The Bears are on summer break with about five weeks until the team reports to training camp in Bourbonnais. For the next month or so, players will take a quick exhale before being asked to refocus and dial in.
The spring, by most accounts, was a success, a period of orientation and standard-setting under new coach Matt Nagy. But there's also realism at Halas Hall, an understanding that time is needed to mold a championship-caliber squad, especially with a rookie head coach and a second-year quarterback. Growing pains are inevitable. A return to the playoffs in 2018 may ultimately be a tough bar to clear.
Still, the Bears finished minicamp last week expressing confidence in their direction and a seemingly unanimous belief in their most important leaders -- Nagy and Mitch Trubisky.
So what does it all mean? How does a team that has finished in last place in the NFC North the last four seasons set realistic expectations? What's left to accomplish before the season opener, a Sept. 9 prime-time clash with the Packers? Bears writers Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell sound it out in this edition of "Real Talk."
Wiederer: First things first, Rich. The vibe. I'll be the first to acknowledge that the vibe in Lake Forest has been overwhelmingly positive from the first practice under Nagy in April until the conclusion of last week's minicamp. But then I'll also be the first to remind everyone that the vibe better be that way. And having too much faith in vibes can be like attempting to cross a tightrope made of dental floss.
In the spring, with a new coach and a fresh start, an overhauled roster and nowhere to go but up, it's predictable that the Bears were operating with extra spring in their step and added optimism in their vision. It's also not anything new. Good vibes also accompanied the 2013 arrival of offensive mastermind Marc Trestman and the 2015 entrance of "skins-on-the-wall" coach John Fox.
Vibes, apparently, don't build a ladder to the top of the NFC.
That said, while the vibe Nagy has established may not be the be-all, end-all in his quest to rejuvenate this somnambulant franchise, it has undeniably been an important tone-setter, a source of fuel for the steep and challenging climb this group is on.
Campbell: I'll stamp those assessments about the vibe -- the presence, the benefits and the grains of salt required. It's probably more productive, then, to examine why the vibe has been so positive, beyond simply a new face and voice in the head coach's office.
If the Bears succeed under Nagy and he beats the odds that are unquestionably against him, it would be because of his offensive acumen. The coach is smart when it comes to offensive NFL football. We could talk for hours about his relatability, his energy and the slogans he had painted on the walls of Halas Hall -- and that's all part of the enticing package he provides -- but he will lift this team with his intelligence and offensive scheme.
"He's always thinking about what to do next," tight end Trey Burton said May 30. "If the defense stops us on a play: 'Oh well, next time we're going to do this, next time we're going to do that.' I really like that about him.'"
Burton went on to call the option concepts in Nagy's scheme "un-guardable." He should know, having won the Super Bowl last season under another Andy Reid mentee in Eagles coach Doug Pederson.
Yes, Burton also called Nagy a "rock star" for his personality, but Nagy's offense is the steak and the sizzle here.
Wiederer: No arguments here. Except to say that Nagy's offensive vision is a big part of what has created the vibe. The Bears spent the spring in an inevitable period of choppiness with stumbles galore and stretches of trial-and-error within their new system. But where Nagy really captured his offensive players' attention was with his ability to describe the grand vision of what this offense will eventually look like while also smoothly articulating the tedious and often unglamorous steps needed to build it.
From the book of Wiederer analogies: Nagy walked his team through the IKEA showroom and offered a glimpse at the finished product, understanding his players would have a natural curiosity to know what things should one day look like. Then he took them behind closed doors at Halas Hall and showed them the haphazard mess on the floor. Screws and boards and tools all over. And then the Bears coach provided that confusing black-and-white step-by-step assembly manual and received energetic buy-in from the group as a whole.
That's a testament to Nagy's contagious ambition. And it's also a reflection of the kind of enthusiastic grinders that general manager Ryan Pace collected to stabilize the roster.
Campbell: Sounds like someone recently bought a new TV and entertainment center. I'm searching through my inbox for the invitation to come check it out.
To your point, the quality of the scheme is one thing, and executing it is another. I appreciated another bit of insight from Burton on this exact topic.
"It all starts with Mitch," he said, "and how well he can read defenses and make reads and check into getting us in the right play. As he grows with that, we'll grow together collectively as an offense."
In other words, setting expectations for 2018 is best done through the lens of Trubisky's continued effort to develop command of the offense.
Nagy was pleased with the quarterback's offseason, saying Trubisky's drive to learn and improve helped their ongoing mission to see the offense through the same pair of eyes and think it through the same brain. However, even Nagy is realistic about how steep a climb this is. It will be critical for the coach during the regular season to maximize elements Trubisky has command of while continuing to expand that subset.
Wiederer: I'm glad you brought up Trubisky because his patient and composed approach to this process has been tone-setting for the Bears as well. I laughed a few weeks ago when we pressed him on how he reacts to the failures that come with these early stages of learning a new system. He looked at us like we were from a different planet, again making it clear that he's not frazzled by the glitches.
Trubisky said he finds comfort in identifying small steps of progress. He stressed the collective investment players have made in learning the details of the offense. He emphasized the importance of his ongoing communication with Nagy to make sure they remain on the same page.
"Each day you might have some bumps in the road," Trubisky said. "But looking back on it, we've gotten so much better from where we were at on Day 1."
That was just the latest evidence of a kid who is truly immersed in the journey and not feeling pressured to reach the destination tomorrow.
(Oh, and for the record, it was a set of drawers and a giant cabinet thingy for the pantry. You're welcome to check it out anytime.)
Campbell: Striking the balance between urgency and patience will be imperative. Look around Trubisky and see all the new parts.
Imported No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson is still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. Burton's and Taylor Gabriel's roles are being elevated to a level unfamiliar to them in the NFL. Jordan Howard provides continuity in the backfield, but let's see how Nagy wants to use him. Tarik Cohen is still evolving as a receiver.
Now, widen the perspective even further. Nagy has been a head coach for zero games. He has been a play-caller for only six. He is unproven in both areas.
What's encouraging, though, is -- as you mentioned -- the tone Nagy has set. The team will follow the pace and intensity with which he pushes forward, and so far, so good.
Wiederer: Yep, you're repeating the refrain I've given to every friend, relative and fan I've encountered since January who wonders whether these Bears can be a well-oiled machine by September. Sure, optimism is acceptable. But for now it comes with an asterisk. And the fine print next to that asterisk reads: "First-time head coach. Second-year quarterback. New system. New playbook. New offensive staff. Overhauled receiving corps."
There's a wide -- and I mean, wiiiiiiiide -- gap between where the most hopeful of fans believe this offense will be in Week 1 and where the people installing and operating it believe it will be.
Nagy has become known for the motivational maxims he has painted on the walls around Halas Hall for players. But he may need to paint another adage all across Chicagoland: "It. Takes. Time." That's the level-headed theme for the 2018 Bears.
All that said, I'll circle back one last time to the vibe and the exuberance Bears players showed throughout the spring. With so much heavy lifting ahead and so much of the tedious grind to endure, that collective positive energy and the buy-in will be critical. That's a cure-all for frustration and struggle during a non-linear growth process.
From the outset, anyway, the vibe seems to have created a unified drive to pursue growth and be solution-oriented when problems arise.
Campbell: It's a cure-all during training camp, sure. But how will that vibe persist through the inevitable adversity during the season? What can the intact defense to help the building effort on offense? Those are just two of the questions best saved for another day.
In the meantime, I'd just encourage every fan to find their happy place between the justifiable optimism and measured reality, between urgency and patience. The sooner everyone gets comfortable in that space, the more enjoyable the second half of 2018 will be.