Bears

Bears’ fight building into an identity as finishers

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Bears’ fight building into an identity as finishers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the victorious Bears streamed into their Arrowhead Stadium locker room Sunday afternoon, their 18-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in hand, Jarvis Jenkins threw his head back and let out with a roar that rattled windows in Des Moines. “I’m a happy dog, man,” Jenkins said, laughing. “That was some finish.” (More on that last word shortly)

Kyle Long, still wearing his game face, strode by with his own roar: “CHICAGO BEARS, MAN!” Coach John Fox, he of 2013 open-heart surgery, had himself under control…to a point, then let loose: “Way to FIGHT, men! THAT’S what I’m talking about!” (one nearby staffer later remarking, “Thank God he had his heart fixed before THIS one!”)

Winning does bring out that sort of thing. But it was the way of the Bears winning that was and is the real point.

For the second straight week, the Bears shook off problems, some admittedly of their own making, and came back to win a football game. In the process, the identity of the John Fox Bears came into sharper focus, and it was far more important than an “identity” as a running football team, a defense-based team or anything football-specific.

Losing doesn’t build character; losing reveals character. And the start of the 2015 season under Fox has revealed much about Bears character and identity. Losing the first three games didn’t reveal how bad the Bears were or were going to be; it was revealing something else.

Fox had made winning an emphasis during a 3-1 preseason, looking to take another step in eradicating a losing culture and replacing it with something quite different. Back in the Green Bay game, in which Clay Matthews’ interception of Jay Cutler ended what was a potential game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, signs were there. After the Packers scored to seemingly put the game away with a 15-point lead, Cutler simply went back out on the field and directed a 72-yard drive for an answering touchdown. Not enough, but an identity was forming.

[MORE: John Fox and Co. do all the right things]

In the locker room at halftime Sunday, with the Bears down 17-3 and doing little in any phase of the game – “We had so many excuses that could’ve been there, with the injuries and everything,” said Matt Forte – talk among players was only in one direction.

“You could’ve rolled over,” said defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff. “If you looked at that point deficit [17-3], you could’ve said, ‘Let’s just come back next week.’ But nobody had that mentality, nobody took that approach.”

“In the beginning everybody says they want to go to the Super Bowl. All that talk. Some teams start off real hot. Other teams start off with adversity. We’re one of those. We just have to keep going, one week at a time, because that’s the good thing.”

The underlying point was even deeper than one week at a time. The Kansas City game would have been lost if the Bears defense had been satisfied with stopping the Chiefs on three plays inside the Chicago 10 at the end of Kansas City’s first drive of the second half, that already had pushed the Bears backwards for 71 yards. Forcing the Chiefs to settle for three points would have been generally classed as a success.

But – getting back to Jenkins’ “finish” word from earlier – Pernell McPhee crashed through to block Cairo Santos’ 27-yard attempt, a “finish” for special teams in keeping with what the Bears see as their true identity. Finishers.

“We always talk about ‘finishing,’ at practice, in the weight room, everywhere,” Jenkins said. “And you could see it at halftime when we’re down 17-3 and we’re saying, ‘We got to finish this game.’ Believe and finish.

“The defense gets a third-down stop. Finish. The offense goes down and scores. Finish. That’s what we tell ourselves. Finish. Then at crunch time, you make plays and finish.”

[MORE: Cutler leads another fourth-quarter comeback]

Talking about finishing is easy unless something else is part of the character: “Man, this team’s got a lot of fight, a lot of fight,” Jenkins added, shaking his head. “We put ourselves in some bad situations but there’s so much fight in this team.”

As Fox himself had said on his way into the locker room: “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

With free agency in his future, Robbie Gould says he 'will always be a Bear'

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USA TODAY

With free agency in his future, Robbie Gould says he 'will always be a Bear'

Robbie Gould will always be popular among Bears fans, but his name is popping up a bit more frequently after Cody Parkey’s tipped/missed decisive field goal in the playoffs.

Gould, who was with the Bears for 11 seasons, was on the Prostyle Podcast with fellow former Bear Earl Bennett. Bennett asked Gould about a number of hot topics, including Gould’s view on Parkey’s miss and what’s in Gould’s future as a free agent this offseason.

For starters, Gould said he harbors no ill will about his exit from Chicago and still lives in the city.

“I’m not mad about it at all,” Gould said. “At the end of the day, football is a business. Unfortunately as a player you don’t get to say when your type is up at a place. More often than not the organization is your employer, just like other businesses. They get to tell you where, when, how, why and for what reason. As a player you have the opportunity to say yes or no and you have to make those decisions. They made a decision to go in a different direction. I’m happy that they got back to the winning ways this year.”

Gould attended the playoff loss to the Eagles with his kids. Bennett asked Gould if he believed he would have made the crucial kick. Naturally, Gould wasn’t about to step on another kicker and played it safe in his answer.

“We’re talking about a hypothetical,” Gould said. “I wasn’t out there. I didn’t get a chance to kick it. Obviously I feel for Cody Parkey and what he went through on Sunday. I have a lot of respect for him, not only as a person, but also as a kicker. We’ll never know.”

Gould went on to recall his missed potential game-winning kicks in his career. He rattled off five different kicks and some details on all of them, which shows how scarring missing a game-winning field goal is for a kicker.

Then, the big question: would Gould rejoin the Bears? It sounds like the Bears are going to move on from Parkey, both for his on-field performance and the ensuing Today Show appearance, which didn’t seem to endear him to coach Matt Nagy.

