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The Bears Are Stumbling After a Playoff Run. Yes, Again.

Last season, the Chicago Bears were one of the NFL’s great success stories. Picked by our model to win just 6.6 games,1 with only a 19 percent chance of snapping the team’s seven-year playoff drought, Chicago instead flourished under second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and first-year Head Coach Matt Nagy. The Bears went 12-4, won the NFC North and were mere inches away from beating the defending champions in the playoffs. Nagy won Coach of the Year honors, and going into 2019, Chicago seemed primed to build on its breakout — thanks to a staunch defense and further potential development from Trubisky.

But things haven’t really gone according to that plan … because, let’s face it, they almost never do in the Windy City. The Bears’ 2019 campaign has been beset by the usual maladies: kicking disasters, coaching miscues, poor quarterbacking, defensive regression, etc. After losing a potentially winnable slog against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night, Chicago’s playoff odds are down to 1-in-100.

We would ask how things got to this point, except that things always seem to get to this point for the Bears when seeking a return trip to the playoffs. Going back to the 1990s, Chicago has repeatedly tried — and failed — to build on its breakout seasons, most of the time leaving fans bitterly disappointed instead. And, barring a miracle, this season looks like it will be no different.

Let’s rewind a bit. The year was 1994, and the Bears were two seasons removed from a run of seven playoff appearances in eight years, including a legendary championship in 1985. But they had gone 12-20 in 1992 and ’93, during which time the team officially moved on from both its head coach — longtime boss Mike Ditka — and quarterback — Jim Harbaugh, who’d shown flashes of talent but played miserably in 1993. Led by second-year Head Coach Dave Wannstedt and a combination of Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer under center, Chicago turned things around with a 9-7 regular season in ’94 and added a road playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings before being dispatched by the eventual champion San Francisco 49ers.

Poised to make a postseason return the following year with Kramer — who actually had a tremendous 1995 season — starting full time, Chicago started 6-2. But the Bears ultimately missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker after going 3-5 in the second half of the season, undone by special teams and (of all things) defense. The franchise wouldn’t make it back for the rest of the decade.

That playoff drought was snapped in 2001, when a QB nobody thought much of — Jim Miller, who had thrown fewer passes for the 2000 Bears than the immortal Cade McNown or Shane Matthews — led a team nobody thought much of to a season nobody saw coming. That year’s Bears defense went from 20th in points allowed to first, a feat made even more incredible by the team’s middling rankings in more yardage-based metrics. The Cinderella story ended at home against the Eagles in the playoffs, but at least some observers saw another playoff trip in the cards for 2002.

Instead, the defense regressed back to 25th in points allowed, Miller didn’t last the season as starting QB, and Chicago crashed back to earth with a 4-12 record. The Bears would languish out of the playoffs for a couple more seasons after that, during which time the team burned through a succession of starting QBs that included Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chris Chandler, Chad Hutchinson, Jonathan Quinn, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman.

Those last two names are where the story takes a turn, though, as part of the exception to the overall rule.

The 2005 Bears were another one of those underdog Chicago teams with an untested QB (Orton, standing in for the injured Grossman) and a second-year head coach (Lovie Smith), about which little was expected aside from some hints of defensive promise. They started the year 1-3, as Orton played poorly — but then, out of nowhere, they rattled off an eight-game winning streak as part of a stretch with 10 wins in the season’s final 12 games. The team once again led the league in scoring defense — even coming by it more honestly than in 2001 — and it kept winning, even though Orton continued to struggle until Grossman’s return in Week 16. Despite going 10-5 as Chicago’s starter during the regular season, Orton was benched for the playoffs in favor of Grossman. But at home in the playoffs against the Carolina Panthers, Grossman didn’t fare much better than Orton had, and the Bears’ season ended in a 29-21 loss.

Looking ahead to 2006, it sure seemed like history repeating itself from a few years earlier.2 But the ’06 Bears actually did make it back to the playoffs — and even went as far as the Super Bowl before running into Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on a rainy Super Sunday in Miami. Though Grossman was a mediocre passer at best, the Brian Urlacher-led defense repeated its top-five performance in points allowed and helped the Bears make a rare postseason return before the wheels began to fall off in 2007.

