Bears

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Playoffs? You kidding me? Bears should be in conversation

Chicago Bears, playoffs, 2017 – where are you?

"Playoffs? Don't talk about—playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?!... .”   Jim Mora, Indianapolis Colts coach, 2001.

or...

“I do expect [the Bears] to be in the playoff conversation come mid/late December,” Chris Simms to NBC Sports Chicago.

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Josh Sitton was a Pro Bowl Green Bay guard when the 2015 Packers began that season going 1-2, at which point quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a radio interview gave Green Bay fans a simple word of advice:

“R-E-L-A-X,” said Rodgers, who’d uncharacteristically completed less than 60 percent of his passes in the previous two games.

The stress-reduction suggestion appeared to work somewhere, since the Packers rolled off 10 wins in their next 11 games on their way to an overtime loss in the NFC Championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.

It’s obviously easy to relax when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback: “It’s about the confidence that comes from winning,” said Sitton, a first-team All-Pro that season and one of the obvious reasons Rodgers was relaxed. “Winning is a habit, and people start buying in more and more when they start winning. That’s human nature.”

The Bears at 3-5 likely aren’t going to be issuing any “R-E-L-A-X” dictums. But neither are they treating the second half of this season as just games.

Even without a culture reinforced by winning over the recent past, a winning mentality and belief “is possible, absolutely,” Sitton said. “You can see the difference around here, the way we’re playing. Guys believe. Guys are buying in. That comes with a couple wins in a row, and a couple games we lost, we know we could have won those games.”

(Sitton has been here before: The Packers were 2-2 in Rodgers’ first four starts, with Sitton a rookie guard that season. The Bears are 2-2 in Mitch Trubisky’s first four starts, for anyone who’s keeping score.)

Math being what it is, the Bears at the midpoint of their season do have playoff possibilities. The reason is simply that they have turned something around since the woeful start behind Mike Glennon, although the Bears were within a couple dropped Glennon passes of upending Atlanta in Week 1. They have won two of their last three games and own wins over Pittsburgh (6-2) and Carolina (6-3).

“You can just see the upside he has, you know, especially in the huddle, the intangibles like the leadership he has,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “You can feel that in the huddle, just feel that he's going to make the play and if you listen to him he'll lead you to the right … and the promised land.”

Which could be excused as hyperbole around a rookie quarterback who isn’t completing half his passes, but Cohen’s a rookie, too, so… .

Since 1990, Elias Sports Bureau reports that nine teams have started 3-5 and reached the playoffs. In seven of the last eight seasons, the NFC North has sent a wild card to the playoffs with at least five losses, four times with six losses. The margin of error is slim given the Bears’ five losses already, but far stranger things have happened.

“Hopefully we can stay a little bit more consistent as far as lineups,” coach John Fox said. “We have to be right on top of it. When we are, we win. And we’ve lost some close games, we’ve won some close games. I’d rather see that be more consistent in the second half.”

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Bears ARE within sight of the playoffs. And if there’s a team other than the Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps maybe the L.A. Rams based on sheer points production, that’s run away from the pack, you’ll need to make that case.

Because the Bears have beaten the Steelers and had potential game-winning possessions against Minnesota (6-2) and New Orleans (6-2). Blame parity or whatever, but the leaders aren’t out of sight up ahead of the Bears.

With that as context, NBC Sports Chicago is happy to provide this Viewers Guide to the Bears’ 2017 second half:

Week 10: Green Bay Packers (4-4)

The Bears are favored this time, not shocking given the projected absence of Rodgers. The only time the Packers faced the Bears without full-metal Rodgers was the first Bears-Packers game of 2013, when Rodgers went down and out early from a Shea McClellin tackle. The Packers couldn’t beat the Bears with Seneca Wallace that night, and Brett Hundley has a ways to go to reach Wallace’s level. W (Bears record: 4-5)

Week 11: Detroit Lions (4-4)

As abysmal as last season was, the Bears defeated the Lions in Soldier Field and did it with Jordan Howard rushing for 111 yards in his first NFL start, and with Brian Hoyer being the un-Jay Cutler (zero INT’s). Howard is the NFL’s No. 5 rushing-yardage leader and tied for third in first downs among backs. And Trubisky has sounded like he grasps the concept of ball security and the evils of giveaways. W (Bears record: 5-5)

Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)

This one will be a load. Carson Wentz is the template for trading up to No. 2 in the draft for a quarterback. Alshon Jeffery is happy in Philly. The Bears and Eagles are about equal defensively in yards and points allowed, but the Eagles are averaging 31.4 points per game; the Bears haven’t scored 30 points in even one game in nearly two full seasons (31 games). L (Bears record: 5-6)

