NFC North

Bears at the break: A tale of two seasons


Bears at the break: A tale of two seasons

In the wake of the 20-12 loss last Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, a game that finished off the first half of the Bears’ 2017 season, coach John Fox succinctly summarized the Bears’ lot in NFL life to this point:

“I think we’ve kind of been a tale of two seasons,” Fox said, adding in a bit of colossal understatement, “the first four, then the second four.”

“View from the Moon” posited post-New Orleans that the Bears certainly were like every other team: exactly what their record says they are, which was 3-5. But exactly what was happening within that 3-5 wasn’t a simple story.

Indeed, to look at the two halves of the first 2017 half-season as an eight-game lump is to ignore the obvious. It is also to miss some of the exact details that point to a Bears team dramatically different starting the second half of the season against the Green Bay Packers from the one that faced the Atlanta Falcons to start the first half.

The overarching obvious difference has been Mitch Trubisky, with his rookie’ness and all the rest. He is far, very far from what he and the Bears anticipate him becoming, yet the seismic impact of the Bears’ quarterback change is very much what the organization had in mind when they traded up to ensure they’d secure him in the April draft.

To his credit, Trubisky was appropriately restrained in his self- and team first-half critique, befitting a quarterback completing less than half his passes and with a total QBR keeping company with those of Glennon, DeShone Kizer, Trevor Siemian and C.J. Beathard: “I thought [the season’s first half] was alright. A lot to learn from and a lot to improve on.”

Improvement by the numbers

Trubisky has moved the Bears at least in the right direction on the improvement continuum.

The Glennon Bears were outscored 61-104, an average of nearly 11 points per game with the team committing 10 turnovers. Trubisky Bears have stanched the bleeding, turning the football over just five times in the last four games. Even with Trubisky’s limitations, the Bears outscored their last four opponents 73-67, not including the aberrant ruling that erased the Zach Miller touchdown.

The points differential becomes more noteworthy when measured against strength of schedule. The first four games – Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Green Bay – were billed as a crucible from which the Bears would be lucky to escape with one win, which they did.

But the first four opponents have a combined record of 16-13 to this point. The four that the Bears faced under Trubisky are a combined 20-11.

Of the four defenses the Bears faced under Glennon, only one (Pittsburgh) was ranked higher than 15th in points allowed. The Bears under Trubisky have faced no defense worse than New Orleans (12th), preceded by Carolina (No. 5), Baltimore (No. 6) and Minnesota (No. 4).

Overall the Bears have played exactly one opponent – Tampa Bay – that is less than a .500 team through the first half of this season. Curiously perhaps, the Buccaneers handed the Bears their worst loss of the season, by 22 points in week two.

The Vikings, leading the NFC North at 6-2, have played three sub-.500’s, not including the Bears.

Playoff goal still in place

The Bears have never been a .500 team at any time during the Fox tenure. Three times they had chances to square the record deep into the season – twice in 2015, standing 4-5 and 5-6 but losing at home to Denver and San Francisco, and last week at 3-4 against New Orleans. They failed on each occasion.

They’ve also missed the playoffs nine of the last 10 years, which makes any discussion of postseason possibilities fanciful at best, laughable at least. Even the 0-8 Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers aren’t mathematically eliminated from the postseason, so the bar for playoff talk is pretty low.

But here’s the thing: The rest of the NFL and in particular the NFC North has done anything but run away from the Bears even through those struggling years under three different head coaches.

In each of the last nine years, a team from the NFC North has reached the postseason, as division winner or wild card, with at least five losses. Twice over that stretch the division was won with six losses, once with seven (Green Bay at 8-7-1 in 2013 after Chris Conte had his coverage issue with Randall Cobb). Four times an NFC North runner-up went in as a wild card with six losses, plus last year when the Lions went wild-card’ing with seven losses.

“I think we're kind of where we are, but to start the season and to start every season that I've been here, [the goal] is to win our division,” Fox said. “One thing…when you do that, you're guaranteed a spot in the tournament. So that's still the goal.

“Right now we're kind of a one game at a time, one-break-at-a-time type of mentality so, as these guys go away and refresh and regroup a little bit, kind of like a halftime break, you know they'll start thinking about the Green Bay Packers.”

