Angry Bears groping for answers to bigger questions after loss to Eagles

Angry Bears groping for answers to bigger questions after loss to Eagles

Something is seriously missing from the 2016 Bears, and something is seriously wrong when the most emotional member of the Bears was even not in uniform Sunday night during the Bears’ 29-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Linebacker Pernell McPhee, voted by teammates as one of the defensive co-captains despite being on the physically unable to perform list due to offseason knee surgery, went over to and bumped Jay Cutler after the latter had thrown a devastating third-quarter interception, a sloppy throw off his back foot that was turned into a Philadelphia Eagles touchdown. McPhee, the emotional leader of the defense last year even when he was slowed with his worsening knee, appeared incensed with Cutler as the game slipped away from the Bears.

“He’s a passionate guy,” Cutler said. “Everyone’s got a lot invested into this and he does as well. No one likes to lose in that type of fashion. He’s upset, I’m upset and everyone in that locker room is upset.”

Passion in the locker room actually isn’t the problem right now. There’s plenty of that.

“We got a lot of passionate guys,” said linebacker Jerrell Freeman. “I walk in the locker room and I can just feel it.”

Feeling it or seeing it on the field is something else altogether, as the Bears dissolved into a defeat that is their sixth in the last seven under coach John Fox extending back to early last December. This was beyond simply a defeat that ran their home record to 1-8 under Fox.

That record of non-performance at home was talked about internally by the Bears last week. But talk is also not a problem.

“It’s tough,” Fox conceded. “We have a lot of improving to do.”

[Bears Talk Podcast: Looking back at Week 2 loss to Eagles]

Which was not supposed to be the case for a team that brought in free agents accustomed to winning. Indeed, this kind of repeat performance is concerning on a franchise level.

The fact is that for all of the “building for the future” talk, the importance of the draft picks and whatever else, the Bears do not see themselves on a three-year or x-years plan. The Bears were building to win now, not in two or three years, something that was evident way back when they signed a veteran backup quarterback – Hoyer – rather than draft a young arm and put him in the pipeline. They signed a 30-year-old Pro Bowl guard – Josh Sitton – rather than go with a youth movement, even when center Hroniss Grasu went down for the year. They signed veteran linebackers and a lineman for the core of their defense and extended the contract of a veteran edge pass rusher (Willie Young).

Those additions were for now, not three years from now.

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The Bears (0-2) were outplayed in every phase by a middling Eagles team led by a rookie quarterback (Carson Wentz). The Bears were led by a quarterback of their own (Cutler) whose future becomes increasingly cloudy for a team that has not shown indications under three head coaches that it can win with him. Cutler was hampered by a thumb injury that was banged up early and eventually forced him out of the game in favor of Brian Hoyer.

Assessing effort is never an exact science but the Bears never appeared to be playing with any fire, evidenced by another poor performance in the run game and by poor tackling against the Eagles – two elements of the game that begin with want-to, which the Bears suddenly don’t.

Turning the football over on three of their first four possessions of the second half – a strip-sack fumble by Cutler, the interception and a fumble by running back Jeremy Langford – bespoke a sloppiness that is typically emblematic of a losing team, which the Bears played like for the second straight week.

The Eagles for their part appeared to have less than zero regard for the Bears as the game went on. With the Bears’ tackling degenerating into lackadaisical, Wentz and the Eagles opted to try a fourth-and-goal conversion from the Chicago 2 when a field goal was a comfortable option for a three-score lead. The Bears initially made a stop but were offside, and the Eagles easily converted the second chance.

Adding to the misery of the night, the Bears were riddled with injuries, lowlighted by Jay leaving with a hand injury suffered on a tackle attempt following an interception. Cutler lost the final six games of a promising 2011 season to a broken thumb while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception to the San Diego Chargers.

More serious initially appeared to be a knee injury to linebacker Lamarr Houston in the second quarter. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Running back Ka’Deem Carey went out with a hamstring strain, and defensive backs Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan suffered concussions.

Fox has successfully turned around the fortunes of teams in Carolina and Denver. His message after Monday, in a year looking like anything but a turnaround:

“’Stay together,’” recounted tight end Zach Miller. “We understand that when you start 0-2 and put that product on the football field, we understand what’s going to be said, what’s going to come of it.”

What’s going to come of this defeat may not be so easy to understand.

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. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.