LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery was motioning for his offensive line to come back and get lined up for second down after he was convinced wide receiver Darnell Mooney couldn’t have possibly made such a spectacular catch.
But there was one problem.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God,'” Montgomery said, after realizing Mooney made the body-contorting, one-handed catch. “He’s disgusting.”
While it was surprising anyone could make the kind of catch Mooney did late in the first half of Sunday’s game in Minnesota, Mooney was expected to have had many more “oh my God” catches five weeks into the season. Or just catches in general.
Mooney is coming off a sophomore season during which he caught 81 passes for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns — all team highs. The potential for a breakout season was tied to what was expected to be a second-year jump by quarterback Justin Fields.
But something happened on the way to the Fields-Mooney connection evolving into a consistent weapon — the Bears’ passing attack cratered.
• How OBJ, Landry inspired Jefferson, Chase
• Is Bears’ Mooney ready to break out?
• Jags prioritizing throwing to Kirk
• Jets’ Williams: ‘Absolute game-wrecker’
• 49ers defense on historic pace
• Bengals looking to resolve sluggish start
The Bears are last in the league in nearly every major passing category, including attempts (88) and yards per game (116.6).
The result has been a near disappearance of Mooney, who has just 10 receptions on 20 targets for 173 yards, and has yet to score. By comparison, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson had 10 catches for 138 yards Sunday … in the first half.
Mooney’s acrobatic 39-yard catch wasn’t a TD grab, and it didn’t stop the Bears from losing 29-22 and falling to 2-3, but it did serve as a reminder of what the 24-year-old is capable of doing.
Will it be a spark that Mooney and the offense carry over into Thursday’s game against the 1-4 Washington Commanders (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime), who have given up 11 passing TDs, tied for second-worst in the NFL?
“Definitely a confidence-builder, for sure,” first-year head coach Matt Eberflus said.
Mooney’s grab led to a Montgomery touchdown run three plays later, and that helped initiate a comeback as the Bears overcame a 21-3 deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead. A late turnover allowed the Vikings to pull out the victory, but at this point, any improvement is a win for the Bears.
And there was no denying the Bears’ passing attack showed improvement Sunday, including Fields posting personal highs with a 71.4 completion percentage and 118.8 passer rating.
“I feel like my job is to be a playmaker at all times,” said Mooney, who was named an honorary team captain. “Whenever I get the ball, I just have to do everything I can to create a spark.”
NEARLY AN HOUR after the Bears squeaked out a 23-20 win over the Texans on Sept. 25, Mooney was in the north end zone at Soldier Field in full uniform, catching passes from the Jugs machine. Everyone else was long gone, aside from a member of the equipment staff who loaded footballs into the apparatus and the grounds crew cleaning up the field.
“I’ve seen it in basketball where guys might stay after to shoot around, but not in football,” Chicago practice squad receiver Isaiah Coulter said. “He might be the first ever to do that.”
It was Mooney’s way of dealing with a disastrous first three weeks.
Week 1: One catch for eight yards vs. San Francisco in a driving rainstorm at Soldier Field
Week 2: One catch on a screen pass for minus-4 yards in Green Bay
Week 3: Two catches for 23 yards — and one drop — vs. Houston
“Offensively, I didn’t think I helped out as much as I planned to,” Mooney said after the win over the Texans. “Just passing-game wise, I was just frustrated, not being the playmaker [who] I planned to be.”
Figuring out the root of what’s gone wrong has come with an honest self-assessment. While the analytics suggest Fields’ targets are getting open with an average of 3.9 yards of separation, the second-best in the NFL, Mooney has addressed his route imprecisions and miscommunication.
With over three minutes until halftime against the Giants in Week 4, Bears’ offensive coordinator Luke Getsy dialed up four vertical plays outside the red zone. Mooney was supposed to bend across the formation, but he split up the seam and was streaking toward the end zone.
While he was able to break free from the safety, he ran the wrong route, thinking of a similar play from last year.
“I’m supposed to be to the right of the top safety, and that’s where [Fields] was looking for me at,” Mooney said.
Fields didn’t see him and ended up scrambling for a first down. The drive ended with a field goal.
The disconnect between Fields and his receivers has been a storyline all season. Fields has the highest off-target percentage (27.4) in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The quarterback has often received criticism for not connecting with his receivers and leaving players open.
But it’s not as if Fields has the most talented and experienced group of playmakers around him. Injuries have also plagued the Bears’ receiving corps. All that combined means Mooney — the WR1 — is being asked to do more than anyone else.
“He probably has the second-most difficult job of anybody on offense,” Bears wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “The quarterback is the first, but Mooney, at any point in time depending on the personnel we call, he can [be lined up in one of several WR spots], all in the same drive.
“He can handle it, but sometimes, like anything, you do so many different things, especially on the same drive, you may have a mental error here or there. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.”
BEFORE THE BEARS wrapped up OTAs, Mooney reflected on how he would be relied upon to help Fields’ growth in Year 2.
“His success is my success, so as long as he’s doing good, I’m doing good, we’re all doing good,” Mooney said.
That mindset is why moments like the postgame Jugs session don’t surprise his teammates.
“The guy’s work ethic is crazy,” Bears receiver Dante Pettis said. “He’s just like — I’m going to come in, do my stuff, get better. He’s kind of obsessed with that, and it’s cool to see from someone younger.
“Most of the time, I feel like I’ve grown into a role where I try to help people out, show them the ropes a little bit, but I didn’t really have to do that with him. … I’ve learned a lot from him watching the way he works.”
After a brutal three weeks, things started to change in Week 4 against the Giants. Fields’ best pass of the season came on a 56-yard strike over the middle of the field to Mooney, who finished with four catches for 94 yards.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. Chicago has thrown the ball more the past two weeks but still has the fewest passing attempts through five weeks of any NFL team since 1982.
Despite the lack of volume, there are moments that point to Fields and Mooney working through this slump.
On the Bears’ first drive Sunday in Minnesota, Fields tried to hit Mooney on a corner route in the end zone, but the pass went incomplete. Mooney ran his route at too steep of an angle. Fields’ pass was off-target.
Yet unlike their earlier games, Fields and Mooney got back on track before halftime. The Bears ran that same play three drives later, resulting in the turning point of the game with Mooney’s 39-yard grab.
“It definitely gave us a lot of momentum,” Fields said.
Now the challenge for the Bears is to build off their modest improvement and sustain some momentum. There’s a transition period for any team with a new coach and system, but it’s the time of the season when consistency needs to be achieved.
“I feel like any type of a spark, just passing the ball down the field, can give confidence to the offense,” Mooney said. “I understand the process we have to go through with our offense and everything being new, everybody still learning and just trying to believe in the offense. It’s a journey that you just have to stay into it, believe in and trust the process.”