September 18, 2021

Hub Arkush: Five storylines that could make or break Bears’ 2021 season

I have been doing this for a long time. In fact, this is the beginning of my 45th season on the Bears/NFL beat, and in all those years I cannot remember a single player that has dominated the offseason conversation and preseason buildup as Justin Fields has.

Walter Payton, Dan Hampton and Brian Urlacher were a few of the Hall of Famers of “my era,” and that holy trinity of failed quarterbacks – Rick Mirer, Jay Cutler and Mitch Trubisky – all elevated the dialogue around the Bears to new heights at points in their careers, but I can’t think of any Bears that have owned our attention as Fields has.

But football at the highest levels truly is the ultimate team sport.

Now comes Fields dominating almost every conversation, story, Q&A, local sports broadcast and call-in show when we all know it’s highly unlikely he’ll even be on the field when the season starts or possibly even before the Bears’ fate for 2021 has been decided.

So here is my effort to find what we should be talking more about: the five currently most under-the-radar stories likely to affect the Bears’ fate.

When you like, agree, disagree or even smirk at my list, as I know so many of you will, you can holler at me on Twitter. We’ll talk and at least give poor Fields a few moments of peace.

1. Eddie Jackson

I know, he’s hiding in plain sight, and it’s not like nobody’s hurling his name around.

But if the Bears are to return to the playoffs and at least be a threat to win a few games there, as they were in 2018, the defense is going to have to be the catalyst again. Khalil Mack was, and is, the irresistible force, but Jackson was the straw that stirred the drink with his ball-hawking and game-changing play.

Since halfway through the 2019 season, however, he has stirred little more than curiosity and disappointment over his lackadaisical play, and with Mack, Akiem Hicks, Robert Quinn, Danny Trevathan and Tashaun Gipson now all 30-somethings, and Kyle Fuller in Denver, Jackson almost certainly has to be the guy to relight that flame.

2. Teven Jenkins

I think we all can agree running back David Montgomery became a star the second half of last season. Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney are really safe bets to give the Bears a solid 1-2 punch at wide receiver. But the offensive line has been the biggest problem with the offense since 2018, even more so than quarterback.

The interior clearly is improved and may even be pretty good, but with either game manager Andy Dalton or the rookie Fields under center, if Jenkins can’t do a lot more than just occupy space at left tackle, the offense is likely to struggle again.

3. Marquise Goodwin

Even if Jenkins, Montgomery, Robinson, Mooney and Cole Kmet are what we hope they can be this season, the Bears need at least one more explosive weapon to dream about being Kansas City Chiefs-like, while Tarik Cohen’s rehab remains uncertain.

In 2017 with the 49ers, Goodwin was that guy. He caught 56 balls for 972 yards, with a long of 83 yards. But he’s only done it once in seven seasons.

4. Bilal Nichols

As I said, the defense is middle-aged and getting old. It’s time for Jackson, Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson and Nichols to pick up the torch. The big three- and five-technique flashed consistently the final third of last season. He is in a contract season and told us just the other day he wants to be an All-Pro this year. Consistent strides in that direction would be huge.

5. Mike Pettine

Realistically, rookie defensive coordinator Sean Desai faces the same challenges as Fields with a lot less shiny résumé. He is going to make rookie mistakes, and since they’ll involve the whole defense, they could be a lot more costly.

Pettine, a veteran defensive coach, is here to try to help avoid as many as possible, and he brings his own Vic Fangio experiences.

If they can become the dynamic duo, things might get very interesting.

• Hub Arkush is a Shaw Media correspondent.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is a Bears/NFL Insider for Shaw Media