Bears

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

This Bears rebuild has taken longer than expected. Ideally, in year three of a GM/head coach tandem, they should be contending for the playoffs. 

That’s not to say the 2017 Bears can’t. It’s just unlikely. They don’t have enough players opponents have to gameplan for. They don’t have the depth to overcome key injuries. When franchises get on a winning roll, it’s when they have enough of those studs on both sides of the ball, and have the depth to avoid as many emergencies as possible. And that happens when second- and third-year players make a jump in their play.

Offensively, we saw an impressive jump by Cam Meredith, but another left leg injury still have us wondering exactly what Kevin White is, and how good he can be. Jeremy Langford’s growth was stunted by his ankle injury. Second-year center Hroniss Grasu missed the entire year. On the defensive side, we never got to see if Kyle Fuller could’ve proven his first-round status in his third year. Safety Adrian Amos started another full season, but is now in a battle to do the same a third straight year. We can see star qualities in Eddie Goldman, but how much of a difference-maker can he be by remaining on the field? We’ll learn the same about Leonard Floyd if he can do that this fall. And there are a handful of other second-year players we’ll be watching, from Deon Bush to Deiondre Hall to Cre’Von LeBlanc. There’s also 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard, who learned what it took to become a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.

“It was okay. I got about 17 snaps a game,” Bullard said of his rookie season during last month’s minicamp. “That’s not what I wanted coming in. But it is what is. I want to move on to the next year and hopefully be able to help this team in a big way.”

Rookie seasons for every player lay the groundwork. How high their ceiling goes starts to get established in year two, between the player’s effort, and getting coached-up correctly.

“They asked me to gain a few pounds. I was like 282 last year, and right now I’m at 296, so hopefully that helps me, said Bullard. “I’m just trying to make all this solid and not lose my burst that got me here. So I’m looking forward to it. I got a year under my belt now, I know what they expect. I’m gonna be ready.”

Part of Bullard taking things upon himself was hooking up with a former defensive end, from the same alma mater, who happens to be fourth in franchise history in sacks (albeit in a 4-3 scheme): CSN’s very own Bears analyst, Alex Brown.

“We saw each other at the Florida spring game and we kind of linked up and put in some work at his facility down the road,” Bullard explained. “We’ve met up quite a few times, just working on little things. He’s just trying to give me a better understanding of the game, and some of the veteran things he knows that I want to incorporate into my game.”

So what kind of a teacher is Alex?

“He’s alright. I make him him jump in there. I tell him he’s not that old.”

And while Pace didn’t make the big splash in free agency as he tries to match up salary with his grades for players, Bullard has to prove he’s now better than last year’s starter, Mitch Unrein, as well as a hungry fellow former Gator, Jaye Howard, who was brought in on a “prove it” one-year deal after being cut just before the draft by Kansas City.

“As far as him being a Gator, it’s exciting. But it’s a competition. He’s gonna come in and try to win the starting job, and I’m gonna do the same. It’s just gonna have to be a friendly competition when training camp comes, and may the best man win.”

Let this, and many other Bourbonnais battles, begin.

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Call it a small Bears reality check, if not a full wake-up call, then at least a nudge in the night. And this sort of thing should be expected, not just in OTAs, not just in training camp or preseason, but when it all counts.

And it should serve as a lesson of sorts. Because some of the underlying reasons are worth a little highlighting and patient understanding around a team that has spent its offseason and millions of dollars refashioning an offense, beginning with coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich, and that offense wasn’t particularly good on Wednesday.

In a sport where the operative cliché is “just get better each and every day,” the Bears didn’t, but as far as their coach is concerned, “there’s two ways to look at it,” Nagy said. “Whether you say on our side, on offense, trying to see a bunch of different looks a defense can give you, is it too much or not? It’s good for us. It’ll help us out in the long run. It’s good for our players and they’ve handled it well. There’s going to be mistakes but they have it on tape to be able to look at. “

This is about more than just a few bad reps or missed assignments. It’s part of the good-news-bad-news reality that a sea change brings to a team.

The good news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The bad news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The Bears defense is predictably ahead of the offense, hardly a surprise, given that most of the core of the top-10 unit has remained in place. That said, you do have to like the attitude of the barely-above-rookie No. 1 quarterback challenging that assessment Wednesday, with a “Who says that?”

This while the offense has myriad moving and new parts, and interceptions, blown plays and such were occurring for an offense that, like Halas Hall, is a massive building work in progress.

“Well, today was a bad ‘build,’ but that’s to be expected,” Helfrich acknowledged. “We’re adding a chunk each day, I thought today was the first day where we had somebody do something that just like, ‘wait, OK’ – a few positions here and there, a few new guys, obviously a few veterans here and there that it’s all new to, hit the wall.”

It’s a “wall” that arguably is inevitable with a coaching change.

Not to make excuses, but….

