Coach Matt Nagy's first season with the Chicago Bears will forever be remembered for kicker Cody Parkey's infamous double-doink missed field goal in a playoff loss to the Eagles. But the defense was the real story in 2018.
Led by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio -- now the coach of the Denver Broncos -- the Bears led the league in total takeaways (36), interceptions (27), lowest passer rating (72.9), fewest first downs allowed (278), fewest rushing touchdowns (5), fewest rushing yards per game (80) and fewest total plays allowed of 20-plus yards (46).
Almost everything broke in the Bears' favor -- on defense, at least. From the Raiders' decision to trade star pass-rusher Khalil Mack before the season to remarkable overall health, the stars were aligned for Chicago behind the strength of its defense to make a deep postseason run. That is, until the Parkey double-doink happened.
Nevertheless, the defensive bar was set so high in 2019 that most anticipated a drop-off under new coordinator Chuck Pagano.
Instead, the Bears ranked in the top 10 in opponent points per game (fourth), opponent yards per pass play (sixth), opponent pass yards per game (ninth), opponent rush yards per game (ninth), opponent yards per rush (sixth), opponent third-down conversion percentage (tied for ninth) and fumble recoveries (T-10th), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Chicago's defensive accomplishments look even more impressive when you factor in that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Akiem Hicks appeared in parts of just five games because of an elbow injury. And Mack, who at times played like a one-man wrecking crew in 2018, recorded only 8.5 sacks -- his lowest total since his rookie year in 2014.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith appeared primed for a monster second season, but that never came to fruition. Smith's September ended on a sour (and confusing) note when the team suspended him one game for personal reasons, and he later went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, whom the Bears re-signed in free agency, missed seven games due to injury. Trevathan's replacement, Nick Kwiatkoski, left for the Raiders last month.
The fact Chicago's defense performed at a top-10 level despite those negative developments provides reason for great optimism in 2020.
So, too, does the arrival of veteran pass-rusher Robert Quinn, who signed a contract that includes $30 million in guarantees. There's inherent risk attached to any lucrative free-agent deal -- Quinn turns 30 years old in May -- but Quinn is superior to Leonard Floyd, who was just released by the Bears.
Chicago was desperate to add another legitimate pass-rusher opposite Mack after the defense tied for 24th in sacks and tied for 22nd in pass-rush win rate last season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Quinn had the highest pass-rush win rate (32.2%) in the league last season as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. He also tied for ninth in sacks (11.5) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss of 5 or more yards (14).
Conversely, Floyd -- the ninth pick of the 2016 NFL draft -- had three sacks, no forced fumbles and a 12.4% pass-rush win rate, which was 57th in the NFL.
The Bears are not finished. General manager Ryan Pace signed several veterans (Deon Bush, Artie Burns, Jordan Lucas) to one-year, prove-it deals as the search is on to find replacements for Prince Amukamara at cornerback and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety. The Bears will undoubtedly invest draft capital at those positions, and Pace also gave former CFL star cornerback Tre Roberson a two-year contract with $215,000 guaranteed.
But the defense is positioned to thrive again this season. The championship window on defense is still open. Now the offense has to cooperate.