Bears

Fox working miracles with Broncos

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Fox working miracles with Broncos

Hell likely finish well up the track in voting for NFL coach of the year. This season so far has belonged pretty much to Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and to loss-less Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.

But like Harbaugh, without benefit of a typical offseason for orientation with his new team, John Fox has set in motion a turnaround in Denver that ranks among the NFLs best in recent years and does not appear to be done yet.

Fox was fired after the 2009 season following a 2-14 finish in Carolina (where he previously took a team from 1-15 to a Super Bowl within three years in his first head-coaching job). Now he has the Denver Broncos, up from a 4-12 record under Josh McDaniels in 2010 to 7-5 already and a tiebreaker lead in the AFC West, a spot they have occupied only once (2005) since 1999.

Turnarounds are accomplished ultimately by players but choosing those and remaking an organizations culture is the immutable starting points.

Culture makeover

Fox is Denvers third head coach in four years (Mike Shanahan 2008, Josh McDaniels 2009-10). Shanahan was taciturn, McDaniels abrasive. Fox is neither of those.

I think every week he always brings something new to our team meetings and a new outlook, just in his speeches, said quarterback Tim Tebow. He's always encouraging guys, and he's just upbeat, very positive, and players feed off of him. It's been kind of a feel of just do your job and count on the person next to you doing his job, and believe in everybody, be resilient and keep fighting.

Indeed, reforming the culture was the mission statement. Stories of his relaxed, unpretentious style abound through the organization, which are simply Fox being Fox.

At the end of the day, it was a similar situation that I experienced going into Carolina, Fox said. You do have to change the culture, you do have to change the mindset, and it takes a minute. And the guys have responded well.

Changing the changes

Fox himself has made changes in even his own ways of doing things. He is a devotee of the base 4-3 defensive scheme, but has turned Von Miller loose from a linebacker spot unlike his previous style in Carolina.

Offensively, he made the change from Kyle Orton to Tebow and then to more of a scheme in line with Tebows talents, however unorthodox.

Ive been in this business for a while and actually did a lot of research on Tim even when he came out, Fox said. I was well aware of his intangibles and the passion and the enthusiasm he plays the game with. I got to see that all through training camp.

Ironically, Fox caused a stir with a comment to NFL.com that if Tebow were operating in different offense, hed be screwed. The remark, taken out of context, appeared to lump Fox in with Hall of Famer and team executive John Elway as a Tebow doubter.

In fact, the full comment was vintage Fox, complimentary of his quarterback with the seemingly kidding at the end. Fox apologized and lost neither the team nor his turnaround cornerstone.

"He's just been very positive, Tebow said, and I think guys have really responded well.

Just how well did Mitch Trubisky play against New England?

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USA TODAY

Just how well did Mitch Trubisky play against New England?

Nothing Mitch Trubisky did in the Bears’ 38-31 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday shook the confidence of his coaches or teammates in the long-term outlook for their franchise quarterback. If anything, most of what he did continued to show those guys his development is trending in the right direction.

“Mitch is a good-ass quarterback,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “He’s got ability to do a lot of things. He’s young, but he’s going to be a special player. You see glimpses of that last year, and you see more of it this year. In years to come he’s going to be a hell of a player.”

Trubisky’s final stat line is deceiving in some respects, though. He completed 26 of 50 passes, good for a completion percentage of 52 percent, for 333 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and a passer rating of 69.8. He’s now thrown for over 300 yards in three consecutive games, joining Josh McCown and Brian Hoyer as the only quarterbacks to do that in franchise history.

While taking away the last-ditch drive and completion to White — that got the Bears about a yard away from tying or winning the game — shouldn’t be completely ignored in the overall evaluation of Trubisky’s game, he completed 22 of 45 passes for 254 yards before New England’s defense sat as far back as they could with 24 seconds left.

Trubisky’s accuracy was uneven during the game, which Nagy chalked up to something that happens with a young quarterback having to throw so frequently.  

“When you throw the ball 50 times, there's going to be some that are inaccurate,” Nagy said. “This is this kid's second year in the NFL, and this is his first year in our offense. So not everything is going to be dead on. He had a good game today.”

It wasn’t good enough for the Bears to win, though, which is what ultimately counts. Yes, two special teams touchdowns were backbreaking, and the defense struggled with the Patriots’ ability to get the ball out quick and efficiently do the simple things right.

But Trubisky threw two interceptions, one when he tried to make a play on third and long and the ball appeared to bounce out of the arms of Josh Bellamy and into the waiting hands of Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson.

The other, though, came when Anthony Miller had a step on safety Jonathan Jones. Instead of leading Miller into the end zone, Trubisky under threw the ball a touch, turning what could’ve been a touchdown throw into a 50-50 ball.

Jones made a spectacular play to intercept the pass, and New England engineered a 96-yard scoring drive after it that put the Bears down 14 in the fourth quarter.

“I thought I could have put it out there a little further,” Trubisky said. “I loved Anthony's route he ran, and I threw it a little later than I wanted to because I had to check protection to make sure I gave a slide call to make sure we could pick up the blitz that they brought through, and I just bounced back to the other side, so it was a little later than I wanted to be.

