Bears

Bears loss to Colts sets a new mark for frustration in 2016

Bears loss to Colts sets a new mark for frustration in 2016

INDIANAPOLIS –  This one stung. Really, really stung, because a game that wound up a 29-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts (2-3) was the Bears’ for the taking.

And they simply couldn’t, and had only themselves to blame.

“We’re close, man, we are so close,” fumed guard Kyle Long. “We should be putting up 30 points a game and it’s hard knowing we’re doing it to ourselves.”

He paused. “But if we continue in this direction, stop pumping rounds into our own feet, we are going to be very tough to stop.”

The Bears (1-4) were very tough to stop when they drove 96 yards in nine plays to take a 23-19 lead before a Lucas Oil Stadium crowd 66,622 in the middle of the fourth quarter.

But then...

A breakdown in coverage that allowed Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to get an inside route for a 35-yard go-ahead touchdown ... a Cameron Meredith fumble one play later at the start of a potential game-winning drive ... and finally, and most painfully, a fourth-down incompletion in the final minute toward Meredith while Alshon Jeffery was open in the end zone and quarterback Brian Hoyer never looked that way.

“Obviously you play the game to win,” said Hoyer, who posted career highs in yardage, attempts and completions. “So it’s disappointing to lose it that close. Go up late and then have one more shot at it at the end, and you’d really like to finish it off and follow through.

“It’s as disappointing as they come when you’re that close.”

Throw in five offensive penalties in the first half, three on the first drive alone, and you have basically the things that losing team do to become losing teams.

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“I feel like we’re doing a lot of great things but just can’t close out some drives,” said guard Josh Sitton, a veteran used to closing out drives from his years as a Green Bay Packer. “It’s really frustrating when you’re in a game you think you should win, and don’t.”

The game did accomplish one thing: cementing Hoyer in place for at least another week as the starting quarterback. This time coach John Fox didn’t appear to be even making any pretense about seeing how Jay Cutler’s injured thumb was during a week of practice before next Sunday’s game with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Hoyer completed 33 of 43 passes for 397 yards, two touchdown passes (to Jordan Howard and Meredith) and threw zero interceptions in his third consecutive outing, a stretch of 140 passes.

“I’m not going to get into speculation,” Fox said. “Jay is not healthy.”

But are the Bears?

Maybe more so in some respects than a 1-4 record might hint at. Howard rushed for 118 yards on 16 carries, following his 111 last Sunday and making him the first Bears back since Matt Forte in Dec. 2013 to register consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Meredith, pressed into the starting lineup after Kevin White went on IR with a broken leg from the Detroit game, caught nine of his 12 passes for 130 yards, 10 more than his yardage total of last season.

Willie Young collected three sacks of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the first time in his career Young has had three sacks in a game and giving him four for the season. Rookie lineman Jonathan Bullard had his first NFL sack. The Bears sacked Luck five times.

All of which should have combined for a dominating win, but none of which mattered because of the breakdowns. Only one stat matters – points – and the Bears allowed the Colts to score some they shouldn’t have, and failed to score ones of their own that they should have.

Connor Barth in the third quarter missed a 49-yard field goal, his third miss in eight tries as a Bear – not an easy kick (the 40-49-yard range was Robbie Gould’s toughest, too) but enough that Fox was not ruling out the Bears looking at kickers this week. That miss left the Bears in the position of needing a touchdown at the end of the game rather than being able to go for a tying field goal.

“I don’t know if [49 yards] is his forte coming in to begin with,” Fox said, “but we look at everything every week. I don’t think that’s on one guy by any stretch.”

It will not fall on one guy. No game ever turns on just one guy or one play; some at the end are just more noticeable than others sometimes.

But if the Bears were in search of an identity not all that long ago this season, they may not like the one that’s emerging from a defeat in which any one of any number of players could have made a play to win it.

And didn’t.

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.