'Rebuilding?' Tanking by any other name… . Bears set a better example

'Rebuilding?' Tanking by any other name… . Bears set a better example

As baseball moves toward its trade deadline and its annual “buyer or seller?” debates… .

Readers of this space know what your humble and faithful narrator thinks of organizational quitting – “tanking,” in current parlance, local case studies being the Bulls and White Sox, the latter being a particularly amusing example given what was going on there about a century ago. Those Sox were banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series, while members of the current Bulls or Sox have their mindset questioned for trying to win, fouling up a draft slot for an organization trying to do anything but.

Now it’s the organization that does the quitting on a season, dressed up a bit by euphemistically cloaking it with a veneer of respectability in the form of the descriptor “rebuild,” which justifies quitting on the present behind a pretext of getting back in trade some prospects, who rarely if ever reach the levels of the talent being dumped.

Players are excoriated for not running out a ground ball. But the culture of quitting has made it organizationally acceptable for not playing out a season. Help me with the math on this one, please.

It’s acceptable for an organization to quit based on a pretext of acquiring a higher draft choice or prospects via trade for supposed future pursuits of championships, but not for a player to, say, pull himself out of a game trailing by X number of runs after so many innings to save himself for tomorrow? Help me with with math on this one, too, please.

It’s all some twisting of the sports ethic involving ends justifying means, which might work. But it ignores the law of unintended consequences, and that doesn’t. The Bulls and Sox may be “rebuilding” something, but the unintended consequence may ultimately be in fact building and cementing in place a culture of losing. The Sox may come up with a catchy “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” marketing slogan, but they do quit, and get benched for it, and you do kinda wonder if somewhere there isn’t some perverse bounty system paying off for sloppy pitching, hitting or fielding.

Then there are the Bears… .

To their credit, the Bears have not appeared to subscribe to the tanking strategy. Just the opposite, and that may already be poised for a payoff (pun intended).

The Bears did need to stanch the talent bleeding that gathered speed under the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery administration. As or more important, they needed to eradicate the culture of losing that was setting in and deepening by the week.

That culture makeover was the prime directive for John Fox and was accomplished, without ever tanking.

GM Ryan Pace cited that fact even as Fox was being dismissed. “[Fox] has been a tremendous force in changing the culture and the mentality in this building,” Pace said. “He helped set the foundation for this organization to go to new heights… .

“Our guys were playing hard, competing, and that’s a credit to coach Fox and what he’s instilled.”

Which brings the conversation back around to tanking, which was never part of any Bears plan, certainly not for Fox and not for Pace, who simply took the draft slot that the Fox play-hard teams left him (No. 11 in 2016, No. 3 in 2017) and made aggressive moves to trade up for targeted players Leonard Floyd and Mitch Trubisky.

From the standpoint of the core culture, hiring Matt Nagy wasn’t a repudiation of Fox so much as building on a core of Floyd, Trubisky, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Long, Cody Whitehair and others, and on what Fox and staff put in place. The retention of coordinator Vic Fangio and virtually the entire defensive staff points back to the original hiring of Fox, Fangio and Adam Gase to reverse the Trestman/Aaron Kromer/Mel Tucker death spiral. Had management given Emery and Trestman another year or two, best guess is that the Bears would’ve played their way down to a No. 1-overall pick.

They almost made it anyway. But the team that Floyd and Trubisky came into wasn’t in quit mode and the Bears are the better for it. There’s a lesson in that.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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John Fox says Bears had worst offseason in the NFL


John Fox says Bears had worst offseason in the NFL

John Fox is now more than a year removed from his tenure with the Chicago Bears, but he still has some strong opinions about the team.

Fox, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, fired a shot at the Bears during a segment of NFL Live on Monday. Fox was among a panel asked which team had the worst offseason in the NFL. Fox chose his former employer.

"I think when you're going to play defense, you're going to lean on your takeaways to help a young offense and you don't have a kicker, a reliable kicker that you're going to need those points from after some of those turnovers," Fox said. "I think the kicking question is really big right now in Chicago and I think that might be a problem going into the season."

That is sure to earn some eyerolls from skeptical Bears fans who weren't happy with Fox's 14-34 record with the Bears.

Fox wasn't the only one to pick the Bears. Damien Woody, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots as part of his 12-year career, actually picked the Bears before Fox.

"I think losing Vic Fangio... is huge," Woody said. "That Chicago Bears defense, it literally fueled their offense. It's the identity of the Bears and when you lose a talented defensive coordinator like that, I think there's going to be some slippage there."


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