Bears

Lovie: Bears have core in place, starting with Cutler

369720.jpg

Lovie: Bears have core in place, starting with Cutler

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
2:05 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

INDIANAPOLIS New York Jets coach Rex Ryan on Thursday issued a declaration and a guarantee that the Jets will win the next Super Bowl. That isnt Lovie Smiths style and he wouldnt guarantee much more than max effort from his team and staff.

But he was very, very clear that the core from a team that was within a score of reaching the last Super Bowl is in place.

Theres a couple of areas we need to improve, Smith said, but I think the core is in place, starting with our quarterback, Jay Cutler, leading us. I wouldnt want any other quarterback except for Jay. Im excited about him going into that second year with Mike and seeing those improvements on the offensive side.

READ: Lovie, Bears agree to extension through 2013

The sting of the 21-14 loss to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game has faded a bit by this time. Seven points. That is a deficit Smith is certain that the Bears can make up.

We know that were close, Smith said. We played the Super Bowl champions as well as anyone in the course of the year. And we need to; theyre in our division like some of our other division opponents. We feel like well make ground on them next year.

Position flux?

For all of the travail and shuffling of last season, sources told CSNChicago.com that the Bears quite possibly could open the 2011 season with none of their 2010 offensive line starters in the same places they were. Olin Kreutz is a free agent and the collective bargaining uncertainty has some of those kinds of situations on hold.

But offensive line is an offseason target area. Frank Omiyale is not a lock at left tackle, nor is Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at right guard or JMarcus Webb at right tackle.

READ: Bears, Packers shouldn't look past the Lions

I dont think you try to just pin yourself down on those things, Smith said. There are a lot of different options. What I like is when you have guys with flexibility. You mentioned Chris Williams. Hes played three different positions. That gives you flexibility. Like our safeties Chris Harris, Danieal Manning, Major Wright. All of those players can play different positions.

Enough about Jay already

A reporter who appeared to not be paying a lot of recent attention wondered if Smith was satisfied with the toughness of his quarterback. There are few things that spark an anger flash in Smith the way questions about Jay Cutlers toughness after his knee injury do.

Just to kind of hit Jay one last time, Smith said, measuring his words.No. Theres no question about Jays toughness or anything like that. For guys to even challenge that or question that dont know what theyre talking about, dont know him. Hes as tough as any quarterback in the league. Really, Ive said enough about him.

Tice talk

The Bears turned down a request from the Tennessee Titans to interview offensive line coach Mike Tice for the Titans post of offensive coordinator under new coach Mike Munchak. It was not a move out of spite; anything but. The team earlier allowed special teams assistant Chris Tabor to go to the Cleveland Browns and permitted defensive backs coach Jon Hoke to interview with the Philadelphia Eagles opening at defensive coordinator. Defensive line assistant Eric Washington also was permitted to interview and leave.

But those moves were some time ago and the vacancies were quickly filled. The Tice situation was deeper into the offseason, to the point where finding a quality assistant would have been virtually impossible.

A lot of things come into play, Smith said. As a general rule I would like to see our guys advance anytime they can. But theres a deadline a little bit there. Its a little late in the game. Mike was OK. Its not like were keeping any secrets or anything. Mikes excited about being on our staff right now. The timing wasnt right for it right then.

But you look at it. We had other coaches going out. Jon Hoke interviewed for the defensive coordinator position a little earlier in the year. We felt like it was a little late in the season and we felt we had to go with looking at whats best for the Chicago Bears.

Ill make a prediction that the guys are going to play as hard as they possibly can each week and I can take the results knowing the football team that we have. I can just guarantee you were going to play the way our players play always. Cant ask for anything more from them. Theres nothing guaranteed. But you look at our history. Weve won more games than weve lost. In our team here, weve won the division championship three times. Weve been to the championship game a couple years. Our staff knows what theyre doing. We have good players. And I like our chances next year.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

john_fox_mullin_story.jpg
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.