Bears

How Moon's 10-6 prediction on 2015 Bears schedule came to be

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How Moon's 10-6 prediction on 2015 Bears schedule came to be

Chatting with ProFootballTalk.com legend Mike Florio on NBC Radio’s “PFT Live!” Wednesday morning was a good chance to noodle over how a call of 10-6 could possibly be made for a Bears team coming off a two-year death spiral that ended with five straight losses and its 5-11 final count. (One good friend in the business suggested that I made my picks while in a marijuana shop. Let the record show that I have been in Florida most recently and absolutely nowhere near Colorado or Washington. Just in case you were wondering.)

The topic of the day, the week really, is the Bears’ schedule. Florio wondered if there was a wave of civic angst over the Bears getting such a difficult start to the season, with Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle their first three games. While that’s a load of a work order for a team starting out with a new head coach, my take is that the norm for thinking on the Bears is that there’s so much negativity still raging from last season, that most folks don’t think it matters when the Bears would play the Packers, Cardinals or Seahawks; they’ll lose anyhow.

Mike threw out that it might be better for a team beginning over with a new coaching staff and new players to open with easier games and build some cohesion and momentum. My take was a little different.

[MORE BEARS: Bears open 2015 with three straight teams from ’14 playoffs]

The Bears are putting out an enormously changed team, particularly on defense. With someone as accomplished as head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the absence of film on the “new” Bears may be to their advantage. They won’t reveal a lot in preseason, so let Aaron Rodgers figure it out starting on Sept. 13.

I’ve gone against the easy flow that says the Bears under Fox will be every bit as bad as the Bears under Marc Trestman.

I just don’t see it. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, I just don’t see it.

“Coaching” is the qualitative

The qualitative part is Fox. At age 60, he wasn’t going to just take a job to have a job, and he wasn’t going to take an irreparable situation and invest years on a rebuild at this point in life.

[MORE BEARS: Bears' 2015 regular season schedule released]

More to the point, when he has taken over train wrecks (Carolina 2002, Denver 2011) he had them back on the rails in two years or less. Similarly, successful veteran coaches taking over teams routinely effect immediate improvement – Bruce Arians in Arizona, Jim Caldwell in Detroit, Andy Reid in Kansas City. Fox fits with that group and has achieved major turnarounds not once, but twice.

Players are the quantitative

But the quantitative part is no less part of the “10-6” thinking. The Bears project to have not only a radically different defensive scheme with Fangio’s 3-4. They also project to have as many as eight new starters on defense, including every member of the front seven with the possible exception of Jeremiah Ratliff, and even he would be starting at nose tackle instead of three-technique if he finishes the preseason ahead of Ego Ferguson on the depth chart.

Pernell McPhee had more sacks (7.5) in 2014 than any Bear and McPhee played only about half the Baltimore Ravens snaps. Antrel Rolle even at 32 is immediately the best safety the Bears have had since Mike Brown was in his prime a decade ago.

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McPhee and Rolle also bring Super Bowl rings with them, and both are part of position groups that the essence of complimentary. McPhee is part of a pass rush that portends a large upgrade for the entire defense. And Rolle’s veteran presence and excellence anchor a secondary that does nothing but help buy time for McPhee and the rush to get home. And how much does Rolle project to help the development of Kyle Fuller at cornerback?

Here’s the overall:

For no team in the 25 years of my covering the Chicago Bears has the “whole” been so much less than the sum of its parts. And in no case have I concluded that so much of the fault lay with the head coach and staff. Players on the field are absolutely the core of the game. Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Mel Tucker didn’t throw an interception or give up a touchdown. But their “turnovers” bordered on epic.

A criticism of military generals is that they too often are preparing to fight the last war. Similarly, viewing the ’15 Bears through the prism of ’14 is like looking at anything through a prism – the view is warped.

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.