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself," Bears offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. told when asked about the personal significant of the 2017 season.

Leno Jr. is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and since Jermon Bushrod injured his back in Week 3 of the the 2015 season, Leno, Jr. has been the starter at left tackle in the 29 games since. Leno Jr. has established himself as consistent and durable, but public opinions on him outside of Halas Hall cast doubt on how high the ceiling is for the final (seventh round) draft pick of the Phil Emery regime.

Pro Football Focus’ grading system has its fans and detractors. While the Boise State product showed improvement in 2016 (70.4 grade) compared to 2015 (46.1), they ranked him 44th out of 64 offensive tackles. Also, according to PFF, Leno Jr. and right tackle Bobby Massie allowed 73 quarterback pressures and committed 14 penalties, while grading out poorly in the run game as a tandem.

Yet there’s also the overall picture to look at. The team allowed just 26 sacks, ninth-fewest in the NFL despite three different starting quarterbacks. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears offensive line seventh in pass protection and eighth in rushing. But critics of the two tackles will say the main reason for those rankings is the strength in the middle, between Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (for half a season, at least).  Not that Leno, Jr. hasn’t been closely evaluated already, but as his future, and payday, looms. It’ll be an even more interesting watch this season.

“I’m always ready to take that next step,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who’ll turn 26 when the Bears host the Vikings on Monday, Oct. 9. “ Every year you can take a step. Whether it’s your rookie year to your second year, third year to your fourth, or ninth year to your tenth, you’re always trying to take another step, always get better. That’s my job right now, that’s my goal.”

And he’ll have to do it under his third different offensive line coach in his four years, as Jeremiah Washburn takes over for Dave Magazu. Leno Jr. told me there have been mostly minor tweaks and adjustments when it comes to new position coaches. He was most noticeable (that’s a bad thing), late in the season, when he was beaten a few times for sacks, but that didn’t do much to cloud his overall performance in his boss’ mind.

[MORE: Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?]

“To be honest, Leno was a real pleasant surprise, really exceeded expectations there,” general manager Ryan Pace said back on Jan. 4. “And I thought as he gained confidence, he got better and better. He’s very athletic, he’s long, got good balance. So (he) did very well. We have positive vibes about him coming out of the season.”

Leno, Jr. will make about $1.8 million this season as he finishes out his rookie deal. But as he enters this contract year, there are currently 14 left tackles in the NFL (including all the so-called “elite”) making an average of at least $10 million annually on their current contracts:


Trent Williams (WSH), $13.6

Russell Okung (LAC), $13.25

Terron Armstead (NO), $13

Tyron Smith (DAL), $12.2

Cordy Glenn (BUF), $12

Eric Fisher (KC), $12

David Bakhtiari (GB), $12

Riley Reiff (MIN), $11.75

Joe Thomas (CLE), $11.5

Andrew Whitworth (LAR), $11.25

Matt Kalil (CAR), $11.1

Anthony Castonzo (IND), $10.95

Jason Peters (PHI), $10.8

Nate Solder (NE), $10

Other left tackles averaging less than $10 million annually on their current deals include Houston’s Duane Brown, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan. Plus, keep in mind here that Reiff (Detroit) and Kalil (Minnesota) were first-round picks by Bears' NFC North rivals deemed not good enough to keep around. Yet they still found believers willing to write a big check elsewhere.  If not the Bears, Leno, Jr. may find similar interest elsewhere with a season comparable to 2016. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. 11 years ago, Pace and the Saints made Northwestern’s Zach Strief a seventh round pick, and he’s hung around — not becoming a starter until his sixth season, yet being a linchpin at right tackle since.

From the above list, only the 29-year-old Solder is a pending free agent, and it’s hard to see the Patriots letting him walk, though Bill Belichick has done stranger things that’ve worked out in the end. Leno Jr. is the next-best option, because the others really aren’t. Oakland’s Donald Penn is 34, while the Chargers’ Chris Hairston, the Ravens’ James Hurst, and the Dolphins’ Sam Young have all started less than half time they’ve been in the league.

