Bears

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

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AP

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

So another playoff weekend and with it some takeaways of greater or lesser relevance for the Bears, not so much as any sort of measuring standard for how close the Bears are or aren’t from this level of NFL play (but if you actually are wanting to keep meaningless score, the Bears did beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by more points (6) than the Jaguars did (3), and whacked Carolina by 14, while the New Orleans Saints only outscored the Panthers by 5, so… oh, never mind… .).

But in a copycat league that looks desperately for things that are working for anyone at all, the playoffs do offer some object lessons to the also-rans. Of course, pretty much like diets, most systems for doing things in the NFL all work. You just have to do them the right way and shop right. So some from along a spectrum ranging from “Huh?” to “Wow”… .

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QB acquisitions

Some playoffs make it indelibly apparent that the only route to team excellence runs through quarterbacks drafted pretty much in first rounds, not even necessarily by their playoff teams. Last year the final three (we’re not including New England here, because Tom Brady is the ultimate outlier, and he and the Patriots have been in 11 of the last 15 seasons he’s been involved) were quarterback’ed by Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, all 1’s. In 2015, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. Every year, at least two of the final four finishers are led by former No. 1’s, even going back to the Bears’ near-miss in 2010 (Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez.) Plus Brady.

This year, not so much. Brady aside, two of the other three (Minnesota, Philadelphia) come in not only not with No. 1’s, but not even with intended starters – Case Keenum and Nick Foles, respectively.

A couple takeaways here:

  •       What is put around the quarterback, including coaches, is potentially everything. Jacksonville, which is riding former No. 3-overall Blake Bortles, is in the AFC title less because of Bortles than Leonard Fournette rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns. No. 1’s are far from necessarily a winning ticket: No. 1’s Roethlisberger, Ryan and Marcus Mariota all bowed out over the weekend, along with Drew Brees (a No. 2), with only Roethlisberger losing to a quarterback drafted higher than he was (Bortles).
     
  •       The Bears are on the right track with prioritizing quarterback at No. 3/2 last draft in the form of Mitch Trubisky. And GM Ryan Pace was on another right track in making a serious play for a backup quarterback. Mike Glennon turned out not to be the right one, and coaches arguably erred in choosing him to open the season over Trubisky in an extremely close decision. But Minnesota and Philadelphia are in the NFC title game because of backup quarterbacks (Keenum, Foles), and the whole New England thing happened because Bill Belichick and the Patriots went after a quarterback in the 2000 sixth round despite having previously durable Drew Bledsoe in place.
     

Pace neglected the quarterback spot in his first two drafts before addressing it last draft with Mitch Trubisky (plus Glennon and Sanchez in free agency). For comparison purposes, Spielman drafted zero quarterbacks over his last three, but had that luxury by virtue of landing Teddy Bridgewater with his second first-rounder in 2014, and augmented that after Bridgewater’s knee injury with a trade for Sam Bradford and free-agent signing of Keenum after Bradford’s injury.

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Remember when the Bears just absolutely had to, couldn’t stay in the NFL unless they did, switch to a 3-4 scheme? All four teams in the conference championships are base 4-3 teams.

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Targeting the targets

Ryan Pace and new coach Matt Nagy, along with incoming offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, are expected to devote money and draft capital in the wide receiver spot, and not necessarily including a wideout with the No. 8 pick. Good idea. But Nagy comes from the West Coast cult of Andy Reid, and from the weekend’s divisional round, one template stands above all others:

Using the Patriots as the standard, New England had seven players this season haul in 30 or more passes (the Bears had two, Tarik Cohen and Kendall Wright). None of the seven were first-round New England picks, although the Patriots did trade a No. 1 (32nd overall) and a No. 3 to New Orleans for Brandon Cooks and a No. 4. Three of them were running backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White) and one was a tight end (Rob Gronkowski).

Very noteworthy: Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick and Stefon Diggs a fifth, both going to teams with histories of stocking and then stocking again and then stocking a little more at wide receiver. Diggs is one of five wide receivers taken by draft and personnel chief Rick Spielman over the past three drafts. Pace went all-in with Kevin White at No. 7 of his initial draft, but Daniel Braverman is the only other wideout drafted by Pace; over the last eight drafts, Braverman, White, Marquess Wilson and Alshon Jeffery are the extent of Bears draft capital invested at wideout.

(Brandon Marshall could be counted in there, accounting for two No. 3’s. Whether that counts as properly building through the draft, your humble and faithful narrator leaves to the reader.

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Build through the draft…mostly

Speaking of building through the draft:

Everybody talks about it and it’s certainly the ideal. But Jacksonville is a game away from the Super Bowl (No. 2 in yardage and points allowed) because of a near-historic hit rate on defense in free agency: Calais Campbell, up for defensive player of the year, plus Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson on the defensive line; Paul Posluszny at linebacker; A.J. Bouye at cornerback; and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson.

Of course, the NFL’s No. 1 defense for points and yards allowed (Minnesota Vikings) can point to a starting unit that includes just two players (tackles Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph) who were significant pickup in free agency from other teams. Safety Andrew Zendejo was a Dallas castoff signed off the scrap heap back in 2011 but has been a Viking ever since.

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.