Bears

Bears fail 'test of character' in loss to Redskins

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Bears fail 'test of character' in loss to Redskins

After the Bears lost to the San Francisco 49ers and fell to 5-7, Jarvis Jenkins termed the final four games of this season a “test of character.” If Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins was a test of character, then the 24-21 loss speaks volumes about something in the makeup of a Bears team that has gone from resembling a good team with fits of bad, to a bad team with spurts of good — from a team that had won three of its last four leaving Green Bay, to a team that now has lost three out of its last four.

John Fox specifically noted the importance of the last quarter of the season in evaluations of players. A second straight loss with playoff implications at stake, at home, against two teams that hadn’t previously won on the road all year, will be a very, very poor start for more than a few evaluations.

And few answers were forthcoming, even to the obvious question of what a team does to pull out of the freefall.

“You know, I don’t know if you do,” Fox acknowledged. "All I know is you have to work harder and get better. It’s not a lack of effort; it’s not a lack of want-to.”

[MORE BEARS: John Fox on Robbie Gould: 'We're not going to lose faith']

Or was it?

A lack of urgency was almost palpable in Soldier Field when a team that prided itself on being fighters and finishers was neither, twice now, with the season on the line. That perhaps was the most disturbing aspect of the Washington game, and really the San Francisco game as well. That the Bears weren’t “starters,” effectively spotting mediocre opponents advantages and then and only then deciding they’d better get going.

“The bottom line is that we have to come out and match their intensity,” said rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman, one of the few Bears who played anything close to a consistently solid game. “Usually we do that. In practice we do that. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong, but we’ve got to start fast and finish.”

The Bears knew the stakes, even had extra time to prepare for the 49ers, and played like a team with its playoff status already determined. Which now it is, in a manner almost hard to fathom after the spark that was present at Green Bay in what is now relegated to the status of “fluke.”

The defense that held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 13 points on Thanksgiving allowed a below-average Washington offense 14 in less than the first 16 minutes, then allowed four drives 50 yards or longer in the second half. The finger of blame will again point toward kicker Robbie Gould for his wide-right attempt from 50 yards in the closing minutes Sunday. But, like the San Francisco game, it should never have reached that point but for an offense that managed just one score on three second-quarter possessions on which the Bears drove the ball into Washington territory.

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Three times in the span of eight weeks the Bears have been in positions to win games and ascend to .500. Three times they failed, with bad games against Detroit, Denver and San Francisco. Two of those losses were to teams (Detroit, San Francisco) with losing records, as was Sunday’s to Washington (6-7).

And the Denver, San Francisco and Washington losses were all in Soldier Field, where the Bears now stand a woeful 1-6.

What was concerning, too, is that the Bears seem bewildered by their own lack of urgency that has seen opponents more than double their point total in 2015 first quarters. Including Sunday, the Bears have scored 41 first-quarter points, to opponents’ 89. The Bears were shut out for the first 15 minutes Sunday.

“I don’t have any idea or reason why it was,” wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said of another poor start to a winnable game.

Maybe that is the most ominous assessment of all.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.