Bears

New leader of Bears defense Pernell McPhee on a 'playoff' mission

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New leader of Bears defense Pernell McPhee on a 'playoff' mission

When Pernell McPhee left the Baltimore Ravens and signed a five-year deal with the Bears this past offseason, it took him from a perennial-playoff contender to a team which hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2010. 

The former Super Bowl champion has a long list of goals that he wants to accomplish in Chicago, including turning the franchise into a playoff team.

The Bears still aren't close to becoming one just yet, but they showed in Sunday's 22-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders that they may not be as far away as some people think.

"We just have to lock arms and just believe in each other," McPhee said following Sunday's win. "And I think we came out today and did that.

"When we lock arms we're going to win. We went out there today and locked arms. We need to make sure those arms stay locked the rest of the season. And I think we can do damage. That's what it's about. Us playing as a brotherhood. Going out there and fighting for each other."

[MORE BEARS: Wild finish as Cutler leads Bears to first win of the season]

The Raiders came into Soldier Field on an offensive tear, averaging just over 450 yards of total offense and 32 points per game in their last two wins. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Latavius Murray and a young-and-upcoming Raiders offense was held to just 243 total yards and committed two turnovers in the loss. 

A suddenly resurgent Bears defense, that traded away veterans Jared Allen and Jon Bostic earlier this week, brought out some of the "dog" that McPhee has been talking about the unit needing to have since he came over from Baltimore.

And that lead dog, who clearly hasn't lose any motivation after cashing in on a $38.75 million contract with the Bears, was a big reason why against the Raiders. McPhee collected eight tackles on Sunday, continuing to prove his worth and fast becoming a player which opposing offenses have to gameplan for — something the Bears haven't had on defense since the likes of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman. 

"I think Pernell McPhee's play has been really beneficial to our football team," Bears head coach John Fox said. "Not just today. I think he's brought a certain mindset to our team that was needed and is much appreciated."

The one area that will stick out on McPhee's stat line from Sunday is his first career interception, which fell right into his arms after Murray bobbled a pass late in the first half, but his biggest impact game on a crucial third down play in the fourth quarter.

[MORE: Injuries in win over Raiders fell two more Bears starters]

WIth the Raiders primed to milk the clock and get in position to kick a potential game-winning field goal they ran an inside hand-off to backup running back Roy Helu Jr. on third-and-2 from the Bears' 22-yard line. McPhee penetrated through the line and stuck Helu Jr. in the backfield for a two-yard loss. The impact play gave the Bears enough time to get the ball back and drive for an eventual-game-winning Robbie Gould field goal.

"I'm on a mission. That's my emotion. The mission is playoffs, win, turn it around," McPhee said.

The Bears have needed a guy to step up on defense and make an impact play in a crucial moment, which is something that has been missing from the team the past few seasons.

And while McPhee is making his presence felt on the field, his leadership off it and in the locker room isn't going unnoticed by his teammates.

The Bears outside linebacker motivated his teammates with a speech on Saturday night which helped propel them to an inspired performance against the Raiders.

"McPhee's message to us was that we're brothers," Outside linebacker Sam Acho said. "At the end of the day we're brothers. We're a unit and we're a family. When you love somebody like a brother you play that much harder for them. When you respect someone like you respect your brother, I have a little brother who plays in the NFL and I love him and I've known him my whole life.

"These guys in the locker room are my brothers and so when you're playing for your brother you're playing that much harder. It just adds to it. There's something deep down inside. You don't get it in a lot of places, but in an NFL locker room you get it."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

That Bears brotherhood that McPhee talked about stretches beyond just the defense.

"McPhee's speech wasn't an offense or defense thing," Bears tight end Martellus Bennett said. "It was a team thing. McPhee has been a great addition to this team this year. I'm very proud of him.

"He's my type of guy. I thought he motivated a lot of guys and told us what this season is all about."

Bears GM Ryan Pace isn't going to hit on every big free agent acquisition, but so far it looks like he hit the McPhee signing out of the park.

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.