John Mullin

Accountability, identity non-existent with two-thirds of Bears core identity in shambles

Accountability, identity non-existent with two-thirds of Bears core identity in shambles

Focusing on issues other than John Fox’s job situation, which was settled for this week when he did his regular day-after press conference on Monday… Sunday’s 15-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers came with some ominous indicators, some continuing a problem, others hinting at a new one or two.

The defeat marked the first time this season that the Bears lost a game in which they held a lead entering a fourth quarter, after wins over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Carolina in which they began fourth quarters with leads.

But there’s a problem just below the surface here. Because this was the third time the Bears defense failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead. And that, coupled with a worsening offensive run game (sub-65 rushing yards in three of the last four games), points to two of the three foundation pillars of the Fox Bears being broken to the level of shattered.

Special teams is the third pillar, and Tarik Cohen’s 61-yard TD punt return papered over issues there; but ‘teams failed to get the game-saving block of the final Robbie Gould field goal, so…

Defense and a physical run game are core elements of the Bears’ stated franchise identity under Fox. In their current state of tatters, that effectively means the Bears have no discernible identity at this abysmal point of 2017.

As the 49ers did, the Steelers and Ravens both caught the Bears from behind. The Bears were able to generate OT scores in the latter two, but the defense that was to have been a hallmark under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio cannot be counted on to win a game when presented with a lead.

The open sore is third down, where five of the Bears’ last six opponents have converted more than 40 percent of third downs. Only three of the Bears’ 12 opponents this season have converted less than 40 percent against a nickel unit that has been without full-measure Leonard Floyd (IR), Willie Young (IR) and Pernell McPhee, who played just seven snaps against San Francisco before leaving with a shoulder issue. Those three represent the ninth-overall pick of a draft, a significant contract extension and the marquee free-agent signing of GM Ryan Pace’s first year – all marginalized.

“Getting pressure on the quarterback,” Fox cited as a specific reason for third-down problems. “Sometimes people ask me what the best pass defense is, and it’s a pass rush. There’s a lot of different coverages and all those things you do. I’d say over the last couple weeks, that has probably been a little bit of our issue.”

***

Fox was hired to turn around a franchise that had come badly off the rails under GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman. But more than any single defeat or couple defeats, Fox’s undoing projects to be the consistent inability of Fox to turn his team around over what is now three years, repeatedly when presented with platinum opportunities to point his team’s arrow up.

The first brace of those came about this time in 2015 when the Bears dropped home games to San Francisco and Washington to squander a chance to reach .500 or beyond. This year the failures came vs. Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers after the off week, and the next week against Detroit, followed by even more heinous performances in a lay-down vs. the Philadelphia Eagles and the sleepwalk vs. the 49ers.

Accountability now becomes a concern, with Fox making no changes and GM Ryan Pace leaving Fox in place rather than make a change in order to leave no question that losing this way is intolerable. Fox for his part expressed no worry over whether players would now begin to shut down, physically or emotionally, now that another season is lost.

“I don't really look at the "lost" word. Right now, the best we can finish is 7-9 and as I said last week the worst we can finish is 3-13. Like I said, we're all professionals. We're going to play the guys we think give us the best chance to win every week. Who that is and how that evolves, I don't know yet. We do it day to day. That's really all I know.”

As bad as the offense has become, Fox declined to issue what might be construed as a harsh ultimatum for his staff and players on that side of the football.

“Any time you bring in new quarterbacks, we all have to answer that, and we're all big boys and we get it,” Fox said. “I'd like to have been more productive offensively but the reality is we're kind of where we are. Playing a lot of young players, in particularly at the quarterback position, I've seen improvement in him, and that's kind of what I look for is are we getting better.”

***

Fox opted against letting the 49ers score a touchdown on their final possession, with the intention of saving timeouts and turn the game over to his offense with time enough for a winning touchdown drive. There are zero good choices in that situation but Fox made the right one.

Trubisky and the offense had given absolutely no indication that they could sustain any drive long enough to score without a long kickoff return. The longest Bears drive of the game was 59 yards, for a first-quarter touchdown, and the offense had managed even a first down on two of the five possessions since then, with drives of 33 and 44 yards accounting for approximately half the offensive yardage for the game. Fox’s special teams arguably had as much chance of a game-winning block as his offense did of a touchdown.

And I was covering Super Bowl XXXII when Mike Holmgren decided to let John Elway and the Denver Broncos score a free TD, with the plan to answer with a winning TD drive. That didn’t work. And Holmgren had Brett Favre.

