Bears

Given a two-score lead, John Fox and the Bears didn't pass on their opportunity to grind out a win

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USA Today

Given a two-score lead, John Fox and the Bears didn't pass on their opportunity to grind out a win

The last time a team won while completing four or fewer passes was Nov. 13, 2011, when Tim Tebow competed two of his eight passing attempts as the Denver Broncos beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 17-10. On Sunday, Mitchell Trubisky completed four of his seven passes in the Bears’ 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers. 

The common denominator between those two games: John Fox coached both.

“This is a team game,” Fox said. “Sometimes it’s going to be one-sided in one way or another. I’ve seen that before. But at the end of the day, you have smiling faces in the locker room and they fought hard for that victory.”

The Bears’ offense, for large swaths of a windy afternoon at Soldier Field, couldn’t move the ball. Jordan Howard was bottled up for 65 yards on 21 carries as the Panthers stacked the box on 57 percent of his runs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Panthers were hoping to make Trubisky beat them, or at least try to beat them. But the rookie bought into the Bears’ conservative gameplan for him and, with a 14-point lead for most of the game, wasn’t going to force anything. 

“We’re just finding ways to win games,” Trubisky said. “We had more pass plays called, I was just pulling them down, being conservative and taking sacks. I was just trying to play smart, protect the football and get out of here with a win.”

Trubisky was sacked four times, preferring to hang on to the ball for a loss than risk throwing an interception that could’ve swung momentum in Carolina’s favor. 

The strategy put considerable strain on the defense, which had to play 69 snaps and gut out stops on minimal rest after the Bears went three-and-out on five consecutive possessions to begin the second half. But Vic Fangio’s group was up to the challenge, and countered fatigue with motivation to keep smothering Carolina’s offense and be the engine to drive this win. 

Wins have been few and far between since the Bears hired Fox in 2015; these back-to-back victories over Baltimore and Carolina represent only the third two-game winning streak in his tenure in Chicago. But a win like Sunday’s is what the Bears signed up for when they hired a defensive coach in Fox and a highly respected defensive coordinator in Fangio. No matter how the lead is gained, once it’s there, don’t make mistakes to lose it. 

Those mistakes happened last week, when after taking a 17-3 lead the offense fumbled three times (losing two) and the Ravens scored on both a kick and a punt return. And those mistakes were eliminated on Sunday, even if it was because the strategy was to mostly take away the offense’s ability to make them. Eventually, the training wheels will come off for Trubisky — either sometime this year or in 2018 — but the Bears don’t appear ready to remove them yet. 

The Bears know the offense still has to be better, even if Trubisky is only being asked to manage the game for now — “I don’t think anybody’s happy with how we played offensively,” tight end Zach Miller said. But he added: “We’ll take a win any day of the week.” And improving and making adjustments off a win — especially one by two touchdowns — is a lot more fun than off a loss. 

“It’s not always going to be perfect,” Fox said. “You have to give the other team some credit. But I thought as a football team, we played well today, and it was enough to get a decisive win.”

Do the math: Ryan Pace's draft 'cloud' allows for a tantalizing trade-down possibility

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Do the math: Ryan Pace's draft 'cloud' allows for a tantalizing trade-down possibility

Ryan Pace had his annual strategically-cagey press conference on Tuesday, with the Bears’ general manager not wanting to reveal anything about his plans 48 hours before the NFL Draft begins. 

But there was at least one morsel of information dropped by Pace that could be useful in looking ahead to Thursday. 

Pace said the Bears have eight players in their “cloud” who they’d be comfortable taking with the eighth overall pick. None of those players are quarterbacks, of course, but there will be no fewer than two quarterbacks taken in the first seven picks (by the Cleveland Browns at No. 1/No. 4 and New York Jets at No. 3). And there’s a strong possibility three quarterbacks will be off the board in the first seven picks, too, either by virtue of the New York Giants or Denver Broncos taking one or because a team (like the Buffalo Bills or Arizona Cardinals) traded up to take their guy. 

So here’s a scenario: The Browns, Jets and Broncos all draft quarterbacks, leaving one of the consensus top four players at that position (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield) on the board when the Bears’ pick comes around at No. 8. If three quarterbacks are off the board, then most likely four of the eight players in Pace’s cloud are also taken after seven picks. 

The Bills didn't trade their left tackle to the Cincinnati Bengals to move up from pick No. 21 to No. 12 to not draft a quarterback, not after dealing away Tyrod Taylor and signing A.J. McCarron a year after making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. In short: It would be a failure for the Bills’ front office if they didn’t draft a quarterback in the first round. 

So if we get to the Bears’ pick at No. 8, and the Bills haven’t moved up and drafted a quarterback yet, here’s where the trade-down possibility comes into play for Pace. If he were to move down to the No. 12 pick, and the Bills took a quarterback at No. 8, that would mean at least four quarterbacks would be off the board by the time the Bears would pick at No. 12. 

And that would mean that at least one of those eight players who Pace would be comfortable selecting with the eighth overall pick would be available at No. 12. Maybe the Miami Dolphins take a quarterback, too — Lamar Jackson would presumably be their guy — with the No. 11 pick, meaning two of those eight are on the board. 

“I think, especially with the quarterback situation this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some movement because of the quarterbacks in the draft,” Pace said. “I think there’s more trading that’s going on now. I don’t know if it’s a new wave. Sometimes with these trades and you have relationships with these other GMs, there can be win-win scenarios. There’s always this fear that someone is going to get the short end of the stick. Well, if you’re thorough with your research, and they are too, there can be win-win scenarios in these trades.”

A lot would have to break right for this scenario to play out, of course. The Bills could opt to trade up with the Browns (No. 4), Broncos (No. 5), Indianapolis Colts (No. 6) or Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7) to limit their risk in getting burned in finding their quarterback of the future. 

