Dave Toub was a popular potential head coaching candidate among a segment of Bears fans this past offseason, in part, because there are plenty of happy memories that come to mind when you think about the time he spent in Chicago.
Back then, the defense was great and the offense did just enough to not completely waste the defensive efforts, but Toub’s special teams units excelled especially well, as players from both sides of the ball starred in the third phase. Since Toub’s departure, however, Bears special teams have been lacking that indescribable thing that once made them – dare I say – “special.” But the arrow is finally pointing back up in that regard this season, as the unit continues is led by Toub disciple Chris Tabor.
Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager ranks Chicago’s special teams as the best in football after the first quarter of the season. A one-sentence blurb highlights Tarik Cohen’s excellence as a return specialist (11 punt returns, 141 yards is pretty darn solid!) but this group’s strong play goes beyond the efforts of one returner – if it didn’t, there’d be no way the Bears would rank as highly as they do.
This season, 12 different kickers across the NFL have attempted at least 10 field goals, but Bears place kicker Cody Parkey is one of just seven to connect on at least 90 percent. If the Bears were going to be better on offense, they needed to improve the kicking game, and that’s just what they did. Parkey has been a key free agent addition in an offseason strategy otherwise focused on upgrading the pass-catching options on the outside. Indeed, Parkey has been on a roll, making his last five field goals since his lone miss of the season. We’ve seen things go south for Bears kickers after a miss in the pass, so it’s been wonderful to see Parkey bounce back after the blip, as if it didn’t matter.
Punter Pat O’Donnell has been great, too. Even though the Bears browsed through free agent options and even brought in an undrafted free agent rookie to provide a training camp/preseason challenge, O’Donnell emerged as the best and hasn’t looked back since the regular season has started. O’Donnell is averaging a career best 47.2 yards per punt and ranks in the top 10 in net yardage. And while he only has five punts to land inside the 20, O’Donnell’s seven punts resulting in a fair catch ranks inside the top-10 and have essentially neutralized the opposing return games.
The hope coming into 2018 was that a revamped special teams unit would help push the Bears in the right direction. And much like their counterparts on offense, a new coach leading the way and an injection of talent has helped lead an obviously improved group. This is a positive development we already hoped to see, yet still find ourselves impressed, because of how well they have performed.
There are few things worse than watching the offense and defense play their guts out, only to see a special teams gaffe ruin the vibe. But through four games, not only is the special teams unit not a hindrance, it’s a strength – one that shouldn’t be overlooked when calculating the team’s hot start entering Week 6.