That was the start of a new three-year playoff drought for the club, but in 2010 the Bears still had Smith as an experienced coach to go with QB Jay Cutler — who was acquired from Denver for Orton and picks, and who had something to prove after a terrible debut season in Chicago. Cutler’s own 2010 was up and down, but the Bears’ defense once again was terrific, allowing the fourth-fewest points in the NFL, and the team finished 11-5. In the playoffs, Chicago beat the Seattle Seahawks before losing at home to the Green Bay Packers in an NFC championship game that Cutler left early with a knee injury.

Would the Bears return to the playoffs in 2011? Of course they would not. Chicago started 7-3 before Cutler was injured again, and the team went 1-5 down the stretch with a combination of Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown replacing Cutler under center. The Bears rebounded to go 10-6 in 2012 but also became one of the rare NFL teams in history to win double-digit games and miss the postseason. After that, they’d never muster anything better than an 8-8 record for the rest of the Cutler era, eventually missing the playoffs in seven straight seasons from 2011 to 2017.

All of which brings us to 2019, when Chicago had its fifth chance since the mid-1990s to build on an unexpected playoff run with another postseason bid. And likely for the fourth time — 2006 being the sole exception — the team will fail to follow up on the breakthrough. The return rate for playoff teams since the NFL expanded to its current format in 1990 is 52 percent, and only 42 percent for teams coming from outside the postseason the year before. So naturally you would expect this phenomenon to happen multiple times to some team. But the Bears have done it so often, they’ve practically become the poster franchise for playoff teams dropping out of the field the next season.

The Bears can’t seem to shake playoff hangovers

In seasons when the Bears went from out of the playoffs to in, primary starting QB (with QB Elo rating) and scoring defense rank for that season and the following season, 1990-2019

Playoff Season Follow-Up Season
Years Starting QB ELO* Def. Rk Starting QB ELO* Def. Rk Playoffs?
’94-95 Steve Walsh -16 10th Erik Kramer +47 22nd
’01-02 Jim Miller -33 1st Jim Miller -28 25th
’05-06 Kyle Orton -99 1st Rex Grossman -46 3rd
’10-11 Jay Cutler -31 4th Jay Cutler -8 14th
’18-19 Mitch Trubisky +22 1st Mitch Trubisky -53 4th

*FiveThirtyEight rolling QB Elo rating, relative to an average starter, by season’s end. (Through Week 11 in 2019.)

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The 2019 team happens to share some commonalities with Chicago’s previous stumbles. The defense, for instance, isn’t quite as dominant as it was last season — which seems to be a common flaw for these one-off Bears playoff bids. (Does the legacy of the ’85 Bears defense loom so large over the franchise that it must constantly try to rebuild in that team’s image?)3 There’s a lot of research showing that defensive quality, while extremely important for team success, is also extremely variable from season to season, even with talent like Khalil Mack on your side. So when your quantum leaps from obscurity into the playoffs are always reliant on dominating D, it’s no surprise to see a penchant for backsliding in subsequent seasons.

But an interesting difference this year, as compared with earlier failed playoff returns, is at quarterback. Most of the other seasons involved Chicago starting with a low-rated QB who won despite poor passing. Often, these QBs would improve (or be replaced by a better option) in the follow-up bid, but it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the defensive regression. Trubisky, however, entered the 2019 season with an above-average QB Elo rating, which could only be said about quarterbacks in 19 Bears seasons since 1950 — and only three QBs since 1998 (including Trubisky).

This appeared to be an argument in Chicago’s favor for returning to the postseason: that the 25-year-old’s ongoing development would provide insurance in case of a defensive slide. But instead, Trubisky’s underwhelming play (he ranks 27th in QB Elo out of the 34 current and/or primary starters in the league) has stalled the Bears’ rebuilding process and called into question his long-term future with the team.

We don’t know where the Bears go from here. But even if they make it back to the postseason, say, next season, they’ll need to prove it’s not a one-year wonder — unlike basically every other Bears playoff run in the past three decades.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Other models ranged from 6.2 wins to 7.0.

  2. Yes, I had them ranked 22nd in my personal pre-2006 power rankings. Also: Wow, that was a long time ago.

  3. Don’t answer that.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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