Bears’ fight building into an identity as finishers


Bears’ fight building into an identity as finishers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the victorious Bears streamed into their Arrowhead Stadium locker room Sunday afternoon, their 18-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in hand, Jarvis Jenkins threw his head back and let out with a roar that rattled windows in Des Moines. “I’m a happy dog, man,” Jenkins said, laughing. “That was some finish.” (More on that last word shortly)

Kyle Long, still wearing his game face, strode by with his own roar: “CHICAGO BEARS, MAN!” Coach John Fox, he of 2013 open-heart surgery, had himself under control…to a point, then let loose: “Way to FIGHT, men! THAT’S what I’m talking about!” (one nearby staffer later remarking, “Thank God he had his heart fixed before THIS one!”)

Winning does bring out that sort of thing. But it was the way of the Bears winning that was and is the real point.

For the second straight week, the Bears shook off problems, some admittedly of their own making, and came back to win a football game. In the process, the identity of the John Fox Bears came into sharper focus, and it was far more important than an “identity” as a running football team, a defense-based team or anything football-specific.

Losing doesn’t build character; losing reveals character. And the start of the 2015 season under Fox has revealed much about Bears character and identity. Losing the first three games didn’t reveal how bad the Bears were or were going to be; it was revealing something else.

Fox had made winning an emphasis during a 3-1 preseason, looking to take another step in eradicating a losing culture and replacing it with something quite different. Back in the Green Bay game, in which Clay Matthews’ interception of Jay Cutler ended what was a potential game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, signs were there. After the Packers scored to seemingly put the game away with a 15-point lead, Cutler simply went back out on the field and directed a 72-yard drive for an answering touchdown. Not enough, but an identity was forming.

[MORE: John Fox and Co. do all the right things]

In the locker room at halftime Sunday, with the Bears down 17-3 and doing little in any phase of the game – “We had so many excuses that could’ve been there, with the injuries and everything,” said Matt Forte – talk among players was only in one direction.

“You could’ve rolled over,” said defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff. “If you looked at that point deficit [17-3], you could’ve said, ‘Let’s just come back next week.’ But nobody had that mentality, nobody took that approach.”

“In the beginning everybody says they want to go to the Super Bowl. All that talk. Some teams start off real hot. Other teams start off with adversity. We’re one of those. We just have to keep going, one week at a time, because that’s the good thing.”

The underlying point was even deeper than one week at a time. The Kansas City game would have been lost if the Bears defense had been satisfied with stopping the Chiefs on three plays inside the Chicago 10 at the end of Kansas City’s first drive of the second half, that already had pushed the Bears backwards for 71 yards. Forcing the Chiefs to settle for three points would have been generally classed as a success.

But – getting back to Jenkins’ “finish” word from earlier – Pernell McPhee crashed through to block Cairo Santos’ 27-yard attempt, a “finish” for special teams in keeping with what the Bears see as their true identity. Finishers.

“We always talk about ‘finishing,’ at practice, in the weight room, everywhere,” Jenkins said. “And you could see it at halftime when we’re down 17-3 and we’re saying, ‘We got to finish this game.’ Believe and finish.

“The defense gets a third-down stop. Finish. The offense goes down and scores. Finish. That’s what we tell ourselves. Finish. Then at crunch time, you make plays and finish.”

[MORE: Cutler leads another fourth-quarter comeback]

Talking about finishing is easy unless something else is part of the character: “Man, this team’s got a lot of fight, a lot of fight,” Jenkins added, shaking his head. “We put ourselves in some bad situations but there’s so much fight in this team.”

As Fox himself had said on his way into the locker room: “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

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. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.