Bears

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

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USA TODAY

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

MINNEAPOLIS — John Fox’s postgame press conference lasted all of a minute following Sunday’s 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, with the third-year Bears coach, to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch, seemingly only there so he wouldn’t get fined.

“Look, I’m here, the league makes me be here to talk about this game, and that’s what we’ll keep it to,” Fox said when asked a question about his future. “And anything after that, we’ll keep you posted. Any other questions?”

There weren’t, besides a follow-up about if he really didn’t know when he’d meet with Ryan Pace and team ownership to decide his fate. Fox abruptly walked off the podium, bringing to end what all but certainly was his last press conference as head coach of the Bears.

The Bears didn’t announce a decision on Fox shortly after the game, as the Indianapolis Colts did in firing coach Chuck Pagano on Sunday afternoon. Players said Fox’s comments to the team after the game didn’t feel like a farewell address, and Fox did say (in his opening statement before taking two questions from the media) that he told the players “there’s a good culture in that locker room, there’s good guys. Obviously we need some pieces added. And really, to every one of them, to everybody in there, there’ll be better days moving forward.”

In all likelihood, the better days moving forward — if they happen — will be without Fox. If he indeed is on his way out, he’ll have left a largely positive impression on his players, even if they collectively are 14-34 in the last three years.

“He believes in us even when everyone else doubts,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “And for me as a player, you can’t ask for anything more. Everyone else is doubting you and he believes in the bottom of his heart, the depths of his soul. That’s all you can ask for as a player. You want a coach who believes — that was my only goal, when I was a free agent last year, my only goal was to go to a place who had a coach who believes in me. And coach Fox is that. That’s who he is.”

Added linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox in Denver from 2012 to 2014 prior to joining the Bears before the 2016 season: “I know he’s a great coach and whatever he does, he’s going to be good at.”

Fox does deserve credit for changing what was a less-than-harmonious culture after arriving at Halas Hall in 2015. The Bears didn’t quit on the 2017 season, even as the losses piled up, and Fox had a lot to do with that.

But does not quitting on a season really matter when the team is 5-11?

“The record don’t show it,” wide receiver Kendall Wright said, “but we played way better than what the record shows.”

Still, the record is the record. Fox has the second-worst winning percentage of any coach in Bears history, has a brutal 3-15 record against the NFC North and lost 10 or more games in all three of his seasons in Chicago. That’s a lot of losing.

Fox’s players, though, wanted to make it clear that they bore the biggest responsibility for that 14-34 record during his tenure.

“The coaches don’t play the game,” wide receiver Josh Bellamy said. “Players play the game. It’s not the coaches that play the game. It’s on the field. You don’t see a coach out there running routes or throwing the ball. All they do is call the plays and it’s up to the players to change the culture and make it happen. I feel like that’s what we gotta do and we gotta find way to do it.”

Akiem Hicks perhaps had the most poignant comments when discussing his likely soon-to-be-former coach. If and when Fox is fired in the coming hours, it’ll weigh on these players who, of course, understand the business side of things. They didn’t play well enough for Fox to keep his job, and the coaching staff didn’t coach well enough to justify a fourth year.

But there will be plenty of disappointment in the Bears’ locker room that they couldn’t do enough to save the job of a guy who is genuinely liked in there.

“It’s a guy you want to fight for week in, week out,” Hicks said. “You look up to (him) because he’s had so many championship-level teams. You almost want to be on his list of great teams and just somebody you respect and admire.

“There’s nobody that I think it weighs on more than Fox. When I leave the building 6:30, 7 at night, his truck is still there. He’s clocking his hours and doing his best to make us better.

“For him,” Hicks added, with a long pause to collect his thoughts, “I wish we had finished better.”

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

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For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”

The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.

But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.

The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.

Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.

Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:

Player Drafted Year
David DeCastro 24 2012
Alan Faneca* 26 1998
Steve Hutchinson* 17 2001
Kyle Long 20 2013
Zack Martin 16 2014

* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist

Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.

Pace predilections: “stat” players

Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.

Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.

Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).

Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.

Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.