Bears

Moon: Thoughts for Bears after wild-card weekend

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Moon: Thoughts for Bears after wild-card weekend

Takeaways are more than just things defenses crave and offenses abhor. They’re also are learning opportunities presented by events, and there were a few for the Bears in the first seven days following the end of their disappointing 6-10 season:

A history first

John Fox would be the first to agree that the Bears need to be far better than their historically bad 1-7 at home in 2015. But the Bears were a healthy 5-3 on the road, which doesn’t exactly make them as a playoff team, but all four of the winners from wild-card weekend won on the road.

First time that’s ever happened. Which is a little surprising, because “road” teams in wild-card round routinely have better records than the home teams, which are “home” teams only because they won weaker divisions. The Kansas City Chiefs were 11-5 to host AFC South champion Houston’s 9-7. And the Green Bay Packers at 10-6 were clearly better than NFC East winner Washington at 9-7.

And what was that “what’s wrong with the Packers?” business again?

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!

For perspective purposes…

Blair Walsh’s far-wide-left miss of a field-goal try from 27 yards to cost the Minnesota Vikings advancing on to the NFC divisional playoffs doesn’t make Robbie Gould’s miss from 36 to win the San Francisco 49ers game any less gut-wrenching. But the Gould miss pales next to the Walsh head-shaker, from 10 yards closer, even if “the pressure of playoff football is real,” said former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison on NBC’s post-game show.

Interestingly perhaps, Walsh was the only NFL kicker with more field goals made (34) than Gould (33). Gould missed six. Walsh missed four…. make that five.

Dump Gould? In six playoff games (’05, ’06, ’10) Gould has had six field goals to kick. He made all six.

[MORE: Who will be Bears offensive coordinator after Gase's departure?

Cause for concern?

One of the semi-constants in the NFC North is that the Detroit Lions will overcome elite talent and manage to self-destruct and under-achieve more often than not. That’s how you become an organization that has won exactly one playoff game since 1957.

But on Sunday the Lions officially hired Ernie Accorsi as special advisor to team president Rod Wood.

This is not good news for the Bears.

Accorsi was a key consultant in the search that produced Ryan Pace and John Fox, actual football people with successful backgrounds, for the Bears. Wood was CEO of Ford Estates and was the choice of owner Martha Firestone Ford, neither of whom have any connection to football, which you like to see if you are a competing football organization.

But Wood and the organization bringing in a football force, as the Bears did, rather than again rely on Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips, points to astute executives with the savvy to know what they don’t know. Accorsi already was involved in the Lions’ hiring last Friday of Bob Quinn from the New England Patriots.

The Lions making intelligent organizational decisions is not what the Bears, Packers and Vikings need. Better to have Detroit perennially having the high first-round draft choices that come to an organization with just two winning seasons since the turn of the century.

[ALSO: Offensive free agents Bears could target

Coaching inanities…

Just when you think the NFL couldn’t get more dysfunctional come the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owner Malcolm Glazer and GM Jason Licht firing coach Lovie Smith after a season in which Smith increased the team win total by four despite a rookie quarterback (Jameis Winston) starting. Smith was tasked with rebuilding a team in shambles after the inept tenures of Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano. Only twice in the seven seasons since Jon Gruden left after 2008 have the Buccaneers won more than the six games they netted with Smith in 2015.

Smith effectively restored some sort of equilibrium to a Bears franchise that had exactly one winning season in the eight years before his hiring and one playoff trip in nine years. Firing Smith despite his having one losing season in his final eight said something about GM Phil Emery; firing Smith after tripling the Tampa Bay win total in one year says even more about the Buccaneers organization, with Smith the linebackers coach for teams that had only one losing season in his tenure there (1996-2000). Call it class-lite.

It’s one thing to make a coaching change when the direction of things is all too clear, as it was with Marc Trestman. It’s another altogether when the rate of ascent just isn’t steep enough for someone.

Cleveland, hiring its fifth head coach since 2009. Miami, where Adam Gase is the fifth head coach since 2011 and which didn’t think Todd Bowles at 2-1 as an interim that year was worth a longer look. Now Tampa Bay.

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.