There could be four quarterbacks taken in the first four picks, too, which would limit the Bears’ trade-down opportunities but ensure half of Pace’s draft “cloud” is still there when he goes on the clock. The Bears could see that situation as an opportunity to draft one of the top four players on their draft board despite having the No. 8 pick. 

“If four quarterbacks go in front of us, I’m all for it,” Pace said at the league meetings last month. “I think you see the value of that position right now when you see people posturing to get up in the draft and get a quarterback. It’s critical. … So us personally right now, we’re all for as many quarterbacks going.”

Pace has traded up in the first round in each of his last two drafts to pick a guy on which there was conviction and a consensus (Leonard Floyd, Mitch Trubisky). But the math makes sense for him to trade down, if the possibility is there, and still draft a guy he likes while adding picks for Friday and/or Saturday. 

Speaking of players’ draft traits, what about those of Ryan Pace?

Speaking of players’ draft traits, what about those of Ryan Pace?

The days/weeks/months leading up to the NFL draft are all about players’ traits – size, speed, arm length, arm strength/throwing, arm strength/lifting and so on. Those ultimately determine whom is drafted where and by whom.

 

But what about the “traits” of the selectors, one selector in particular: Bears GM Ryan Pace?

 

Borrowing James Bond’s standard of measure – “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” – the fact that Pace has now directed three drafts allows viewing him through the Bond prism.

 

And three particular Ryan “traits” begin to come into sharper focus when the camera is pulled back to look at the bigger Pace picture.

 

 

Subterfuge

 

Last year Pace didn’t even tell his head coach that the Bears were going to get Mitch Trubisky with their No. 1 pick. The plan was always to land a quarterback; Pace’s decision on which one surprised more than a few people even at Halas Hall.

 

But Pace isn’t exactly an anomaly. Over the years, NFL teams have become increasingly secretive in its handling of draft information. Pre-draft get-togethers typically produced any number of “We really like….” declarations regarding particular players. Those statements found their ways into the informational mainstream, which produced situations where opposing teams used that information to jump ahead of the Bears to snag a player targeted by the Bears.

 

So “this time of year I think it’s OK to be a little boring in these moments,” Pace said, laughing.

 

 

A “ceiling” guy

 

NFL personnel execs loosely fall along two general lines: the ones who gamble on a player’s upside (his “ceiling”) and those who factor in a bigger safety component in evaluating a prospect (his “floor”). And obviously there are similar elements in most execs.

 

Jerry Angelo was a “floor guy,” wanting to minimize the risk in a No. 1 pick even if it meant doing without a little upside. Pace is more “ceiling guy,” inclined to gamble more on projection, what a player could become. That was apparent even in some of his free-agent signings. Quarterback Mike Glennon was signed for his upside. So was tight end Trey Burton this year.

 

Now consider his high draft picks:

 

Wide receiver Kevin White, one huge (109 rec., 10 TD’s) college season, taken No. 7 overall.

 

Edge rusher Leonard Floyd –  productive all-around player at Georgia but a too-light 231 pounds. Trade up from 11th to 9th.

 

Trubisky – one good college season, 13 starts, 68% completions, 30 TD/6 INT. Trade up from 3rd to 2nd to select.

 

Tight end Adam Shaheen – small-college product, never faced top competition, taken 2nd round.

 

“You see a lot of physical traits and talent, and you're projecting how much better they can get,” said Pace, who characterized himself as both a ceiling and floor guy. “That's part of the art of doing this. I think a lot of that goes into the work by all of us — by our scouts and our coaches — and also knowing the football makeup they have. We talk about the desire to get better, their passion and their love for the game.

 

“If they have all the physical traits but they don't have that desire, then it might not work. But if they do have that desire, they do have that passion, those are the kinds of players we want because we have more faith they'll improve.”

 

 

Creative flex

 

The Bears have bordered on stodgy too many drafts. Contrasted to that, Pace’s draft aggressiveness has been amply chronicled. Pace has made seven draft day trades, four in 2016 and three last season. Pace’s four trades during the 2016 draft were the most by the team since 2000.

 

Pace traded up in each of the last two drafts to select clearly targeted players. The Bears hadn’t made a deal involving their first-round picks since giving away two of them in a trade for Jay Cutler in 2009. More noteworthy, the Bears before Pace had rarely made a move UP in a first round and in fact were far more inclined to trade out of their No. 1 slots.

 

Not necessarily to be viewed as organizational timidity, but besides the Cutler trade, they’d given Buffalo their No. 1 in 2006, going all the way out of the first round. They’d traded out of No. 4-overall in 2003, down to 14 and 22. They gave away their 1997 No. 1 in a trade for Rick Mirer.

 

Pace doesn’t shrink from the moment. "When we identify a guy that we like, and there's a unified vision in the building on a player that we want,” he said, “I don't think we're ever afraid to go up and get that guy."

 

But he also traded down in second rounds of each of the last two drafts. He in fact traded down twice in the 2016 second round, adding picks each time and still winding up with rookie O-line starter Cody Whitehair. Pace's second-round picks (Whitehair, nose tackle Eddie Goldman) have been better than his No. 1’s.

 

“In this [GM] chair, you're taking a lot of information,” Pace said. “We can have 10 to 12 reports on one player. You're taking all that information in. I have a really good feel now for, like, ‘OK, this coach or this scout's kind of a high grader; this guy's a low grader,’ taking it all in.

 

“Being aggressive when you need to be aggressive. Make a move if you need to make a move. And that can go the other way, too. The last two years, we've traded back in the second round and accumulated some more picks. That helped us a lot last year getting some good players. So, I think not being afraid to move around in the draft and use that to your advantage.”