Hope springs eternal.
It's an idiom every Major League Baseball team finds a way to apply when reporting to spring training. In the case of the National Football League, similar optimism abounds on the weekend before the kickoff of the 2021 season. Every team has a fresh slate, no one has lost a game and the best-laid plans are in place.
Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace on Wednesday spun a positive answer to every question he received about his roster's most scrutinized positions.
The Bears are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons, reaching the playoffs as the seventh seed in the NFC a year ago, and there is a belief at Halas Hall that big things are ahead despite one of the toughest schedules in the league. Of course, what looks like a daunting slate can be viewed differently by midseason, and no one can predict how health will affect rosters, especially with COVID-19 still affecting player availability.
Sticking with a glass-half-full approach, here are 10 reasons to believe the Bears are poised for success as they prepare for the Sept. 12 opener against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
1. The Bears have well-documented question marks. Guess what? So do their NFC North rivals.
The Green Bay Packers, who have won the division seven of the last 10 seasons, are the favorites once again, but the future of quarterback Aaron Rodgers hangs over the franchise. A back injury has sidelined outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, arguably the most disruptive player in the front seven, and left tackle David Bahtiari is on the physically unable to perform list, so he will miss at least the first six weeks.
The Minnesota Vikings spent the offseason working to rebuild a defense that had a major regression in 2020, restocking the secondary with cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland. The Vikings also retooled the offensive line, which has been a nearly annual project the last few years, and Rashod Hill is slated to start at left tackle. He made only two starts the last two seasons and is a considerable question mark. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been open about not being vaccinated against COVID-19, which could be problematic.
The Detroit Lions are in the early stages of a rebuild under first-year general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. The roster is in flux with some weak spots, notably at wide receiver, defensive line and cornerback.
2. The running game came on late last season.
Coach Matt Nagy has talked at length about his relationship with David Montgomery and his supreme belief in the running back's talent.
Montgomery emerged as a bigger part of the passing game in 2020, and with a big push in the final six games (598 yards, 116 carries, 5.2 yards per carry, seven touchdowns), he finished with 1,070 yards. That productivity buoyed the offense and ought to provide Nagy the confidence needed to lean on the ground game.
3. Along with the emergence of Montgomery, the offensive line came together.
Mongomery's uptick in production coincided with the Bears settling on an offensive line combination that had Sam Mustipher at center, Cody Whitehair at left guard (maybe his best position) and Germain Ifedi at right tackle.
The Bears have yet to see what they're going to get out of Jason Peters at left tackle, but James Daniels returns at right guard and will provide a boost after missing much of last season with an injury.
4. A whole host of veterans are playing for a new contract.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols and Ifedi and Daniels all are in contract years. They know what they put on tape will shape negotiations for a new deal.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith is eligible for a new contract, and Montgomery will be eligible for a second deal after the season. That's just a sampling of players entering contract years, which always adds a layer of motivation.
5. Second-year players are primed to step forward.
Coaches say the biggest improvement young players make is from Year 1 to Year 2, and that's reason to believe cornerback Jaylon Johnson, wide receiver Darnell Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet will be more productive. Add cornerback Kindle Vildor to that mix and there is a young nucleus that should emerge as foundational pieces.
6. Andy Dalton was better than a lot of people believe with the Dallas Cowboys last season.
The "start Justin Fields now" crowd isn't interested in seeing the 11-year veteran take a single snap with the offense, but the Bears have expressed confidence in how Dalton has looked in practice.
The Cowboys had offensive line issues, and Dalton put up an 87.3 passer rating, completing 64.9% of his passes for 2,170 yards. In his final seven starts, he had 13 touchdown passes against five interceptions.
Dalton is not coming off the kind of injury-plagued year Nick Foles was when he emerged as a starter for the Bears last season. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor previously worked with Dalton in Cincinnati, so the coaching staff knows what he does well.
7. Justin Fields will play.
It's impossible to say when the Bears will turn to the first-round pick, but Fields flashed in the preseason, which has only generated more excitement for the future. When he does take the field, defenses will have a new dimension to prepare for considering his athletic ability. If the Bears take their time getting to Fields, that might not be a bad thing. It would signal Dalton is performing well.
8. Sean Desai has buy-ins from the defensive players.
The Bears would love to get back to the dominant defense of 2018. That seems unrealistic three years removed, but Desai was the best man to choose if Nagy wants to see a return to the principles the team used under former coordinator Vic Fangio.
Desai knows every player on the roster, so he has a better idea of what strengths to accentuate than a newcomer would have. There's a sense of excitement from players, and the defense should bounce back from a mediocre second half of 2020.
9. The run defense will be improved.
The return of nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out last season, along with the depth on the defensive line are two good reasons the Bears will improve upon the run defense that ranked 15th in 2020 and allowed 113.4 yards per game.
Goldman was one of the better interior run stuffers when he last suited up and he's only 27. If the Bears are improved against the run, by nature the pass rush should be better because opponents will be in more second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
10. It's Year 4 for Matt Nagy.
Nagy has been paired with Pace long enough to hand select players that are best for his offensive scheme. The wide receiver group has been completely reshaped behind Robinson and Mooney, and the tight ends are in a spot in which the Bears' faith in the position will be matched by production on the field. It takes time for a coach to get players with the right characteristics at every position, and Nagy has been around long enough for that to be a factor.
The Bears won't run into a best-case scenario with every challenge facing the coaching staff and roster this season. If they discover more answers and solutions than deepening questions, they should be competitive in the NFC.
The quarterback position has been rebooted — again — and that's what fuels long-range optimism for the franchise. These 10 factors will be in play if the Bears encounter success in the weeks ahead and hope for the 2021 season is validated.