Gould said the 49ers have exclusive rights to negotiate with him until the middle of March. He is focusing on spending time with his family in the meantime. Earlier in the interview he talked about the 49ers and their future as if he would be a part of it, but went politically correct when asked about Chicago.

“I love Chicago,” Gould said. “I live here. I still live here. Whether you go to the grocery store or whether you go to the restaurant, that’s the question everyone is asking me. I get it, right? I understand it, but Cody is their kicker right now. He’s the guy on their roster. He’s the guy that I think can rebound and have a great season and do some big things for the Bears down the road. For me, Chicago will always be home. I love the Bear fans. I love this city. I’ll always be a Bear, no matter what team I’m on or where I’m going or whatever happens. One day I’ll probably retire a Bear and you know it’s one of those things, free agency is much out of your control.”

 

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For the Bears, the 2018 rookie class is yet another cornerstone of the Nagy/Pace era

For the Bears, the 2018 rookie class is yet another cornerstone of the Nagy/Pace era

Depending on who you ask, one might be surprised to hear that on the NFL's best defense -- one with 4 All-Pros -- the leading tackler was rookie Roquan Smith. 

Smith, who was the Bears' first-round pick in 2018 and whose contract-holdout was the hot topic of preseason, led the team in both combined (120) and solo (89) tackles. While there's a dark corner of Bears fans who weren't happy with Smith's 2018 (and kind of aren't happy about anything ever), the 8th overall pick out of Georgia's first season was subjectively a success. 

"You know, you talk to Roquan and you can just feel him, no different than any player, just feeling comfortable in the defense," GM Ryan Pace said. "So now he's not thinking as much, he's just playing with his instincts, and he's playing fast. And you guys know Roquan. Those are his greatest strengths - his instincts and his speed. So the sky's the limit for him."

"It's just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he's going to be, especially in the later part of the season." 

Smith may be the headliner, but don't let that undercut how productive the rest of the group was. James Daniels, Anthony Miller, and Bilal Nichols each had their moments throughout the year, showing off what looks like back-to-back stellar draft classes in Pace/Nagy era. In fact, Smith, Daniels and Nichols all made ESPN's All-Rookie team. 

"I like [the group] a lot," Matt Nagy added. "The guys that we brought in, we were talking about it a few weeks ago -- you never know how many you're going to hit on. And so and I don't know if we even truly know right now, but from what we've seen we feel really confident with that group, see a lot of high ceiling with these guys." 

Daniels, taken in the 2nd round out of Iowa, appeared in 16 games this season and was a starter in the final 10. He didn't allow a single sack all season, and according to Pro Football Focus, only allowed 20 total pressures on his 432 pass-blocking attempts. His work against Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald may be one of the more impressive performances from any Bears player on the roster all year. 

"That was one of the biggest challenges that he’s ever going to have," Nagy said the morning after the Bears' 15-6 win. "I thought his technique was really good last night. He never lunged too much, he stayed balanced. One of James’ biggest strengths is if he happens to lose a little leverage he can recover, but for the most part he was very consistent. And man, for being such a young kid, very calm, composed and that was one of the big things we talked about as a team was to stay calm and composed and next play mentality, he did that."

For Miller, who came out of Memphis with a whole bunch of Antonio Brown comparisons, being stashed behind Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton didn't stop the rookie from scoring seven touchdowns, the most for a Bears' rookie since 1983. For the year, Miller hauled in 33 receptions for 423 yards, averaging out at 12.8 yards per reception. If you don't count Kevin White and his four receptions, Miller's 12.8 YPR was good for 3rd best on the team. He also showed a commendable amount of toughness, battling through most of the season with a left shoulder that popped out on multiple occasions and will eventually need surgery. It's also worth noting that Miller is already well-liked inside of Halas Hall - it's not a coincidence that he was one of the first people Allen Robinson named when asked why someone would want to join the Bears in free agency. 

As for Nichols, the rookie out of Delaware started six games and appeared in 14 and played well next to Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. He put up three sacks, two forced fumbles and 28 tackles, five of which were for a loss. Like Smith and Daniels, Nichols was consistently lauded for having a maturity beyond his age. 

"We’ve got some mature rookies," linemate Akiem Hicks said. "I noticed that from OTAs and off the top of my head, Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols, just knowing their role and their place and trying to meet every expectation of themselves and from their peers and coaching staff and just knowing that there’s a lot to lose whenever you step on the field. They take advantage of it and so as a veteran player you look at that and you say, ‘We’ve got a great nucleus here, something that can propel us forward into the playoffs and so look at us now.'" 

The other three members of the 2018 class had quieter opening acts, though reasons to be optimistic remain. Javon Wimms put on a clinic in preseason and may be one of the more exciting Breakout Season candidates come next August. Kylie Fitts appeared in six games this season and fits well with what you need in a linebacker in 2019. Joel Iyiegbuniwe was a strong contributor to special teams over 16 games. 

The list of the players drafted during Pace's tenure now includes (but isn't limited to): Mitch Trubisky, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Smith, Daniels, Miller, and Nichols. In other words, their starting QB, safety, running back, inside linebacker, offensive guard and defensive tackle. So what's behind such successful drafts? 

"I think that it's just a credit to these guys, Ryan and his guys," Nagy added. "They put in a lot of hard work and we collaborate together. And when you do that and you get guys that believe in everything, that's what happens."

"If we could go back and do it again, I'd do it again."

Hard to blame him.