Week 13: San Francisco 49ers (0-9)

The 49ers were one of the Bears’ three victims last season. They will likely defeat someone this year, just probably not the Bears in Soldier Field. W (Bears record: 6-6)

Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)

After missing the playoffs for only the second time in the last eight years, coach Marvin Lewis wasn’t given a contract extension last offseason, leaving him in the final year of his contract, a situation that could be matched next year by Fox and the Bears. The Bengals, perennial first-round losers in the playoffs, should be playing out the string right about the times the Bears show up. W (Bears record: 7-6)

Week 15: at Detroit (3-4)

The Bears haven’t won in Ford Field since 2012. This looms as a potential tipping-point game, possibly for both teams. L (Bears record: 7-7)

Week 16: Cleveland Browns (0-9)

So many jokes, so little time. W (Bears record: 8-7)

Week 17: at Minnesota Vikings (6-2)

The Bears had a chance to upend the Vikings in Trubisky’s first start. That chance ended with an interception leading to a game-winning Minnesota field goal. The Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since 2011. This won’t be in the snow at TCF Bank field but if the Bears hit town with a shot at the playoffs… . W (Bears record: 9-7).

(There – that wasn’t so hard, was it?)

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.

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

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USA TODAY

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

Pulling the camera back for a wide-angle shot:

As with so many of the actions being taken by the Bears in less than two weeks of offseason, the retaining of Vic Fangio to serve on coach Matt Nagy’s staff is worth a broader look for what it represents as part of the greater whole being attempted by GM Ryan Pace. More on that in a moment.

What Fangio immediately underscores is a mutual comfort level between a very senior elite defensive coach with a young first-time head coach. Irrespective of what Fangio’s market was or wasn’t, based on jobs opening or closing, and that his players publicly and privately were lobbying for him to be rehired, the Bears ultimately needed to convince Fangio that their organization was a fit for him, even as they were telling him that he was never going to be their head coach.

What Nagy has done in the span of four days is validate Pace’s feeling that this 39-year-old with limited experience as a coordinator had a vision for a support staff and the right stuff to pull it off. Landing all three coordinators within four days of his own hiring may not be hiring record but is head-turning impressive for a guy who’s never done this before.

Getting the Fangio deal done (exact details of the three-year pact will be coming out) makes apparent that Pace has empowered Nagy (and Bears senior management doing the same for Pace) to get major moves done. Coaches have a budget for assistants, and Fangio had been seeking a deal that would make him the NFL’s highest-paid coordinator, sources said. Whether that did happen isn’t important; Nagy didn’t convince Fangio to stay with only upbeat talk. Pace gave him the budget.

The overall is what is intriguing here. When Pace brought in John Fox, one of the presumed positives was the pairing of a proven veteran coach with a young boss (Pace) in charge of football ops. The results weren’t what either wanted, but the relationship never flagged and Pace is the better for it. Now the template is used a second time; a veteran defensive coordinator (the de facto head coach of the defense) who gives his boss a backstop and kind of a mentor.

But if Fox was much, much more than just an interim solution, Pace’s plan was for immediate franchise rescue from the Marc Trestman ennui. Fox in fact did accomplish a lot of that, certainly with a Bears defense that had reached a historic nadir under Mel Tucker. And that was under Fangio (whose relationship with Fox was never as caustic as outsiders depicted; as one source close to both said, “Vic is a crusty tough guy; so is Foxy. Foxy didn’t hire him to be some sort of drinking pal.”)

Fox for Pace in some respects did represent a bridge of sorts with an expiration date if only because he’s in his 60’s. Regardless, when Pace took the Chicago job, the ideal always was to be successful enough to hire a second coach during his GM tenure. The way this came about (three double-digit-loss seasons, firing Fox after three years) was anything but how this was supposed to go, but Fox was in fact signed for four years, not five.

So Pace, now with three years of GM seasoning himself, hires a head coach that is very much akin to the kind of action Pace took to address his quarterback position, with a less-experienced individual but with Pace views as true upside.

And “upside” is a constant target with Pace, who clearly is not averse to going all in big-time for upside (Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky, Matt Nagy, Pernell McPhee). Organizations take their character and personality from the top, and the Bears football operation is being handled with an aggressive streak, whether financially in coach contracts (Fangio) or player acquisition.

This, more than Pace’s arrival three years ago, is the real beginning.