One of the foundation principles that John Fox sought to shore up when he took over as coach was the football character and culture of the Bears. The positive culture of Lovie Smith and leaders like Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher had been replaced by the internal malaise under Marc Trestman and players like Brandon Marshall and others.
The losing has not ended, but the losing mentality has, with players now looking forward to next year but with an eye toward using the final two games of this dismal season as last chances to reinforce the mentality.
“The only thing positive is that we’ve got two more games and we can go and try to make a positive statement out of that,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, one of the foundation pillars of the internal attitude shift.
Making that statement at the expense of the Washington Redskins would have a certain resonance if only because of what happened against Washington last year, a loss coming one week after a blown opportunity to reach .500 with a last-second field goal against the San Francisco 49ers. That kick missed and so did the game-tying attempt in the final two minutes against Washington, taking with it hopes for turning around Fox’s first Bears season.
That game helped Washington to an NFC East title and the playoffs. This year Washington is scrapping for a wild-card slot, putting the Bears in the role of potential spoiler on top of their goal of continuing their own progress toward a winning internal culture.
The Bears will be doing all of this with five of their top six 2016 draft choices (Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, Nick Kwiatkoski, Deon Bush, Jordan Howard) starting. That might be due in part to injuries, but they are learning from McPhee, Akiem Hicks, Willie Young and others how to be NFL football players, and Saturday is another referendum on the qualitative aspects of this Fox team as much as the quantitative elements.
That the Bears have shown an emerging competitive character doesn’t win games by itself. But if that is absent, so will the wins be.
“There are no moral victories. Let’s make that clear,” Fox said. “And I have said that. But I think when things aren’t going well, it’s a small fraternity of people. Players. Coaches. Everybody who does it for a living. I think there’s a pride and respect that guys watch video every single play. Different angles. So I think I’ve been proud of the way we’ve given our effort and the focus and how they’ve stuck together.”
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And the winner is ...
The biggest specific challenge for the Bears is to shake off the late breakdown in pass defense that cost them the chance for an upset of the Green Bay Packers. Kirk Cousins is not the quarterback that Aaron Rodgers is (though this season he and Rodgers are about even in passer rating), but the Washington receiver group is arguably better overall than Green Bay’s. The Packers have three receivers with more than 40 receptions; the Redskins have six.
“You have DeSean (Jackson, 49 catches), you have Pierre (Garcon, 71), you have Jordan (Reed, 61), you have the young guy (Jamison) Crowder, (64),” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “So we have a task set up for us.
“We have young guys. We have new pieces that are coming in, so it’s going to be another task like it’s been every week. Collectively, this group is probably one of the tougher groups collectively that we’re going to go against. It’s not just one receiver in particular is going to provide a challenge. All of them have their own unique assets that they bring to the table.”
But the Bears with Matt Barkley have played a succession of playoff-grade teams even through a final possession. The Bears are one of only six teams in the top 15 in both offense and defense, and that balance is will finally benefit from some long-overdue takeaways.
Bears 21, Washington 17
View from the Moon ’16 record: 8-6