Bears no longer in learning-curve 1st quarter under John Fox staff


Bears no longer in learning-curve 1st quarter under John Fox staff

KANSAS CITY – Coach John Fox described his approach to the NFL season as one shared by myriad other coaches, that of thinking in terms of quarters. As convinced as he was of the Bears ability to achieve more than the common predictions of mediocrity for his team, he acknowledged in an exclusive interview with that the first quarter of the season would involve some sort of learning curve, and it has, for players, coaches and beyond.

The first quarter of 2015 is now over, despite the preseason feel that some sectors continue to struggle through. The expectation bar is now raised, certainly from standpoint of schedule:

The Bears’ next two opponents are a combined 1-7; none of the Bears’ second-quarter opponents are above .500; and at this early quarter-pole, the remainder of the schedule has just 4-0 Denver and Green Bay as the only teams currently with winning records.

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After the loss in Seattle, where special teams gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown and a long trick punt return, where the short-handed offense barely threatened midfield, let alone the Seahawks end zone, Fox was candid:

“Really, we’ve got young guys, whether they’re young or not because it’s all new. Our special teams, offense and defense are all new systems to these football players. It’s not an excuse.”

He wasn’t using that excuse then and he won’t now.

Offensive line positions are still at issue, and Jay Cutler has yet to throw to a fully healthy and staffed group of wide receivers.

“It does get challenging,” Cutler said. “Even this week, a bunch of new guys, we have some guys banged up, so getting through practice, just getting everyone on the same page communication's gotta be good.

“I think from the OC on down, everyone's done a great job; coaching staff, players locking in during meetings... Mistakes are going to happen out here but we'll just try to eliminate them.”

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And that is really the crux of it now. The Bears are done one-fourth of their first season under Fox, coordinators Vic Fangio, Adam Gase and Jeff Rodgers, and while injuries and a learning process inevitably continue, the mistakes by members of all three phases that have been the reasons for a 1-3 start can no longer inevitable.

The suspect defense in supposed transition has made exponential leaps, with more expected with the play of Jarvis Jenkins, Pernell McPhee, Eddie Goldman and anticipated return of Jeremiah Ratliff.

The offense has outgained three of the Bears’ four opponents (excepting only Seattle when coaches drastically dialed down the game plan to “safety” for Jimmy Clausen). The Bears have as many 20-yard pass plays (14) as their opponents, and more 10-yard running plays (16) than their opponents (12).

But the Bears also have more giveaways (six) than takeaways (four), and they have been penalized 33 times to opponents’ 28, getting back to the “mistakes” issue.

Special teams have held a punting edge on opponents (47.3 yds. avg. gross vs. 44.7) and Robbie Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. Lengthy returns remain an issue until they’re not (Oakland had a kickoff return for 37 yards and punt runback of 22) but the disasters of the first three games were at least scaling back.

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All of which points to a Bears team that has had its John Fox learning-curve quarter. The Kansas City Chiefs have beaten only 1-4 Houston and allowed 30-plus points in their last three games, all losses. The Bears are presumably not what they’re going to be with more time under the Fox regime but they are done with time for excusing elementary mistakes as just part of doing business.

“I think there has been parts of those games where I think we’ve been competitive,” Fox said. “We just haven’t done it for the long haul yet, for all 60 minutes.”

And that’s what the second “quarter” is about.

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.