Bears

Takeaways from Super Bowl LII: Bears have bigger needs but backup QB a franchise priority

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USA TODAY

Takeaways from Super Bowl LII: Bears have bigger needs but backup QB a franchise priority

What the Philadelphia Eagles accomplished in no small part because of retread and backup quarterback Nick Foles – winning two pivotal late-season starts, then winning two playoff games to get the Eagles to the Super Bowl, then winning the Super Bowl as the game’s MVP – should serve as a template for the Bears’ offseason work to secure their No. 2 quarterback situation.

The fact that the fate of the New England Patriots franchise turned on a late-round draft choice for a backup quarterback – Tom Brady – just puts another underscoring line for the position. So does what Case Keenum did to get the Minnesota Vikings.

The Bears are set at No. 1 with Mitch Trubisky. But enough of the playoff teams got to where they were because of attention paid to the No. 2 quarterback to serve as an object lesson for any team entertaining any sort of run at a postseason.

No shortage of options for backups to choose from for the Bears this offseason. And the organization clearly understands the need for a complementary presence in the quarterback room (the reason Mark Sanchez remained on the roster all year), and merely adding a just-a-guy accomplishes little.

And while the standard line of “it’ll take some time” is making the rounds at Halas Hall, “time” is a fluid concept (more on that later). Do the Bears deep-down envision a stunner 2018? If the Bears in fact believe that Matt Nagy can accomplish the turnaround that John Fox couldn’t, then the target should be a composite backup quarterback – like Foles and Keenum – who can win in relief as well as mentor/mind-meld with Mitch Trubisky.

That’ll be a philosophical decision: Go for upside, or for security behind Trubisky?

New England may rue the decision to trade Jimmy Garoppolo but in the meantime brought in Brian Hoyer after the 49ers released him after the Garoppolo trade. What the Patriots do with Hoyer this offseason remains to play out, and Hoyer didn’t get a sniff of offer from the Bears last offseason, which didn’t sit well. Never mind that GM Ryan Pace went for a shot at upside with Mike Glennon; it would take a hug to get Hoyer interested in Chicago again.

Plenty of so-what to choose from: Chase Daniel (but he wants to start). Matt Moore. Ryan Fitzpatrick. Jay Cutler (just kidding!).

And then there’s Josh McCown. The only thing “wrong” with McCown is that he’s apt to find a team that grades him good enough to be signed as a starter, whether interim or longer term. He’s 38, but over the recent past, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning have shown 38 to be the new 28.

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There are no “bad” Hall of Fame classes; just doesn’t happen when the discussion is about deciding on degrees of excellence.

But the 2018 class of Brian Dawkins, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Brian Urlacher, plus seniors Robert Brazile and Jerry Kramer, and contributor Bobby Beathard ranks with the all-time “WOW!” groups ever headed to Canton, maybe the best ever.

This reporter always thought the ’04 group with Bob Brown, Carl Eller, John Elway and Barry Sanders was the perhaps the best of the small classes. Or at least in a tie with the ’73 class that included Frank Gifford, Forrest Gregg, Gale Sayers, Bart Starr and Bill Willis. The ’13 was the best of the big classes, taking in Bill Parcells, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp and Curly Culp.

But the group this time – with tipping-point individuals top to bottom – ranks even that. One measure is the level of players who didn’t finish in the obligatory top five: Tony Boselli stands as one of the three or four greatest left tackles, just with the misfortune of playing in small-market Jacksonville; guards Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson. All of those offensive linemen will be in as early as next year, but for the time being, limits on how many can go in are the only reason they’re not first-ballot inductees.

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“Dynasty” always sounds dominant, and it is to a degree if only because of the longevity component. But it’s only applicable when championships are won and as such is very much a hard-earned designation. Always realize the thread-thin line between great and near-great, often the thickness of exactly one play. Of the eight New England Super Bowls with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, none were decided by more than one score, and six of the eight were adjudicated by three or four points, the first two of them turning on Adam Vinatieri field goals in closing seconds.

The two the Patriots lost (to the New York Giants) came as the result of spectacular, improbable catches: the “helmet catch” of David Tyree after Eli Manning escaped a swarming sack, and the other by Mario Manningham on a perfect pass with Manningham making the reception so close to the sideline that Bill Belichick lost a timeout challenging the call at that late fourth-quarter point. The Patriots needed the Seattle Seahawks to eschew a goal-line run by Marshawn Lynch and call a pass that Malcolm Butler could intercept to win their fourth Super Bowl with a closing-seconds play.

And New England is far from alone in the close-call-dynasty class. San Francisco got by Cincinnati in Super Bowl 23 only with a flawless 92-yard drive and Joe Montana’s winning TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play. The mighty ‘70s Steelers won four Super Bowls, two of them by four points over the Dallas Cowboys, in which they broke up an end-zone Roger Staubach pass to save the win (Super Bowl X) and in which all-alone Dallas tight end Jackie Smith dropped a pass in the end zone.

Not that the Bears belong in any talking point involving the phrase “Super Bowl” or “dynasty,” not even the ’85 group since it only even reached one Super Bowl.

No, the real point is that thread-thin margin in a league designed for parity, where you can have a Rams team go from 4-12 to 11-5 with a second-year quarterback and young first-time offense-based head coach (the Bears have one of each of those). You can have the Philadelphia Eagles come off two straight 7-9 seasons, the second a year ago when they finished last in their division, and go to 13-3 with a second-year quarterback.

And then they go and win a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback.

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.