Progress? John Fox argues it's there, even if the Bears' record doesn't show it

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Progress? John Fox argues it's there, even if the Bears' record doesn't show it

The operative word for 2017, as Bears chairman George McCaskey explained in March, was “progress.” There wasn't a set win total John Fox had to reach to keep his job, but this year's Bears, record-wise, won't be better than any of the previous three iterations of one of the NFL's charter franchises. 

Fox has been the coach for two of those years, and has a chance to equal his 2015 win total if the Bears were to upset the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis. But six wins doesn’t scream “progress," does it?

Fox, though, disputed that notion on Friday, which may have been his final press conference at Halas Hall. 

“I think I definitely feel like we’re better than we were three years ago,” Fox said. 

In a few senses, that’s true. The Bears’ defense was a disaster when Fox and Vic Fangio arrived in Lake Forest; they’ve taken it from being one of the league’s worst units (28th in DVOA in 2014, 31st in DVOA in 2015) to solidifying it (14th in DVOA this year), despite the absence of a Pro Bowler on the roster (though Akiem Hicks certainly deserved better than being a fourth alternate to this year’s Pro Bowl). The culture at Halas Hall is more harmonious than it was after the 2014 season, though that’s only led to some close losses, not more wins. 

The Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era left the cupboard pretty bare, too, with only four draft picks from that short-lived regime playing significant roles on the 2017 team (offensive linemen Charles Leno and Kyle Long, cornerback Kyle Fuller and punter Pat O'Donnell). 

“We’ve basically retooled the whole roster,” Fox said. “I think a lot of the heavy lifting has been done. … I think we’re kind of at ground zero, level field, however you want to do it, right at water line. And making that transition and change at the quarterback position this year bodes well for the future.”

From a more macro sense, Fox does have a point regarding the progress of the team. Individually, there are plenty of players with arrows pointing up, from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to running back Tarik Cohen to defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to safety Eddie Jackson, among others. 

But “progress” hasn’t been easily identifiable in terms of the results that’ve transpired in 2017. The Nov. 12 loss to the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers was brutal; getting beat by Robbie Gould and the 1-10 San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 3 was embarrassing. The response to the team’s best win of the year — a 33-7 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals — was a turgid 20-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. Every time the Bears got close to true “progress,” there was a regression. 

“We’re growing as a team,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “It don’t look like it on paper and our record don’t indicate that, but the way we’re playing and the way our team is bonding, I think we’re growing in the right direction. I think we have the right people up top and they’re bringing in the right people. We keep building on this foundation and culture, I think we’ll be all right.”

Trevathan is one of the best players on this team who will be back in 2018. It seems likely whatever building that continues will be done under a new head coach. 

And Fox’s 14-33 record heading into 2017’s season finale is the biggest point of evidence toward that lack of progress. 

“When I look back I don’t think that we were anywhere in the midst of being picked to win the Super Bowl or anything of that nature,” Fox said, when asked if he’d second-guess anything about the 2017 season. “Again, our expectations are higher than what our record is. I think that’s probably true every year I’ve ever coached.”

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith has more sheared sheep than tackles on his stat sheet as a pro football player.

Smith and several other Bears rookies participated in a hands-on community event at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois on Monday where he assisted farm staff with the sheep's grooming. Smith said it was a first for him despite growing up around animals. 

"It's like on the norm for me though, playing linebacker you're in the trenches," Smith said of the experience.

"Shaving a sheep, I never really envisioned myself doing something like that," Smith said via "I was around animals [growing up], but it was more so cows and goats here and there and dogs and cats. I've petted a sheep before, but never actually flipped one and shaved one."

Bears rookies got up close and personal with more than just sheep.

Smith was selected with the eighth overall pick in April's draft and will assume a starting role opposite Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker this season. Here's to hoping he can wrangle opposing ball-carriers like a sheep waiting to be sheared.

The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

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The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

Asking players about how the defense is “ahead” of the offense is a yearly right of passage during OTAs, sort of like how every baseball team has about half its players saying they’re in the best shape of their life during spring training. So that Vic Fangio’s defense is ahead of Matt Nagy’s offense right now isn’t surprising, and it's certainly not concerning. 

But Nagy is also working to install his offense right now during OTAs to build a foundation for training camp. So does the defense — the core of which is returning with plenty of experience in Fangio’s system — being ahead of the offense hurt those efforts?

“It’s actually good for us because we’re getting an experienced defense,” Nagy said. “My message to the team on the offensive side is just be patient and don’t get frustrated. They understand that they’re going to play a little bit faster than us right now. We’ll have some growing pains, but we’ll get back to square one in training camp.”

We’ll have a chance to hear from the Bears’ offensive players following Wednesday’s practice, but for now, the guys on Fangio’s defense have come away impressed with that Nagy’s offense can be. 

“The offense is a lot … just very tough,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “They’re moving well. They’re faster. They’re throwing a lot of different looks at us and that’s just Nagy’s offense. If I was a receiver I would love to play in this offense, just because you get to do so many different things and you get so many different plays. It just looks fun over there.”

“They’re moving together, and I like to see that,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We’re not a bad defense. They’re practicing against us, so they’re getting better every day, and vice versa. It’s a daily grind. It’s going to be tough, but those guys, they got the right pieces. I like what I see out there. When somebody makes a play, they’re gone. Everybody can run over there. It’s the right fit for Mitch, it’s the right fit for the receivers, the running backs.”

Still, for all the praise above, the defense is “winning” more, at least as much as it can without the pads on. But the offense is still having some flashes, even as it collectively learns the terminology, concepts and formations used by Nagy. 

And that leads to a competitive atmosphere at Halas Hall, led by the Bears’ new head coach. 

“He’s an offensive coach and last year coach (John) Fox, I couldn’t really talk stuff to (him) because he’s a defensive coach and it’s like Nagy’s offense so if I get a pick or something, I mean, I like to talk stuff to him,” Amukamara said. “He’ll say something like ‘we’re coming at you 2-0.’ Stuff like that. That just brings out the competition and you always want that in your head coach.”