Bears Issue No. 1: Reshaping a losing culture


Bears Issue No. 1: Reshaping a losing culture

First of a series

The hiring of John Fox to coach the 2015 Bears involved more than returning to the Bears’ “tradition” of coaches from the defensive side of the football. The Fox hire and that of Ryan Pace as general manager, both from backgrounds with winning organizations, was done with a clear directive to reverse the organizational flow brought on by a decaying culture that had even Virginia McCaskey using harsh language not normally associated with so distinguished a lady.

But hires are relatively easy. So are adding players; free agency and the draft assure that. More at issue now is whether the seeds of the Pace/Fox culture take root. Because if they do not, if players are not fully with the program, as was the case with the previous coaching change…

It was evident that the content and style of the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery message did not resonate with their team. Fox and his staff arrive with exponentially more credibility than Trestman and his did, but content and style are still relatively new to players.

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“I’m brutally honest,” Fox said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not afraid or intimidated about telling people the truth.”

In more forms than one. The previous regime acquired and put up with Brandon Marshall. The new one got rid of him.

Wanted: Leaders

When matters deteriorated over the past two seasons, the lack of clear leadership on the field was an issue. No successor to Brian Urlacher emerged on defense, Jay Cutler did not deliver the leadership that the greats (Brady, Manning, Rodgers) at his position bring to their offenses. The likes of Blake Costanzo and Craig Steltz were phased out of special teams without comparable replacements.

Apart from what Fox and his staff bring, the need is for players with the combination of talent and personality to lead a team that had precious little leadership over the past two seasons.

“You’ve got to feel things out, see who’s the leader and who’s not,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, the priority offseason addition to the defense. “Figure out who you can sit down and talk to and who are willing to learn the game.”

With a smile, McPhee added the kind of attitude coaches crave: “I think I could be ‘that guy’ but we’re just going to let it play out.”

Culture/system changes = winning?

When Mike Ditka arrived as Bears coach in 1982, he tore much of existing internal culture up by the roots. Roster turnover was measured in bulk. The Bears went from dismal to postseason in three seasons, no small accomplishment in the pre-free-agency era.

When Dave Wannstedt took over, he and then-chairman Mike McCaskey looked to reshape the Bears from the Ditka motif to something in the model of the Dallas Cowboys, from when Wannstedt had come. Success was short-lived but the Bears were in the postseason and won a playoff game in year two.

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Lovie Smith stayed with a 4-3 defense but completely changed it from a lumbering front-four to a speed-based one-gap scheme. The 11-5 Bears won the NFC North in Smith’s Year 2.

Fast forward to 2013 and the start of the brief Marc Trestman tenure. He and coordinator Mel Tucker made virtually no changes to a defense that became a piñata in year one and worse in year two. What changes there were came in things such as locker assignments and captaincies rotated weekly. It was clear to Trestman that Cutler was going to be his quarterback, and as the offense was increasingly found out, the inability to adapt and change was fatal.

Worse, the players did not buy into what changes were being made, exacerbating other problems.

“We’ve made a lot of changes, upstairs, downstairs, throughout the building,” Fox said. “I think the guys have responded well. Guys have bought in and worked hard and that’s all I can ask.”

Strong early indicators

The Bears culture and more are in flux under John Fox. Privately and publicly, the indications are that both the specifics and the overall have met with the buy that was so conspicuously absent under Trestman.

“The entire energy is different around here,” said end/linebacker Jared Allen. “It’s really cool to just walk in here. So that breeds that competition and just excitement.”

The entire defense has been uprooted and replanted with both new players and with ones who’ve never played much 3-4 before. Special teams are expected to be staffed with impact players rather than too often being addressed primarily.

Fox has let it be known that even quarterback will be performance-based, which under Emery/Trestman did not always appear to be the case, players said.

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Trestman impressed Bears senior management when he laid out a 13-month calendar. Fox’s “calendar” has already made an impression where it may even matter more.

“Fox has a reputation, he knows how to win,” Cutler said. “They have a blueprint.”

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was an impressive blend of running, receiving and special teams play. He quickly became a household name. The combination of his diminutive frame and oversized personality made him a fan favorite, especially when he started gaining yards in chunks.

    In fact, of all running backs with a minimum of 80 carries last season, Cohen had the highest percentage of runs that went for 15 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cohen will have a big role in new coach Matt Nagy's offense this season because of everything he offers a play-caller. He's a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield and can chew up yards on the ground like any traditional running back. He's a hold-your-breath talent who can turn a bad play into a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    Cohen had 370 rushing yards, 353 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns in what can be described as a limited role last year. John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn't seem to ever figure out how to best use Cohen's skill set. That should be no issue for Nagy and Mark Helfrich, the team's new offensive coordinator, who both bring a creative offensive approach to Chicago.

    Jordan Howard will be the starter and will do most of the heavy lifting. But Cohen is going to have a much bigger role than he had as a rookie, and that should result in more big plays and points on the board.