Focusing on issues other than John Fox’s job situation, which was settled for this week when he did his regular day-after press conference on Monday… Sunday’s 15-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers came with some ominous indicators, some continuing a problem, others hinting at a new one or two.
The defeat marked the first time this season that the Bears lost a game in which they held a lead entering a fourth quarter, after wins over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Carolina in which they began fourth quarters with leads.
But there’s a problem just below the surface here. Because this was the third time the Bears defense failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead. And that, coupled with a worsening offensive run game (sub-65 rushing yards in three of the last four games), points to two of the three foundation pillars of the Fox Bears being broken to the level of shattered.
Special teams is the third pillar, and Tarik Cohen’s 61-yard TD punt return papered over issues there; but ‘teams failed to get the game-saving block of the final Robbie Gould field goal, so…
Defense and a physical run game are core elements of the Bears’ stated franchise identity under Fox. In their current state of tatters, that effectively means the Bears have no discernible identity at this abysmal point of 2017.
As the 49ers did, the Steelers and Ravens both caught the Bears from behind. The Bears were able to generate OT scores in the latter two, but the defense that was to have been a hallmark under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio cannot be counted on to win a game when presented with a lead.
The open sore is third down, where five of the Bears’ last six opponents have converted more than 40 percent of third downs. Only three of the Bears’ 12 opponents this season have converted less than 40 percent against a nickel unit that has been without full-measure Leonard Floyd (IR), Willie Young (IR) and Pernell McPhee, who played just seven snaps against San Francisco before leaving with a shoulder issue. Those three represent the ninth-overall pick of a draft, a significant contract extension and the marquee free-agent signing of GM Ryan Pace’s first year – all marginalized.
“Getting pressure on the quarterback,” Fox cited as a specific reason for third-down problems. “Sometimes people ask me what the best pass defense is, and it’s a pass rush. There’s a lot of different coverages and all those things you do. I’d say over the last couple weeks, that has probably been a little bit of our issue.”
Fox was hired to turn around a franchise that had come badly off the rails under GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman. But more than any single defeat or couple defeats, Fox’s undoing projects to be the consistent inability of Fox to turn his team around over what is now three years, repeatedly when presented with platinum opportunities to point his team’s arrow up.
The first brace of those came about this time in 2015 when the Bears dropped home games to San Francisco and Washington to squander a chance to reach .500 or beyond. This year the failures came vs. Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers after the off week, and the next week against Detroit, followed by even more heinous performances in a lay-down vs. the Philadelphia Eagles and the sleepwalk vs. the 49ers.
Accountability now becomes a concern, with Fox making no changes and GM Ryan Pace leaving Fox in place rather than make a change in order to leave no question that losing this way is intolerable. Fox for his part expressed no worry over whether players would now begin to shut down, physically or emotionally, now that another season is lost.
“I don't really look at the "lost" word. Right now, the best we can finish is 7-9 and as I said last week the worst we can finish is 3-13. Like I said, we're all professionals. We're going to play the guys we think give us the best chance to win every week. Who that is and how that evolves, I don't know yet. We do it day to day. That's really all I know.”
As bad as the offense has become, Fox declined to issue what might be construed as a harsh ultimatum for his staff and players on that side of the football.
“Any time you bring in new quarterbacks, we all have to answer that, and we're all big boys and we get it,” Fox said. “I'd like to have been more productive offensively but the reality is we're kind of where we are. Playing a lot of young players, in particularly at the quarterback position, I've seen improvement in him, and that's kind of what I look for is are we getting better.”
Fox opted against letting the 49ers score a touchdown on their final possession, with the intention of saving timeouts and turn the game over to his offense with time enough for a winning touchdown drive. There are zero good choices in that situation but Fox made the right one.
Trubisky and the offense had given absolutely no indication that they could sustain any drive long enough to score without a long kickoff return. The longest Bears drive of the game was 59 yards, for a first-quarter touchdown, and the offense had managed even a first down on two of the five possessions since then, with drives of 33 and 44 yards accounting for approximately half the offensive yardage for the game. Fox’s special teams arguably had as much chance of a game-winning block as his offense did of a touchdown.
And I was covering Super Bowl XXXII when Mike Holmgren decided to let John Elway and the Denver Broncos score a free TD, with the plan to answer with a winning TD drive. That didn’t work. And Holmgren had Brett Favre.
Whether they were failures to coach Mitch Trubisky on situational football or simply a couple rookie mistakes, the quarterback committed a pair of head-scratching errors in seemingly common-sense situations.
When 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas drew a flag for jumping offsides ahead of the snap in the first quarter, Trubisky was handed a de facto free play at the San Francisco 43. Instead of looking deep and improving a free shot at the end zone, Trubisky threw short and incomplete underneath to tight end Daniel Brown. The Bears eventually scored but free plays are not to be squandered, particularly ones with chances at longer gains either through completion or interference infraction.
Trubisky also went out of bounds a yard short of a first down on a third-down scramble in the second quarter. Linebacker Ruben Foster had a closing angle on Trubisky but failing to turn upfield in an effort get the additional yard, while understandable on first or second downs, was less so when it ended a possession at three-and-out.
Overall, Trubisky continues to draw high marks in losing performances: “I thought Mitch played arguably his best game,” Fox said on Monday. “There were a couple decisions I think he'd like to have back, not that they were huge errors. We did not turn the ball over, we were plus-1 in the turnover ratio.”
But little things will make differences at the pro level, particularly in a game decided by one kick and one point, and Trubisky twice was curiously short of what might have been.