***

Whether they were failures to coach Mitch Trubisky on situational football or simply a couple rookie mistakes, the quarterback committed a pair of head-scratching errors in seemingly common-sense situations.

When 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas drew a flag for jumping offsides ahead of the snap in the first quarter, Trubisky was handed a de facto free play at the San Francisco 43. Instead of looking deep and improving a free shot at the end zone, Trubisky threw short and incomplete underneath to tight end Daniel Brown. The Bears eventually scored but free plays are not to be squandered, particularly ones with chances at longer gains either through completion or interference infraction.

Trubisky also went out of bounds a yard short of a first down on a third-down scramble in the second quarter. Linebacker Ruben Foster had a closing angle on Trubisky but failing to turn upfield in an effort get the additional yard, while understandable on first or second downs, was less so when it ended a possession at three-and-out.

Overall, Trubisky continues to draw high marks in losing performances: “I thought Mitch played arguably his best game,” Fox said on Monday. “There were a couple decisions I think he'd like to have back, not that they were huge errors. We did not turn the ball over, we were plus-1 in the turnover ratio.”

But little things will make differences at the pro level, particularly in a game decided by one kick and one point, and Trubisky twice was curiously short of what might have been.

Bears total collapse continues in loss to 49ers as pressure builds on John Fox, Ryan Pace

Bears total collapse continues in loss to 49ers as pressure builds on John Fox, Ryan Pace

The Bears have never fired a head coach during a season, and may not now even after a demoralizing 15-14 loss Sunday to the woeful San Francisco 49ers dropped them to 3-9.  But with this defeat, their fifth straight, John Fox and his players have taken matters past the point at which GM Ryan Pace will have any choice but to make a coaching change at the end of a season that has now gone into freefall.

When exactly the change comes really isn’t the point, so much as the fact that the Bears now are assured of a third straight losing season under Fox and the culture that Fox and Pace sought to instill is now in tatters. The reality appears to have set in that Fox is not able to effect a course correction, meaning that it falls to Pace to perform a franchise turnaround with a statement move of accountability.

Because the results of the stretch since the Bears stood 3-4 now threaten Pace as well, since he now is assured of three straight losing seasons on his GM dance card. To go another season with Fox, who does have one more year on the contract that brought him to Chicago in 2015, imperils any prospect that Pace would then get to hire a second coach in his tenure.

Management green-light’ing Pace to make a second coaching hire after four poor years is problematic at best; Phil Emery got no second hire after just two poor years, which in total were considerably better than the Fox/Pace tenures.

Also, extrapolating a little: Staying with Fox for year four all but locks the coaching staff in place with only modest chances for upgrades, should those be sought. Dick Jauron once had to settle for John Shoop as offensive coordinator in 2001 because the prevailing NFL take was that Jauron was likely done without a winning season that year, his third. Nobody else would take the job without a multi-year deal, and the Bears weren’t giving those to new hires for a teetering head coach.

The 2017 collapse has given Fox the dubious honor of worst winning percentage in franchise history -- .273 – beneath even Abe Gibron’s .274 posted from 1972-74.

Whether Pace and the organization can allow the spiral to go on for another four weeks, when a change ultimately is all but assured after Sunday’s sleepwalk against an NFC bottom-feeder, is fodder for talks late Sunday around Halas Hall offices. A coach-firing now would accomplish little other than satisfy some of the virulent Fox haters but it would send a strong, harsh message to a locker room that now could best be described as lost.

“We’re still searching,” said veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara, who was speaking specifically about finding ways to win close games but inadvertently described more than the Bears on Sunday.

If there is a bitter irony to Sunday’s embarrassment, it lay in the winning field goal was the last of five off the foot of Robbie Gould and played out against San Francisco (2-10). It was Gould’s miss from 38 yards at the end of regulation in the 2015 game against the 49ers, which was won in overtime by San Francisco, that started what has been a global Bears slide. The Bears were 5-6 at the time, possessed of a chance to reach .500, only to have Gould miss.

Since then the Fox Bears have gone 7-26. Gould now stands 2-0 against the team that cut him despite his place in Bears history, having helped the New York Giants to a win over the Bears last season.

Identity lost

The Bears have espoused a desired identity of a physical running team that plays consistent solid defense and makes plays on special teams. Sunday saw a little of the last but a complete show of flailing in the first two.

The once-solid defense may have forced the 49ers to settle for five field goals, but those came at the ends of five drives of 60 yards or longer, including one in the third quarter lasting 14 plays, 70 yards and 8:19 of clock time. The 49ers had at least one first down on seven of eight possessions which fed into their having the football nearly 39 minutes, helped by the Bears’ offense’s inability to stay on the field (zero first downs on four of its seven possessions).