For a sense of perspective, scroll back to Jay Cutler, who went through offensive coordinators perhaps faster than he went through socks: a year with Ron Turner, two with Mike Martz, one with Mike Tice, two with Aaron Kromer, one with Adam Gase, one with Dowell Loggains, who at least was a holdover from the Gase year. (Whether Cutler’s failure to match potential with production was the cause of or because of that turnover, this humble and faithful narrator leaves to you, the reader).

More than a few current Bears can only dream of that kind of “stability.” And because of that, the 2018 pre- and regular seasons may be bumpier than the optimism surrounding the Nagy hire was anticipating.

Guard Kyle Long, still not practicing full-go while he rehabs from surgeries, is on his fifth offensive-line coach in six NFL seasons. Center Cody Whitehair, who has started every game since the Bears drafted him in the 2016 second round, has had three different line coaches in as many seasons: Dave Magazu for 2016, Jeremiah Washburn for 2017 and now Harry Hiestand. Left tackle Charles Leno was drafted in 2014, making Hiestand Leno’s fourth O-line coach.

And this is the offensive line, the unit that most engenders use of the term “continuity.”

“Each coach brings in a little bit, different techniques,” Whitehair said. “There’s a lot of time for us to hone in and get to know what he’s trying to teach us. But in the end it’s still football.”

Kevin White is entering his fourth NFL season. He is on his fourth receivers coach (Mike Groh, Curtis Johnson, Zach Azzanni, Mike Furrey) and third different season-starting quarterback (Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky), not including offseason battery mates ranging from Jimmy Clausen, Brian Hoyer, David Fales and Connor Shaw, depending on how much rep time he spent with which unit at various times during his training camps.

“It doesn’t matter,” White said. “Roll with the punches, come here and do my job every day.”

Regardless of how many bosses you’ve reported to.

Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

5-23kevinwhite.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Kevin White, Bears focusing on the present and not his unlucky past or uncertain future

Kevin White had little interest in engaging with reporters on Wednesday, the first time he was made available to the media since suffering a season-ending broken scapula in Week 1 of the 2017 season. His answers weren’t combative, but they were short and terse. 

Then again, how was he supposed to handle yet another round of questions — none of which were unfair — about his star-crossed past or his uncertain future? He did offer up this quote-worthy line when asked what he’s learned about himself after all the adversity he’s faced since being drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 Draft:

“Built Ford Tough.”

If White would rather live in the present than in the past or future, that’s fine. It’s actually ideal if the Bears want to get something out of him in the final year of his rookie contract. And it’s also the mindset preached to him by wide receivers coach Mike Furrey, his fourth position coach in four years in the NFL. 

“We sat down from Day 1 and I said listen, I don’t know anything about your past, I don’t want to know anything about your past,” Furrey said. “From here on out it’s just going forward and just doing everything that we can control day in and day out and that’s it. I won’t talk to you anything about tomorrow, I’ll only talk to you about what we’re doing today and how we’re building today.”

If the Bears hope to get anything out of White in 2018 — and if White hopes to revive his career without job security beyond this season — that narrow mindset is a good starting point. It’s even more important during OTAs here in late May, with there still being about two months until the Bears’ first padded practice and two and a half months before preseason play begins. 

The Bears insulated themselves from needing White to produce this year by adding targets for Mitch Trubisky in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Anthony Miller over the last two months. The spotlight is off White, in a sense, and he’s okay with that — “I don’t need attention,” White said, “I just come here and do my job.”

But in another sense, there’s an immense amount of pressure on White to prove himself worthy of a roster spot not in 2018, but in 2019. Not many receivers with White’s numbers — 21 catches on 40 targets, 193 yards, no touchdowns in five games — are able to hang around the league for long without being a special teams ace (like Josh Bellamy, for instance). Neither the past nor future for White is particularly rosy. 

So that’s why White said he doesn’t have any specific goals for the season: “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “As long as I’m out here.” 

All White can do is show up to Halas Hall and, eventually, Olivet Nazarene University ready to practice with a narrow mindset on that day, and that day only. If he sticks with that approach — and doesn’t suffer another horribly-unlucky injury — eventually, he’ll arrive at Lambeau Field in September for the season opener, finally given the opportunity to prove himself. 

But that’s a long ways away. For now, White’s well within his rights to not want to entertain any thoughts about what happened in the last three years or what lies ahead. 

“I don’t know the past and I don’t want to know the past,” Furrey said. “Everything from here on out is going to be everything in the future. We’ve kind of established that and that kind of allows him to relax a little bit and not be judged and to have all these things said about him — because I don’t know. I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t even want to know. 

“All I want (is for) him to be comfortable and be able to learn a new system and be able to learn it as fast as he can so he can go out there — and everybody sees it, he’s very gifted. He’s very powerful, lower body powerful. He can run, he’s got a great catch radius. He has all those intangibles and that’s exciting, but it’s really what you do with those every day. So we’ll just continue to have the daily routine and hopefully get better every day and then be able to put it together when we gotta go.”