Mid-year musings: Some stories ending, some starting with Bears at the break

Mid-year musings: Some stories ending, some starting with Bears at the break

The first half of the Bears’ 2016 season ended on an up note in the form of their 20-10 handling of the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. Drawing conclusions from one game is always something of a dice-roll, particularly in a 2-6 year to date.

But there are some bread-crumb trails coming into and out of this game that lead in some interesting directions.

A culture change has taken root

A foundation of John Fox’s mission statement when he arrived in 2015 was to change a losing culture that had taken hold during the Phil Emery-Marc Trestman regime. The winning hasn’t happened as Fox and more than a few players expected, this year in particular, but the attitude adjustment was evident in the aftermath of the Vikings game.

From Jay Cutler to Pernell McPhee to Akiem Hicks to Willie Young and so on, the mood was edgy, but not in the finger-pointing, negative direction. Players were angry at their early season failures and pulling closer, not further apart.

“To tell you the truth,” guard Ted Larsen said, “we were getting pretty sick of the way things were going.”

Nearly two-dozen players got together last week to watch a pre-U.S.-release copy of “Bleed for This,” a film about boxer Vinny Pazienza, who came back from a spinal injury to win world titles. The film’s tag line is “This is what the greatest comeback in sports history looks like,” and it left an impression on multiple Bears, some back from injuries of their own.

“It showed what a comeback takes,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “And we know we have that.”

The Bears probably wouldn't have had the same reaction to adversities if Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall were still prominent in the team culture. But they no longer are, and Cutler’s talk about “cold-blooded execution” and McPhee’s about how “pissed off” teammates should be even in victory had a whole different ring than Marshall once grandstand-ranting “Unacceptable!” in the locker room. Teammates told Marshall to shut up. No one told Cutler or McPhee to stow it.

Fox handled the Cutler-Brian Hoyer situation correctly

Cutler going down for five games with a thumb injury put Hoyer into the starting lineup and that position in play as it has not been since Cutler’s arrival in 2009, with the brief exception of Josh McCown’s moments in 2013. Two elements here:

What made the Cutler-McCown situation different was that coach and general manager were at odds over the resolution. Trestman wanted to stay with McCown and his offense management; Emery ordered Cutler back in the lineup when healthy and gave the quarterback $54 million guaranteed after that season.

Coach and GM are decidedly in unison in the Cutler-Hoyer drama, which was rendered moot when Hoyer suffered his broken arm at Green Bay. Both Fox and Ryan Pace viewed 2016, marking the end of guaranteed Cutler money, as a prove-it year for Cutler, which it will have been, regardless of where he ends up in 2017.

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But Fox did what Trestman was enjoined from doing: underscore the “competition” mantra by making it clear that Hoyer could win the job based on performance. This was not Tom Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo in New England, where Bill Belichick laughed at a question whether Garoppolo could keep the job if he played well during Brady’s suspension.

Cutler will never be confused with Brady any more than Matt Flynn was going to make a starter case for himself (in Green Bay, anyway) while Aaron Rodgers was out injured in 2013.

Fox supported Hoyer; you play better than the other guy, you keep playing. Then he supported Cutler, who clearly didn’t like his job being put in play. But there it was. Indeed, Cutler performed his best (2015) when he was on a prove-it count, as he did again Monday night.

Fox critics (they are legion, and it’s weirdly personal) depicted his statements as mixed or conflicting messages. They weren’t. It was about performance. And this time coach and GM were in complete agreement.

Finishing is everything

Multiple players alluded on Monday to finishing, something the Bears have failed to do, with calamitous results. Four of the Bears’ eight opponents (Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Green Bay) scored double-digit points in their fourth quarters against the Bears, all four handing the Bears defeats. The Vikings scored their one touchdown in the fourth quarter, but that was with the Bears up 20-3.

“The defense held them to three points until the final five minutes to go,” Cutler said.

But that was only half the story. “Finishing” involves more than defensive stops.

Cutler and the offense did some finishing of their own. The Bears had the football four times in the second half, with an average starting position of the Chicago 19. They scored just once, a clinching touchdown. But they controlled the ball on possessions of 5:08, 4:15, 3:57 and 5:37, all six or more plays long, when any one of those possessions could have positioned the Vikings for a game-change if the Bears gave up the football with a three-and-out deep in their own end.

CSN colleague and former Bears quarterback Jim Miller noted on our postgame show that the Bears’ running of their four-minute offense was pivotal to him, and results underscore that.

“We had a good drive to start the third quarter,” Fox said. “Obviously we had a pretty impactful four-minute drive at the end to secure the game.”

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. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.