Love 'em or hate 'em, the Patriots are the best thing that could be happening to the NFL right now


Love 'em or hate 'em, the Patriots are the best thing that could be happening to the NFL right now

The New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and all that comes with them are the best thing the NFL has going for it right now. The best. And the worst, which also feeds into them being the best thing for a league and its fans.

The best, on two accounts. To satisfy a couple of core cravings, football at once needs the Patriots to be great, and needs them to lose. With its ratings, concussion, disciplinings, anthem protests and other smudges on the shield, the NFL didn’t need a Jacksonville-Atlanta Super Bowl (insert conspiracy theory here). The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference, and the rising foe of the NFL is indifference.

The one obvious role that the Patriots fill is that of the Dark Side of the Force, the team that the general population likes to hate. High-concept drama demands an antagonist, a villain, a worthy adversary, a Darth Vader for an Obi-Wan — or in this case a team that arguably draws a segment of viewership comprised of folks who’ve pegged the Patriots as cheaters and harbor the fervent hope of seeing them lose and brought low.

Think old New York Yankees dynasty, without juiced (or under-inflated) baseballs. Think Oakland Raiders/Black Hole, just with a better wardrobe, nothing with spiked shoulders, and no Jack Tatum. And the more arrogant, the better: “America’s Team” Dallas Cowboys. Alabama and Nick Saban. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski.

A bunch of USA college kids winning Olympic hockey gold in ’80 over Finland was great, terrific. But it needed the defeat of the Mighty Rooskies to accord it “Miracle” status for all time.

Maybe it’s all about us as Americans. We’re a nation of underdogs (the Redcoats were 6-to-1 favorites in the Revolution, which was an upset rivaling Appalachian State over Michigan). We root for and relate to underdogs. And you can’t have a longshot underdog unless there’s a villainous heavy on the other side. Without Goliath, David is just a bratty kid good with a slingshot. The Patriots are the greatest Goliath in NFL history from the sustained angle of longevity and conquests.

Ideal for counter-rooting purposes, New England fuels the antagonism with tales of cheating. That runs against our American cultural grain. We’re OK if you whip us on the up’n’up, but cheating makes you icky. And admit it: You did feel a little bit pleased at the story of supposed antipathy among Belichick, Brady and Bob Kraft, didn’t you?

Wanted: One Snow White

But what makes the Patriots intriguing is that they also fill a void rooted in NFL parity, an NFL with plenty of dwarfs but in desperate need of a Snow White.

There lives in the sports soul a desire to know that there is greatness, not just one team or player. Put another way, there is a need for excellence, some context for what we are witnessing, some standard. The Patriots are that, just as the Green Bay Packers were in the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys through the early 1990s. You might not have liked them, but they provided a standard against which your team and others could be measured.

Flashes of "very good" aren’t good enough. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos fielded historically good defenses in their winning Super Bowls. But only one each. Outside of the ’85 Bears, one year does not earn a spot in any “greatest” discussion.

Players so often talk about wanting to go against the best. They do want to win, but it does mean more when it’s against established greatness. Intercepting Tom Brady means more than intercepting Mike Glennon.

It just does.

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


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.