LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Matt Nagy, the latest of Andy Reid’s coaching offspring, had been running practice when the 2018 first-team All-Pro selections were announced, so he was unaware which of his Bears made it.
He was told: linebacker Khalil Mack, safety Eddie Jackson, cornerback Kyle Fuller, and kick returner Tarik Cohen.
Nagy deadpanned: “No offense?”
Not in Chicago.
As much as Philly fans adore their defense, no city revels in hard hits on cold afternoons more than Chicago. That’s what the Eagles will face at Soldier Field on Sunday in their wild-card game:
A defense that led the NFL in points (17.7), takeaways (36), interceptions (27), and passer rating (72.9), average rushing yards (80.0) and total rushing touchdowns (five). A defense that allowed the fewest plays of 20 yards or more (46). A defense that would have made Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary proud.
Somehow, the franchise that brought you the sweetest running back, Walter Payton, and the toughest tight end, Mike Ditka, remains defensive in its DNA. This edition is purebred. Its ball-hawking nature recalls the 1963 Bears team that intercepted 37 passes and allowed 10.7 points per game. It muzzled Y.A. Tittle and the Giants' top-ranked offense in the NFL championship game, with five interceptions in a 14-10 win.
This season, Vic Fangio’s unit amassed 50 sacks and 27 interceptions, the team’s largest combined total since 1985 and 1986, when the Bears ran the 46 defense installed by coordinator Buddy Ryan, who became the Eagles' head coach after the 1985 Bears shuffled to their only Super Bowl win. That season the Bears led the league in points, yards, interceptions, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, takeaways, and first downs.
Are the Monsters of the Midway 2.0 as good as the previous versions? Maybe.
Like Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and Ray Lewis' 2000 Ravens, the Bears realize that a Super Bowl win is their best path to validation.
“That’s the only thing on my mind,” Mack said. “You can feel it around the building. That’s the only thing on everybody’s mind. You can receive the individual awards, but ultimately you want to win the big game.”
Mack, 27, arrived Sept. 1 as the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade with Jon Gruden and the Raiders, a deal made even more extraordinary when the Bears gave him the six-year, $141 million contract extension Oakland declined to offer. Initial returns are good: Mack had 12 1/2 sacks in 14 games.
With all respect to Nagy, a rookie head coach who salvaged second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, Mack was the main reason the Bears jumped from 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 and NFC North champs.
“I knew I wanted to come in and make an impact, but, ultimately, you want to come in and win,” Mack said. “That’s all I care about. Now, to win in the playoffs -- that’s another step.”
It’s a step of which this team is very cognizant, particularly in light of what previous Bears defenses have accomplished. Some great teams pointedly ignore their past. Troy Polamalu and the the 2008 Steelers didn’t want to be known as the Iron Drapes. The Bears, however, relish being called the new Monsters of the Midway.
“I love it,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. "If people see you as a great defense, and the heritage and the culture of the team has been great defenses of the past, how is that bad?"
It’s not, especially when communication lines remain open. During his second season in Chicago, Hicks said, he met Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, the Bears' all-time sacks leader, and Dent’s teammate, tackle Dan Hampton. Both offered advice. Hicks said he still speaks with Dent.
Nagy embraces history, too; at least, he does, officially. He’s certainly smart enough to pander to his base.
“You just know about the tradition of the defense here. For us to have that again, it means too much to the city. Everybody relates to the defense,” Nagy said. "In the end, we’d like to make it where it’s offense and defense. We get that, right now, this is where we’re at.
Nagy also understands how a connection to the past can fuel the present. After losses to Miami and New England dropped the Bears to 3-3, Nagy gave the team throwback Bears uniforms the night before they played the Jets on Oct. 28.
They won the next day. In fact, they won nine of their last 10.
Certainly, Intangible benefits and strong supporting personnel contribute to what the Bears have become. Fuller shares the NFL lead with seven interceptions. Jackson, in his second season, has six. Fangio is a candidate to become a head coach in Denver and Miami, a Bears source confirmed.
All of this hinged on the arrival of Mack. Fuller had nine interceptions in his previous four seasons combined. Jackson had two as a rookie. Fangio, now in his fourth season as the Bears' defensive coordinator, might have been fired along with John Fox after last season.
Mack makes everybody a lot better.
“He’s a difference-maker,” said Hicks, who compared Mack to Von Miller, the MVP when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.
No one could stop Miller. Can Eagles tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters stop Mack?
“They’re some of the best in the game. It’s going to be a great challenge. Looking forward to it,” Mack said. “These are the matchups you dream of.”
Johnson and Peters are the first postseason obstacles between Mack and the new-jack Monsters assuring their spot in Bears history.
Are they ready?