Akiem Hicks

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

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USA TODAY

Bears players praise John Fox after what is likely to be his final game: 'I know he's a great coach'

MINNEAPOLIS — John Fox’s postgame press conference lasted all of a minute following Sunday’s 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, with the third-year Bears coach, to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch, seemingly only there so he wouldn’t get fined.

“Look, I’m here, the league makes me be here to talk about this game, and that’s what we’ll keep it to,” Fox said when asked a question about his future. “And anything after that, we’ll keep you posted. Any other questions?”

There weren’t, besides a follow-up about if he really didn’t know when he’d meet with Ryan Pace and team ownership to decide his fate. Fox abruptly walked off the podium, bringing to end what all but certainly was his last press conference as head coach of the Bears.

The Bears didn’t announce a decision on Fox shortly after the game, as the Indianapolis Colts did in firing coach Chuck Pagano on Sunday afternoon. Players said Fox’s comments to the team after the game didn’t feel like a farewell address, and Fox did say (in his opening statement before taking two questions from the media) that he told the players “there’s a good culture in that locker room, there’s good guys. Obviously we need some pieces added. And really, to every one of them, to everybody in there, there’ll be better days moving forward.”

In all likelihood, the better days moving forward — if they happen — will be without Fox. If he indeed is on his way out, he’ll have left a largely positive impression on his players, even if they collectively are 14-34 in the last three years.

“He believes in us even when everyone else doubts,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “And for me as a player, you can’t ask for anything more. Everyone else is doubting you and he believes in the bottom of his heart, the depths of his soul. That’s all you can ask for as a player. You want a coach who believes — that was my only goal, when I was a free agent last year, my only goal was to go to a place who had a coach who believes in me. And coach Fox is that. That’s who he is.”

Added linebacker Danny Trevathan, who played for Fox in Denver from 2012 to 2014 prior to joining the Bears before the 2016 season: “I know he’s a great coach and whatever he does, he’s going to be good at.”

Fox does deserve credit for changing what was a less-than-harmonious culture after arriving at Halas Hall in 2015. The Bears didn’t quit on the 2017 season, even as the losses piled up, and Fox had a lot to do with that.

But does not quitting on a season really matter when the team is 5-11?

“The record don’t show it,” wide receiver Kendall Wright said, “but we played way better than what the record shows.”

Still, the record is the record. Fox has the second-worst winning percentage of any coach in Bears history, has a brutal 3-15 record against the NFC North and lost 10 or more games in all three of his seasons in Chicago. That’s a lot of losing.

Fox’s players, though, wanted to make it clear that they bore the biggest responsibility for that 14-34 record during his tenure.

“The coaches don’t play the game,” wide receiver Josh Bellamy said. “Players play the game. It’s not the coaches that play the game. It’s on the field. You don’t see a coach out there running routes or throwing the ball. All they do is call the plays and it’s up to the players to change the culture and make it happen. I feel like that’s what we gotta do and we gotta find way to do it.”

Akiem Hicks perhaps had the most poignant comments when discussing his likely soon-to-be-former coach. If and when Fox is fired in the coming hours, it’ll weigh on these players who, of course, understand the business side of things. They didn’t play well enough for Fox to keep his job, and the coaching staff didn’t coach well enough to justify a fourth year.

But there will be plenty of disappointment in the Bears’ locker room that they couldn’t do enough to save the job of a guy who is genuinely liked in there.

“It’s a guy you want to fight for week in, week out,” Hicks said. “You look up to (him) because he’s had so many championship-level teams. You almost want to be on his list of great teams and just somebody you respect and admire.

“There’s nobody that I think it weighs on more than Fox. When I leave the building 6:30, 7 at night, his truck is still there. He’s clocking his hours and doing his best to make us better.

“For him,” Hicks added, with a long pause to collect his thoughts, “I wish we had finished better.”

Akiem Hicks on Pro Bowl snub: ‘It’s like telling a kid he ain’t getting no presents for Christmas’

Akiem Hicks on Pro Bowl snub: ‘It’s like telling a kid he ain’t getting no presents for Christmas’

Akiem Hicks is merely a fourth alternate to the 2018 Pro Bowl, meaning he’s in the mix to head to Orlando next month but will need a couple of defensive linemen to drop out to make it. Despite a disruptive, impactful year as the Bears’ best defensive player, Hicks wasn’t named to the initial NFC Pro Bowl roster Tuesday night. 

