Bears are rested and they're at home. Whatever happens after Sunday, there will be plenty of time to get to that.
Wiederer: I'm cool with that. I guess all I'm saying is that it's again OK to dream a little again, that the Bears showed enough improvement in the first half to open up doors to possibilities that were barred shut recently.
Even a skeptic can acknowledge the Bears already have matched last season's win total. Even a skeptic can see the Bears have already matched last season's takeaway total. Even a skeptic can see that since the Bears last played the Packers, they have played four tightly contested games that have all come down to the final possession. And they split those four games. That alone feels like an indication these next eight games should at least be interesting and entertaining. Am I right?
Of course, in the interest of balance, it's only fair to remember that the Bears remain in the NFC North's basement, a residence they've lived in since Dec. 22, 2015. It's important to point out that this is a franchise that hasn't gone .500 in the second half of a season since 2010. It's also important to point out their last three-game winning streak came in September 2013. So, yes, they have many more hurdles to clear before they can be stamped as "for real." But for now, anyway, things appear to be trending upward.
Campbell: That's entirely fair. The Bears are competitive again, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. Without question, that represents progress. If they continue to play .500 ball, as they have in Mitch Trubisky's first four starts, they would finish 7-9. That would be a four-game improvement over last year, a significant step forward.
Go back to that late-July afternoon in Bourbonnais when the Bears reported to training camp. As general manager Ryan Pace discussed the measuring stick for this season, he predictably did not assign a win total, but he spoke in general terms about the need to see steady improvement. Over the last month, at least, that has been evident on the defensive side. The game-changing plays have started to occur more frequently.
Offensively, though, the Bears are still searching for a foothold in the passing game. I'm eager to see what they can get out of Trubisky as they incorporate new veteran receiver Dontrelle Inman and get veteran Markus Wheaton (groin) back. Will Dowell Loggains successfully tap into the schematic elements that helped against the Saints, like bunch formations, pre-snap motion and route combinations to open passing windows? Will Trubisky complete a higher percentage of throws? The schedule offers no guarantees, to say nothing of the group's collective health.
Wiederer: Without question, Trubisky's ongoing development will remain center stage, the headlining act for these next two months. Through four starts, we've seen flashes of the kid's promise and undeniable signs of his inexperience. Now the rookie will need to produce the former much more frequently. And he'll need to find ways to enliven an offense that, oh, by the way, hasn't scored more than 17 points in regulation yet this season.
It's one thing to consistently put your team in position to win, as Trubisky has done every week since becoming the starter. The next step is to regularly snatch the victories. And it's worth noting that the rookie's two interceptions so far both came in big moments, late in close games.
In late-game situations, in the final 3 minutes of regulation or overtime, Trubisky has had six full possessions with a chance to lead a go-ahead or game-tying drive. The results of those possessions: interception, punt, punt, game-winning field goal, turnover on downs, interception.
That's a 16.7% success rate, one which the young quarterback will have to improve upon to solidify the belief that he can be the Bears' starter for the next eight or 10 years.
In my opinion, Trubisky's progress is cemented as the No. 1 storyline for the rest of this season.
Campbell: We'll know his command is developing when his accuracy becomes more reliable. Trubisky has flashed, but the more consistently he hits receivers in stride or in tight windows, the more we can be convinced he's seeing the field well and getting his footwork right. He said as much himself last Wednesday before the break.
Of course, as Trubisky's development remains a central focus, we understand it's fully linked to the coaching crossroads the Bears are approaching. For those readers just joining us: Fox is nearing the conclusion of the third season in his four-year deal. Time is nearing for the organization - namely, Pace - to set a course by determining how highly to prioritize Trubisky's development and by deciding whether to entrust Fox and his staff of assistants with continuing that.
In that context, there's a lot to consider and several storylines for us to follow, not the least of which is the future of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose contract is up after this season. That said, every win matters, even if the Bears don't surprise us with a surge into playoff contention.
Wiederer: So here's where things get complicated. With almost no one expecting the Bears to reach the postseason this winter, we have to then search for continuity, deciphering which parts of the team's 2017 success will carry forward into 2018. To that end, we talked a few weeks back about the number of defensive standouts who figure to be part of the team's longer-term plans - Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Jackson. But what happens if - or is it when? - the defense undergoes a coaching overhaul? That's where the respective futures of Fox and Fangio become significant storylines.
In some league circles, there's a sentiment that the head coach and defensive coordinator will separate after this season. If that's indeed the case, how will it go down? Will Fangio's success elevating this defense finally open his window to become a head coach elsewhere? Will he remain with the Bears in his current role? If Fox were let go, would Fangio be considered a head coaching candidate here in Chicago? These are all legitimate questions that likely won't have clear answers until January.
But here's where things circle back to Trubisky. When Pace made the bold move in April to trade three extra picks to draft the quarterback at No. 2 overall, it was a firm declaration that Trubisky would be the centerpiece of everything the general manager is trying to build. Through that lens, whatever decisions Pace makes on the coaching front must come with an unwavering focus on creating long-term stability for his young quarterback. It's as simple as that. But still, it's complicated.
Campbell: We've already learned a lot in 2017 about Pace's cunning and uncompromising approach to the quarterback position. Two months from now, we'll know even more. At some point, he will act again with conviction, and it's only logical for him to do everything in his power to position Trubisky for championship success.
Knowing this regime has a 12-28 record, the next eight games can help shape the bigger picture. Have they truly turned the corner? Our curiosity eventually will be satisfied. First, let's see how Trubisky introduces himself to the Packers rivalry. The next step is a meaningful one.