Bears, John Fox using preseason games for more than just evaluations


Bears, John Fox using preseason games for more than just evaluations

INDIANAPOLIS — Word inside Halas Hall is that coach John Fox has made it clear that in addition to improvement and evaluations, he also wants wins this preseason, believing that those games represent a chance to start changing a culture of negativity and losing that had taken hold inside the Bears over recent seasons.

Fox considers winning to be in no small part about attitude; same with losing. He is not waiting until the regular season to push for wins and in the process eradicate any stench of losing from Halas Hall.

Coaches have not radically altered allocation of playing time for starters in preseason games; preseason will always be about evaluation. But the Bears are 2-0, and the mood upgrade from last year through the locker room is palpable. And Fox never had a sub-.500 preseason in four Denver seasons, all Broncos playoff years.

Not that 2-0 starts necessarily foreshadow regular-season success. The Bears started 2-0 last preseason, too. Before that, 2-0 in 2007, when they missed the playoffs.

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But Fox is not the first to target preseason as part of a culture makeover.

When Dennis Green took over in 1992 as coach of the Minnesota Vikings, he explicitly said that the Vikings would play to win their preseason games because believed they needed to relearn being a winning team. Green drove the Vikings to his first objective of a 4-0 preseason goal and then to 11-5 in the regular season, shaking loose from the ennui of 6-10 and 8-8 finishes before Green.

Not that it always works. Jimmy Johnson had done some of the same as Dallas Cowboys coach. In 1989 the Cowboys went 3-1 in preseason with the only loss coming in overtime. That team went 1-15.

But players have talked positively of the personality change Fox and staff have wrought on and off the field. That wasn’t happening in the early months of the previous regime.

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One inescapable conclusion, based on things said and on general manager Ryan Pace’s history with New Orleans, is that all members of the Bears’ opening-day 53-man roster are not on the current depth charts.

From various conversations, the Bears are expected to recruit and add upgrades and/or depth from the cut from 90 to 75 after Game 3 and from 75 to 53 after Game 4.

Wide receiver and inside linebacker have been suggested as the likely target areas — receiver because of how thin on experience the group is, and inside linebacker because Jonathan Bostic and Mason Foster have not flashed the way coordinator Vic Fangio is used to seeing inside ‘backers pop (not that either was going to be confused with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, but you get the point).

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Patriots will be a tough test for the Bears, but it looks like they're going to receive a big break.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't travel with the Patriots to Chicago and is "highly unlikely" to play Sunday.

Avoiding Gronkowski, who is one of Brady's favorite targets, would be a huge break for the Bears' defense. In six games this season, the tight end has 26 receptions for 405 yards and a touchdown; in 14 games last season, Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Gronkowski has not officially been ruled out yet, though time is running out for the Patriots to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday despite dealing with an ankle injury. Between having Mack on the field and Gronkowski off of it, good news keeps coming for the Bears' defense.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

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Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”