If the Bears let Leno Jr. walk and look toward the draft, Notre Dame senior Mike McGlinchey is generally regarded as the highest-rated left tackle heading into the fall with Texas’ Connor Williams, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, Mitch Hyatt of Clemson and Martinas Rankin of Mississippi State owning various first and second-round grades. 

Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, figure the Bears will still have needs to be addressed in the draft, “best available” or not. If he doesn’t have a believer in Pace already, another step forward by Leno Jr. could earn himself a payday, and stability — personally, and for the team as they figure out how to get the best protection possible for their quarterback of the future.

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Specifics such as whom the Bears will draft at No. 3, or 36, or somewhere in between weren't going to be gleaned from this week's conversations with Bears Chairman George McCaskey, GM Ryan Pace or head coach John Fox. But more interesting, and important, too, are some the the more strategic takeaways from visits with the hierarchy most involved with Bears football fortunes.
More significant than anything regarding a player or position is the stability of the core, meaning Pace's and Fox's position under McCaskey. Because that ultimately affects draft choices, signings and myriad elements extending beyond the 2017 season. And some of all that involves understanding McCaskey's vision and history.
Realize: Pace was McCaskey's second GM hire in barely three NFL years. The first one of Phil Emery was an abject failure, as was the accompanying coaching hire. The absolute last thing McCaskey wants to be forced by circumstances into doing is replacing another general manager. Brother Michael lost his berth as president due to making the NFL's charter franchise into a laughingstock because of a botched coaching hire; Brother George has no wish to continue the kind of high-level turnover that both reflect, cause and perpetuate dysfunction, and losing.
Against that backdrop, one trail of breadcrumbs leads to a strong sense that Pace is secure in his job, barring something going epically wrong. McCaskey was clear that he approved of and likes the direction the Bears are moving under Pace, to the point of having Pace in a video directed to the fanbase. If Pace were on some sort of hot seat, McCaskey and the organization do not make him a short-term face of the franchise while they hope for a player to emerge as that "face."
McCaskey could not put a whole lot more pressure on Pace than the latter gets as part of his job and wanting to stay in Chicago for more than football reasons.
"Keep building through the draft," McCaskey said during the recently concluded owners meetings. "I told Ryan he should get ripped every time around this year, this time of year ever year for not being more active in free agency. And that's because we're developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys."

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The breadcrumbs from there lead to Fox's situation. Start with the thought that coaches operate for the present and GMs for the future. Not exactly true; GMs balance present and future.
But every indication, verbal and otherwise, has been that Fox was very much on board with the major makeover at one spot in particular — quarterback — and a coach with down to possibly a final season pounds the table for win-now material, particularly at that position. And when the Bears didn't re-sign Brian Hoyer this offseason, which may not have appeared to be benchmark non-move but was, at least one Bears coach was apoplectic at not staying a course with a quarterback who delivered 300 passing yards and zero turnovers in his brief Bears "career."
Fox, however, was clearly comfortable with giving the quarterback wheel a spin with Mike Glennon, and ultimately so is his staff. Because it is part of program plan.
Consider this scenario: The Bears rebound to a respectable seven or eight wins; not spectacular but the NFC North is the only division in either conference to send two teams to the postseason , meaning that Fox's Bears likely put up a couple wins over good teams, which can be construed as the "progress" that McCaskey referenced this week.
Meanwhile, Pace has a third draft with impact players, the Kevin Whites, Eddie Goldmans and others come back from injuries, the Bears go into the 2018 offseason and land Kirk Cousins or have Glennon be what they'd hoped, and the Bears are what McCaskey envisions: a challenger with an arrow pointing up.
All theoretical or hypothetical, but Pace has a plan that McCaskey knows and endorses, and best guess is that he gives his GM, and coach, time to have it play out.
"We have confidence in Ryan and John," McCaskey said, imposing only "progress" and "results" as his conditions. "We want to build through the draft. Ryan said that in his interview when he said he was interested in coming to the Bears. And we like how he has stuck to that plan."
Maybe that was the most significant tell; McCaskey has seen progress apart from the record: "Yeah," he confirmed. "Yes sir."