The problem wasn’t the offense, however, or the defense wearing down. Three of the 49ers first six possessions went for drives of 11 or more plays. This for a team with a defense-based head coach and one of the acknowledged better defensive coordinators.

The Bears allowed just one (Atlanta) of their first seven opponents more than 315 yards in a game. They have held zero of their last five to fewer than 340. San Francisco ranked 26th (one slot ahead of the Bears) in third-down conversions, at 34.1 percent, before Sunday. The Bears allowed the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo in his first start to convert 10 of 18 (56 percent).

“I think the third-down defense was problematic,” Fox said, adding, “We didn’t generate much rush and that makes life for a quarterback a little better.” The Bears had 2 sacks of Garoppolo and just 3 other hits on him in 39 dropbacks.

Progress lost

Chairman George McCaskey stated that “progress” was his specific requirement for the Fox regime this year. McCaskey could not have seen where he needed to see it most any on Sunday. Again.

For the fifth time in six opportunities, Mitch Trubisky did not achieve the standard of excellence expected from franchise quarterbacks – that of taking his team to scores at the most pivotal points of games, specifically in fourth quarters with games at stake. Trubisky has thrown just 3 touchdown passes total over his past six games.

Only two of the 49ers’ previous 11 opponents scored fewer than 20 points. The Bears make that three of 12, and failed to score more than 17 points in nine of their 12 games.

The Bears went into Sunday’s fourth quarter leading 14-12, a situation where a field goal or certainly a touchdown puts them beyond reach of a Gould’s foot. Trubisky, who finished 12-of-15 for just 102 yards, a TD to Dontrelle Inman and a rating of 117.2, was unable to advance the Bears past the San Francisco 42 on any of the Bears three possessions in the second half.

Trubisky went into Sunday with the poorest rating in the NFC for fourth-quarter passing, with only Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer beneath him in the entire NFL. Trubisky’s total QBR was the NFL’s worst and for a quarterback whose chief selling points included accuracy, a completion rate of 52.8 percent could only be viewed as concerning. His seven starts have but only Baltimore (No. 2) and Philadelphia (No. 8) rank in the top 10 in completion percentage.

Trubisky did avoid turnovers, with zero interceptions thrown for the fifth time in his last seven starts. He did complete 80 percent of his passes. “I did take care of the football and was pretty efficient throwing the ball,” Trubisky said, without any particular trace of satisfaction.

But “it starts with me – I have to get better every week and be more consistent, especially on third downs,” Trubisky said. “We’ll see what we’re made of this week and practice. We’re going to bring the energy and fire, and finish out these games.”

“Finish out” what exactly?

Energy and fire would be positives, but it has seemed non-existent since before the loss at New Orleans, when the Bears were being bandied about in playoff imaginings.

Fox admitted to difficulty even coming up with words for his team, which may still believe in its coaches but cannot have confidence in much of anything. And without that…

Stretching the non-clinical definition of insanity, that of repeating the same actions over and over and expecting different result, Fox’s post-game thoughts had a little of that in them.

“I think we had a great week of preparation,” Fox said, echoing Trubisky and other players. “I think the guys’ mindsets are good and they are working at it.

"We’re going back to work with our heads down and we will continue to work. I wish I had something better to tell [Bears fans].”

Fox may wish he had something better to tell a few other people as well.

Bears hoping Mitch Trubisky is the future, but what does that mean for John Fox right now?

foxtrubiskybears.png
USA TODAY

Bears hoping Mitch Trubisky is the future, but what does that mean for John Fox right now?

The fate of coach John Fox will be a dominant story line through the remainder of the 2017 season, right above or just below the ongoing state of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. But while Trubisky’s draft selection hangs heaviest on the career shoulders of GM Ryan Pace, the link between Fox and Trubisky is worth more than a passing look, because Trubisky may figure prominently in whether Fox sees the fourth season of his Bears contract from a Chicago sideline.

Fox may or may not have known specifically which quarterback Pace was going to grab with the third-then-second pick of the draft. He actually didn’t really need to know, having spent very in-depth time with all of the top four (Trubisky, Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer) in advance of the draft. His thoughts on each were on file with Pace, who would never have saddled his head coach with someone he didn’t want.

The real discussion between Fox and Pace wasn’t which quarterback; it was whether an impact-now player (as in Solomon Thomas, whom the 49ers took after the flip-flop with the Bears). Coming off two seasons with a combined 9-23 record and coaching for his job, Fox would not have been out of line to demand a defensive difference-maker.