“It’s like telling a kid he ain’t getting no presents for Christmas, you know what I mean?” Hicks said. “It hurts but I’ll be all right, I’ll survive. As long as the fans in Chicago see me as one of their favorite players, I’ll be happy at the end of the day.”

Making the Pro Bowl was a goal Hicks wanted to hit in 2017, and he felt like his play warranted a trip to Orlando. Specifically, Hicks laid out this case: He’s primarily an interior defensive linemen, who usually have five or six sacks. Hicks has eight, with all of them coming as either a three-technique (lined up over the outside shoulder of a guard) or a one-technique (lined up over the shoulder of the center). And Hicks is tied with the New York Giants’ Damon Harrison atop the league with 38 run stops. 

“I’m not going to toot my own horn,” Hicks said, “but you guys (the media) are asking, right?”

Indeed, we were. And Hicks made a compelling case. But he did raise another fair point: That he plays for a 4-10 team didn’t help his Pro Bowl case. 

“Yeah, it doesn’t really work out when you don’t have the record to match your performance, right?” Hicks said. 

So Hicks’ combination of being on a bad team and having his talents show up more on film than on the stat sheet explains why not only did he miss the initial Pro Bowl roster, but is only a fourth alternate. Almost everyone who’s closely watched Hicks this year would argue he should’ve been honored with a Pro Bowl bid. 

But there is at least one person out there who recognized who good Hicks has played in 2017. 

“Mom told me I did my job this year,” Hicks said. 

The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

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The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

While no Bears were named to the initial NFC roster for the 2018 Pro Bowl, the future may not be bleak for this franchise's representation in Orlando. In the short-term, Akiem Hicks and Jordan Howard could be alternates to this season's Pro Bowl, but there are a handful of players currently on this roster that could make strong cases a season from now.

1. DL Akiem Hicks

Regardless of what defensive scheme the Bears have in 2018 -- 3-4 or 4-3 -- Hicks will be an anchor for whatever plans the team has on defense. He's been a force in 2017 with eight sacks and 15 tackles for a loss, a nice reward for Ryan Pace after he rewarded Hicks with a four-year contract extension in September. Don't be surprised if Hicks uses his initial Pro Bowl snub as part of his motivation to play at an even higher level in 2018. 

2. OL Cody Whitehair

Whitehair struggled at times in 2017, though perhaps that was due to him sliding between guard and center during training camp and then in the first few weeks of the regular season. But Whitehair is finishing this year strong, and he played close to a Pro Bowl level as a rookie in 2016. If he sticks at center in 2018, chances are he’ll make a strong case to earn a Pro Bowl bid in his third year in the league. 

3. RB Jordan Howard

Howard missed out on the Pro Bowl in 2018 despite being the NFC’s second-leading rusher with 1,069 yards through 14 games. Perhaps his low public profile played a role in that snub, with Los Angeles' Todd Gurley and New Orleans' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara getting in over him. But Howard is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and if the Bears’ offense can evolve into something less conservative in 2018, chances are he won’t face loaded boxes as much as he has in 2017. According to NFL’s Next Gen stats, 41.2 percent of Howard’s runs have come with eight or more defenders in the box, the seventh-highest percentage among qualified running backs. 

4. RB Tarik Cohen

Cohen could make it as a running back and/or a return specialist in 2018, based on what we’ve seen from the explosive rookie in 2017. Cohen is already the Bears’ best offensive weapon, with 348 yards on 82 carries, 327 yards on 45 receptions and three offensive touchdowns. He’s returned a punt for a touchdown and had a 90-yard kick return called back on Saturday against the Detroit Lions. Whoever is coaching the Bears in 2018 will have a dynamic player on his hands; Cohen’s highlight-reel plays and engaging approach with the media will certainly keep him on many’s radar around the league. 

5. LB Leonard Floyd

Floyd wasn’t on track for a Pro Bowl bid in 2017 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, but the flashes were there for the 2016 top-10 draft pick. The issue with Floyd’s nascent NFL career hasn’t been about his athleticism or potential, but with his ability to stay healthy, with concussions costing him a few games in 2016 and the knee injury wiping out nearly half a season in 2017. A healthy Floyd should be able to play at a Pro Bowl level in Year 3 with the Bears, but whether or not he can be healthy remains to be seen. 

6. QB Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky’s 2017 numbers aren’t far off from those of most rookie quarterbacks in recent history, and it’s likely the No. 2 overall pick will improve in his second year as a pro. Whether that improvement will be great enough to get him into the Pro Bowl is another question, and may be more dependent on the offense he’s running and who he’s playing with in that offense.