What exactly the Bears are playing for over the final quarter of the 2015 season can be debated, whether for the long-shot playoff chance or pride or whatever. For a handful of significant players, however, the reality is that they are playing for contracts beyond this year, in Chicago or elsewhere.
“We’re in a performance-based business,” coach John Fox said. “That doesn’t change whether you’re first-year, second-year, 14th year. Our players understand that, our staff understands it. It’s a competitive business, so we’re evaluating every game, every practice.”
And while the team very obviously is constantly evaluating players, the reverse is also true.
Into this final quarter, one gets the feeling that money, while always the prime motivator in virtually all contract decisions, will not be the sole driver for some players in their evaluations. It wasn’t for them when they chose the Bears in free agency and won’t automatically be this time, either.
The disappointment of falling to 5-7 has not overshadowed a widespread belief in the locker room that the Bears under Fox are building something special. There is more than a cliché interest in remaining part of what they have started.
“This feels to me more like a family-oriented place,” said defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, approaching the end of his one-year contract. “Here, when a DB gets a pick, you see five, six defensive linemen running downfield. You admire that, and I want to be a part of that.
“It’s very special here.”
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Unlike some years of the recent past, the Bears have only four primary current starters on both offense and defense coming out of contract. On offense: running back Matt Forte, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, tight end Zach Miller and guard Patrick Omameh.
The defense has Jenkins, linebackers Sam Acho and Shea McClellin and cornerback Tracy Porter, all integral parts of remaking the defense almost entirely.
“To be honest, I love playing for coach Fox, the direction we’re going here as a team,” said Porter, who was with Fox for 2012 in Denver and witnessed some of the culture turnaround Fox accomplished there. “Should they want me to come back, I would definitely be interested in it.
“I know it’s a business, so I can’t sit here and say I know they’ll want me back, that I know I’ll be here — I just know this is a real good organization and coach Fox and Ryan (Pace) are doing tremendous jobs changing the culture here. It’s fun to play football. When you have an organization where football is fun, you definitely want to be here.”
The Bears are expected to make a concerted push for Porter, whose 17 pass breakups lead the Bears despite his being inactive with a hamstring strain the first two games and not starting until game four.
Jenkins was a second-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins. But when Washington did not step up last offseason, Jenkins chose Chicago and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio among other pursuers, including the Arizona Cardinals.
Jenkins has started every game and is one of four Bears pass rushers with four or more sacks this season.
“Now I have a second chance to establish myself and make this my permanent home,” Jenkins said. “There’s more urgency for me to stay here, so I want to get my production up and be more of a leader.”
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With Martellus Bennett on injured reserve and a roster question mark in 2016 even with a year remaining on his deal, attention necessarily goes toward Miller, who has already set personal bests for receiving yards (228) and touchdowns (four) with four games yet to play.
“I just love it here,” Miller said. “This organization is on the right path, and I can’t say enough about the things they’ve done here. Nobody even gave us a chance to be competitive this year, and I don’t want to leave.
“My family loves it here, and that’s a big thing that plays into this for me. That has some cash value.”
The Bears did not pick up their option for a fifth year under McClellin’s rookie contract. But coaches moved him to inside linebacker after two underwhelming seasons at defensive end and last year at outside linebacker and have consistently voiced positives about McClellin as a leader and solidifying presence in the inside.
McClellin said that for the first time in a while he is genuinely having fun at football again, and “for sure I definitely feel at home now, finally. The position I’m in and everything — I try not to think about the future and just work hard and everything’ll take care of itself.
“Yeah, you want to be back, but it’s a business. To leave and go somewhere else would be unfortunate, but it is what it is.”