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Cardinals vs. Bears: Two teams heading in opposite directions

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The Bears are on the upswing due to an aggressive approach in the front office and on the field. What can the Cardinals learn from this up-and-coming young team?

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams
Sam Bradford calling for another 4-yard passing play.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

This week, the Chicago Bears come into town to take on the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. The teams share a few superficial characteristics—they’re both breaking in new coaches, for example. They also have both spent a 1st-round pick on their QB of the future in the past two drafts, and they’ve both recently traded for elite—and expensive—pass rushers.

But the similarities end there, as these are two teams heading in completely opposite directions. The Bears are on the upswing, with an innovative young head coach in Matt Nagy and an ascendant young QB in Mitchell Trubisky, who they have surrounded by exciting playmakers at every skill position (Jordan Howard/Tarik Cohen at RB, Allen Robinson II/Anthony Miller at WR, Trey Burton at TE). To say nothing of the suddenly imposing defense led by newcomer Khalil Mack. They’re one legendary comeback by Aaron Rodgers away from a 2-0 start.

The Cardinals… well, the Cardinals are off to one of the a far worse start than anyone imagined in Year 1 under Steve Wilks. The Cardinals have some of the same pieces as the Bears—rookie QB Josh Rosen, RB David Johnson, WR Larry Fitzgerald, and LB Chandler Jones—but the results on the field have not been there (to say the least) during an 0-2 start.

So what gives? Why have the Bears—until this season one of the more moribund teams in the league—had success with their new coach while the Cardinals look like one of the worst teams in the league with theirs, despite similar talent?

I think it comes down to one word: aggression. The Bears have been aggressive both in the front office and on the field, while the Cardinals’ approach to both has been marked by passivity. Let’s take a look at what the Bears and the Cardinals have accomplished in the front office (draft, free agency, trades) and what the results have been on the field these first two weeks of the season. The differences are striking. But, while this comparison does the Redbirds no favors, it also shows how a quick turnaround might be possible with a modified approach moving forward.

Bears Front Office

The genesis of the Bears’ newfound success started with trading up one spot to select UNC QB Mitchell Trubisky in the 2017 draft. After eight years of Smokin’ Jay Cutler, the Bears saw a chance to grab their QB of the future and made sure they nabbed him—even if they got lambasted for it in the press. Like the 2018 Cardinals, the Bears didn’t play their rookie right away, instead starting a certain long-necked veteran under center at first. The season was a bust overall (5-11 record), but the Bears were just getting started.

In the offseason, they fired the stodgy John Fox and hired Matt Nagy. Nagy was a relatively surprising hire, having only made a name for himself during after taking over playcalling duties from Andy Reid late in the 2017 season. But after hiring Nagy (and new OC Mark Helfrich), the Bears went all-in with their new offensive-minded approach: signing WRs Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, drafting WR Miller, and signing TE Burton. Then, on the eve of the regular season, they pulled off the blockbuster trade for Mack. In a word: Aggression. The Bears had a plan, and they put it into action.

Cardinals Front Office

The Cardinals took a different approach. While Nagy was hired early in the offseason (January 8th), the Redbirds didn’t hire Wilks until two weeks later on January 22nd—only Matt Patricia (DC of the Super Bowl-bound Patriots) and Frank Reich (of the Super Bowl-bound Eagles) were hired later. Waiting for the right candidate or settling for a third or fourth choice? Only Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill know for sure.

After hiring Wilks (and OC Mike McCoy), the Redbirds needed to bring in a QB to replace the retired Carson Palmer. While they were linked to UFA Kirk Cousins and potential trade target Alex Smith, they instead signed Sam Bradford. Bradford wasn’t a bad signing in a vacuum, but with superior options like Cousins and Smith out there, Bradford felt like a consolation prize. Again, did they simply settle instead of going for it?

They certainly settled for scraps in the free agency market, only bringing in WR Brice Butler (since waived) at the skill positions (leaving the TE corps untouched). RT Justin Pugh was a nice signing, but WR/TE was in dire need of a talent upgrade. Similarly, Keim neglected the LB position in spite of Wilks and new DC Al Holcomb switching to a 4-3 alignment. The draft brought Rosen in the 1st round and WR Christian Kirk in the 2nd round (and no one of consequence on defense), but after being linked to players like Baker Mayfield and Calvin Ridley, did we again settle?

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision scenarios where we traded for Smith and signed a WR like Robinson to complement Fitz. Think we’d have only scored 6 points in two games then?

Bears on the Field

First, while Nagy has gotten deserved plaudits for the Bears’ improved offense, it’s still a work in progress. The offense has only scored 33 points in two games, and I’m still not convinced that Trubisky will develop into a Pro Bowl–caliber signal caller. But compared to the Cardinals offense, the Bears’ offense looks downright futuristic. Nine different Bears have caught a pass (compared to only 5 different Cardinals), and power back Howard, who caught only 23 balls last year, has already caught 8 this year—a pace of 64 receptions. (And don’t forget about satellite back Cohen.) DJ has caught just 6 balls in comparison—a pace of 48 receptions, well shy of the 80 he had in 2016. Then there are plays like this shovel pass to Burton on Monday night. Remember when the Cardinals used to call aggressive plays like that? The Bears offense is electric and inventive—and it will likely give the Redbirds’ defense fits on Sunday.

Cardinals on the Field

The Cardinals offense under Mike McCoy in 2018 has been abysmal—and that’s putting it mildly. You know the numbers by now: 6 points in two games, dead last in yards, 3-and-out on 42% of drives, almost as many penalties as first downs. And the play on the field looks even worse than the numbers on paper. Bradford throwing at the first sign of pressure, DJ rarely lining up wide, no one besides Fitz getting open, not crossing midfield until there are 30 seconds left in a game. Yet somehow the fix is to “scale back” the playbook? This offense is already too vanilla, too passive. Is anyone else starting to miss “No Risk It, No Biscuit?” At least take a page out of Herm Edwards’s playbook (himself not exactly known for his innovation or aggression) and go for it on 4th down every once in a while. (Even if it doesn’t always work out.) I hope we see a vastly different offensive approach on Sunday.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think many people would have thought the Bears would be favored on the road this weekend, but here we are. And that’s all due to their brand of aggression: going after the coaches and players they want, and letting them get after it on the field.

So what does that mean for the Cardinals? Well, if we want to win this game, we have to be aggressive too. That means throwing the ball downfield more (paging J.J. Nelson), lining DJ up out wide, using Andy Lee as a last resort instead of as a weapon, finding ways to use Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick instead of benching them.

And if we lose? Well, a loss would effectively end the season after three games. Sad but true. But the NFL is a year-to-year league. Teams go from worst to first almost every season. But we could still be aggressive even in that… unpleasant scenario to prepare for 2019. Bench Bradford and get Rosen some reps. Fire McCoy and see what we have in Byron Leftwich or Kevin Garver. Sign or trade for new WRs. (Too bad Josh Gordon is off the market.) Do something aggressive.

And if Keim doesn’t? Well, that might mean Bidwill needs to be aggressive in searching for a new GM… which would likely mean a new head coaching search as well. But anything would be better than same old, same old. Anything would be better than more passivity.

It’s your turn to chime in, Cardinals fans. Has the team been too passive since last season? What more aggressive moves would you like to see them make—either for this season or next? Any predictions for the Bears game? Sound off in the comments.