"But I thought he ran a great route, loved how he took it high, and I just got pushed out there a little further, but it was a 50/50 ball, and he had a chance to get it, and the other guy had a chance to get it, and the other dude made a great play.”

The Patriots’ defense did well to take away Taylor Gabriel — who had been Trubisky’s favorite target over the last few weeks — by shading a cornerback to the receiver’s inside shoulder and playing a safety over the top consistently. Allen Robinson was hampered by a groin issue and didn’t make an impact (five targets, one catch, four yards).

What the Bears liked from Trubisky, though, was how he switched to relying on Trey Burton (11 targets, nine catches, 129 yards, one touchdown) and stuck with Tarik Cohen (12 targets, eight catches, 69 yards, one touchdown).

Trubisky was outstanding running the ball, scrambling over 70 yards for an eight-yard touchdown and deftly extending a run into a 39-yard gain in the third quarter. His team-best 81 rushing yards on six attempts were an effective counter-punch to what Belichick threw at him.

But Trubisky threw two passes in the end zone that could’ve — and probably should’ve — been picked off. Those two throws were concerning given Trubisky threw a momentum-shifting interception in the end zone last week in Miami.

“He forced one in the end zone that everyone is holding your breath when he throws it, and that can happen sometimes with a young quarterback,” Nagy said. “But that was one of the ones that he knew right away 'I shouldn't have done that.'”

The highs and lows are all part of the long-term development of a young quarterback paired with a first-time coach. That’s a critically-important backdrop with which to evaluate Trubisky, Nagy and the Bears’ offense.

But the Bears still have plenty to prove in 2018, with this at the top of the list: Can this team be a playoff contender with a quarterback trending in the right direction, but still going through the growing pains of inexperience?

“It’s early in the year, still a lot of games left, a lot of ball to be played and we’re a good-ass team,” Massie said. “There’s no need to be like oh, woe is me. We’re still gonna make a run at this thing. We gotta fix what needs to be fixed and we’ll be good.”

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

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USA Today

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

A year ago, had the Bears come within one yard of tying the New England Patriots in a game in which they allowed two special teams touchdowns, the vibe in the Solider Field locker room might’ve been different. Sort of like, hey, that was pretty good that we were able to hang with one of the league's best teams and nearly tie and/or beat them despite our own mistakes. 

The operative term, then, after Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Patriots may be confident frustration. The Bears know they’re a good team, better than they’ve had in recent memory. And that makes losing a game this team felt it was close to winning that much more frustrating. 

“We still had confidence last year that we could go in and win games (last year), but I would say this year we know what type of team we have,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “We know we got a quarterback that’s developing and throwing the ball down the field really well. We know we have a great wide receiver corps. We know we have rushers that can get to the quarterback. We have a really good team and we’re going to have to figure out how to capitalize on that big play momentum and finish games out.”

Perhaps this is a picture of a talented team still trying to figure out how to win. The Bears’ defense entered Sunday allowing an average of 8.8 yards per play in the fourth quarter and allowed 6.5 yards per play in the final 15 minutes Sunday, including a critical 96-yard touchdown drive. 

And while Mitch Trubisky’s Hail Mary to Kevin White came up one yard short, that the Bears were even in that situation to begin with was the problem. New England was able to chew up 3:49 off the clock before punting the ball back to the Bears' offense with 24 seconds remaining. Get a stop earlier and the Bears might not have to rely on a nearly-converted heave with time expiring to tie the game. 

“In games like this, your room for error is slim in all phases,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “No matter what we did (well), there are still a couple things that we have to clean up against a team like that."

The Bears’ defense is remaining confident despite scant pressure on Brady — he was sacked once (by Roquan Smith) and hit only three times (by Smith, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris). Khalil Mack barely showed up on the stat sheet, registering only one tackle while being dropped into coverage far more frequently than he made an impact as a pass rusher. How much he was affected by his injured ankle, or how much defensive coordinator Vic Fangio felt he had to gameplan around it, is unclear (Mack did not speak to the media following the game). 

Leonard Floyd, too, was picked on by Brady, who frequently got the ball out quick in a successful effort to mitigate a pass rush that’s struggled to make an impact after recording 18 sacks in four games to begin the year. But the confidence is still there, despite seemingly few reasons for optimism since the second half in Miami kicked off last weekend. 

“We definitely don’t feel like (we’ve hit a wall),” safety Eddie Jackson said. “That’s probably the greatest quarterback in the NFL right now. We just gotta come in, we left some things on the field, we left some plays on the field. Like I said, it’s tough trying to put this one behind you but, you know, it’s a long season. We’re not getting down on ourselves, we’re still going to play with confidence. That confidence is still there.” 

Games against two of the league’s worst offenses in the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, then, should help the Bears’ defensive production match its confidence, if that line of thinking is to be believed. But as the first four games of the season get farther and farther in the rearview mirror, this is a defense that has to prove itself again in the coming weeks. 

“(The Patriots) came to play all together, and not saying we didn’t but we didn’t make the plays when we needed to make the plays,” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said. “It’s on us. Defense, we got it though. We’re not worried about it. It’s another game we lost. We got how many other games, we got 10 games left? Yeah. I’m not worried about it. I don’t think anybody is.”