Bears are the anomaly of John Fox's coaching career


Bears are the anomaly of John Fox's coaching career

Suppose the Bears make a coaching change after next weekend, and it turns out that John Fox wasn’t really the problem at all? More about that later.

Not much has been funny about the 2017 Bears season but this is at least a little quirky, that in a year replete with injuries, Bears quarterbacks through 15 games have not missed a single snap due to injury – this Jay Cutler (twice) and Brian Hoyer going down for all or part of a season that concluded with Matt Barkley.

Then comes 2017 when the investment is made in a young franchise quarterback on top of $18.5 million guaranteed for a bridge, and three of the four leading receivers from a year ago – Cam Meredith, Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal – were even with the team opening day, and the fourth – Zach Miller was done after eight games.

“Injuries are a part of every season,” Fox said. “I think when you look at teams that probably have better records than others largely is – there’s still games to be played and things happen when you play football games –  but I think a lot of times, there’s successful ones, you’ve been fortunate in that [injury] department really all the way through the Super Bowl.” 

Not a new mantra/rant, but one that you wonder about looking ahead to the evaluations of Fox that will come to a conclusion (if they haven’t already) upstairs at Halas Hall.

Because while injuries may be discounted as reason for failures, they are a reality. The Green Bay Packers were 3-6 in Brett Hundley starts; Mike McCarthy on a hot seat? Obviously not because of the 2017 record.

As we’ve mentioned here previously, Fox made do with Cutler for his first two Bears seasons, allowing GM Ryan Pace to focus on other positions and allowing the organization to avoid eating something in the range of $30 million over those two years. Pace likely wouldn’t dispute that he should have addressed the quarterback position earlier in their tenure.

Fox was handed the No. 2 overall pick of the 2002 draft when he took over the Carolina Panthers. That was Julius Peppers, who has played every game in 13 of his 16 seasons and missed no games due to injury over his first five seasons. Fox was handed the No. 2 overall pick of the 2011 draft when he took over the Denver Broncos. That was Von Miller, who has missed one game due to injury through his first seven seasons.

Kevin White, the No. 7 overall pick of Fox’s first Bears season, has played fewer games (five) in three years than Miller and Peppers missed combined over their initial three years. White and Leonard Floyd have lost more games to injury (53) in their five combined NFL seasons. These were supposed to be the same kind of franchise-shifting draft picks with which Fox had rebuilt Carolina and Denver. Not that comparisons are at all relevant, but even with the progress made by the defense under Vic Fangio, what would Fox’s last two seasons have looked if Floyd had produced anything like the 30 sacks that rush-linebacker Miller gave the Denver defense in his first two?

Then again, would Fox at age 60 have jumped at the Bears vacancy if he’d foreseen the personnel situation, moves and non-moves that he was moving into? Probably, but…

“When you’re doing this and you’re in the trenches and you’re doing it every day, you don’t really know until you dig in,” Fox said on Tuesday. “I think we’ve definitely made a lot of changes. We’ve gone from the oldest roster in football to one of the younger ones now. I don’t know exactly where we rank. I think we’ve got a good, young, talented roster. I think we still have holes. But at least we’re kind of, to me, at a level playing field now… .

“You’re always ready for anything. Has it been easy? If that’s the question, I’d say no.”

Fox is clearly a longshot to have office space at Halas Hall much past next Sunday, even if the Bears manage an upset of the Minnesota Vikings that would close their season winning three of the last four, something they’ve done only once (2008) in the last 10 years.

But there’s still something about this picture that doesn’t quite focus completely. Fox never had as many as even two straight losing seasons in 27 years of coaching at any NFL level before coming to the Bears.

And coaches get fired when they have three straight 10-loss seasons.

Still, anything about all this seem a little, you know, off?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.