That didn’t happen, and Fox went along with two years of trying it with Jay Cutler, allowing the organization not to have to walk away from a lot of money guaranteed to Cutler. Pace for his part did not use a single pick in his first two drafts on a quarterback. Meaning: Fox was going into this pivotal season with a career backup (Mike Glennon) and not much else.

It strikes this observer as a stretch for Pace and the organization to summarily jettison Fox after he’d made do with little in the way of quarterbacking – after operating with Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, winning a game with each, and after Fox’d gone with a rookie with 13 college starts in what is a developmental year for Trubisky. I don’t think Pace or the organization operate that way.

As Fox and every coach makes clear, however, coaches don’t make decisions on players; players make those decisions for them. Up one level, GM’s don’t necessarily make decisions on coaches; coaches effectively make those decisions on themselves in a results-based business. If the Bears go 5-0 over the final games, Fox will see year four. If he’s 0-5, he’s made Pace’s decision for him.

Where it becomes intriguing is if Fox’s Bears go, say, 3-2 the rest of the way. If the situation is on the cusp, ownership may look at escalating numbers of empty seats and press for change. Or if progress (Chairman George McCaskey’s mantra) has happened, maybe in the form of wins over San Francisco, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and strong matchups with Detroit and a caring Minnesota, do Pace and the organization look big picture, honestly assess what Fox has done with the quarterback situation, and let it ride?

If Fox and his offensive staff have brought Trubisky to an NFL level in the span of 12 games – and there were signs even in the Green Bay and Detroit gaffes that the kid has some right stuff – Fox returning for year four may be the right thing to do.

*                          *                          *

Nothing like a little quarterback controversy to generate interest, buzz, whatever. But to have two in the same week, side by side, going to be on the same field….

That’s the situation leading up to Sunday’s game between the Bears and San Francisco 49ers, the Bears with their franchise quarterback still wobbly on training wheels, and the 49ers hoping they got theirs and he’s as good as the New England Patriots thought he was. Both the Bears and 49ers traded to acquire their guys; both had free shots to get the other’s guy earlier this year.

Bears-49ers is sort of a mini “who-got-the-better-deal?” deal. Which is sort of a big deal, seein’ as how both teams are desperately looking for their franchise quarterback to happen.

Mitch Trubisky vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. They won’t ever be on a playing field at the same time but they project to face each other with some measure of frequency, which means a whole lot of potential second-guessing for both organizations.

The Bears draw the 49ers next season at Levi’s Stadium based on the division rotation that has the Bears vs. the NFC West next year, making it five straight years for Bears-49ers.

(The Bears also are on pace to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the fifth straight season, both teams pretty solidly ensconced in last place, and the Bears draw the same-place finishers in the NFC East (Giants) and South (Bucs) next year.)

If Trubisky goes supersonic, San Francisco GM John Lynch will be saddled with explaining why he didn’t see what Trubisky could be when Lynch was sitting there on draft day at No. 2 and his caller-ID blinking, “Bears – Ryan Pace.”

If Trubisky doesn’t go supernova, and Garoppolo turns out to be the goods, Pace could be excused for what-if musings over whether Garoppolo would have been worth giving New England the No. 1 and No. 3 picks the Patriots demanded in a trade for Garoppolo back in the Spring. And Pace well could be doing those musings somewhere other than Chicago.

Longtime NFL reporter Peter King was allowed to cover the draft from inside the San Francisco draft room, and in his story Peter gleaned that the 49ers had another team sniffing besides the Bears. Still, the general conclusion has been that the Bears stood a very good chance that Trubisky could still have been theirs if they’d stood pat at No. 3.

The problem with that is the word “chance.” Does an NFL team allow “chance” to be an element in the process of securing what it believes to be a franchise quarterback? Among one sampling of distinguished opinions from sources more than a little familiar with quarterbacks – Ernie Accorsi, Jon Gruden, Bill Polian, Ron Wolfe – the reaction was absolute: Pace should not have waited and taken a chance that Trubisky would be there at No. 3.

The net was that, after Pace traded down in round two and added picks, was that the Bears gave up basically a third-round pick to move up for Trubisky. For what it’s worth, which of course isn’t a whole, whole lot, the Bears actually “won” the Trubisky trade, by a few points, based on the ever-popular draft tables that place a points value on every draft slot.

Who won or was jobbed in the draft-day trade really doesn’t matter now. What matters will play out Sunday in Soldier Field.