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.”