Bears

Bears tackle Kyle Long named to third straight Pro Bowl

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Bears tackle Kyle Long named to third straight Pro Bowl

In the days before the 2015 game one against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears decided two-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long would suddenly become a tackle. Later in the season coach John Fox was clear: Kyle Long is a tackle.

The NFL apparently agrees, naming Long to his third straight Pro Bowl, this time as a tackle and replacing Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, who is out because of injury.

Long, who becomes the Bears’ sole representative in the Pro Bowl at this point, was surprised when his cell phone rang on Thursday and it was Fox calling, leaving a message to call him and it was “urgent.”

Long returned Fox's call and was treated to the news that, for all of his struggles at times in his “rookie” year at tackle, he was a Pro Bowl’er again.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

“It just makes me realize how great a fan base we have and appreciative of the voters week to week, the guys around me on the team,” Long said. “I can’t say enough about the guys on the team and the coaching.”

Long had said privately before the season that his personal goal was to be the first guard to be named to Pro Bowls in his first 10 seasons. The 2013 Bears No. 1 pick, 20th overall, is still on track for his 10-goal, but this one comes at a position he admits he wasn’t all that keen on before the change came.

After strong play early against the likes of Khalil Mack from Oakland and Justin Houston of Kansas City, Long had his difficult moments as well in the closing weeks. But the overall is what the Bears, and ultimately he, wanted in the way of performance.

“I think I made a big sacrifice in my career and I think this was, in a roundabout way, a reward for it,” Long said. “Unfortunately I dealt with a lot of growing pains and I’ve owned it. It’s been part of the learning process and I’ve tried to be positive every day.

“It’s been a fun process this year and there’ve been tough times, but Hawaii’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Long is the first Bears offensive lineman ever to receive Pro Bowl honors in his first three seasons. He also is the first since Brian Urlacher (2000-2002) to be named to Pro Bowls in his first three seasons, regardless of position, and the seventh Bear of all time to achieve that honor.

[MORE: Interest in Bears staff a strong positive statement by NFL]

Three of the last four are in the Hall of Fame, and Urlacher will be eligible in 2018, part of a class that will include Ray Lewis.

Long started all 16 games for the Bears this season at right tackle and was a part of a Bears offense that ranked third in franchise single-season history in completion percentage (63.9) and interception percentage (2.3), fourth in gross passing yards (3,843) and third-down percentage (42.5), fifth in net passing yards (3,660) and sixth in passer rating (89.7) and total net yards (5,514). Long helped protect QB Jay Cutler who had a career-high 92.3 passer rating while blocking for Matt Fortè, who finished ninth in the NFL this season averaging 99 yards from scrimmage per game.

“I’m just really appreciative of this and it’s a blessing to be able to represent the Bears in the Pro Bowl again,” Long said. As far as assessing his season, “when you have some separation from the season and time off, you get a chance to dissect the things you want to improve on for next year.

“That’s been the biggest thing for me since the break.”

Bears named to Pro Bowls in each of their first three NFL seasons:

G/T Kyle Long, 2013-15

LB Brian Urlacher, 2000-02

RB Gale Salers, 1965-67

LB Dick Butkus, 1965-67

TE Mike Ditka, 1961-63

RB Rick Casares, 1955-57

WR Harlon Hill, 1954-56

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.