Mid-year musings: Some stories ending, some starting with Bears at the break

Mid-year musings: Some stories ending, some starting with Bears at the break

The first half of the Bears’ 2016 season ended on an up note in the form of their 20-10 handling of the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. Drawing conclusions from one game is always something of a dice-roll, particularly in a 2-6 year to date.

But there are some bread-crumb trails coming into and out of this game that lead in some interesting directions.

A culture change has taken root

A foundation of John Fox’s mission statement when he arrived in 2015 was to change a losing culture that had taken hold during the Phil Emery-Marc Trestman regime. The winning hasn’t happened as Fox and more than a few players expected, this year in particular, but the attitude adjustment was evident in the aftermath of the Vikings game.

From Jay Cutler to Pernell McPhee to Akiem Hicks to Willie Young and so on, the mood was edgy, but not in the finger-pointing, negative direction. Players were angry at their early season failures and pulling closer, not further apart.

“To tell you the truth,” guard Ted Larsen said, “we were getting pretty sick of the way things were going.”

Nearly two-dozen players got together last week to watch a pre-U.S.-release copy of “Bleed for This,” a film about boxer Vinny Pazienza, who came back from a spinal injury to win world titles. The film’s tag line is “This is what the greatest comeback in sports history looks like,” and it left an impression on multiple Bears, some back from injuries of their own.

“It showed what a comeback takes,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “And we know we have that.”

The Bears probably wouldn't have had the same reaction to adversities if Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall were still prominent in the team culture. But they no longer are, and Cutler’s talk about “cold-blooded execution” and McPhee’s about how “pissed off” teammates should be even in victory had a whole different ring than Marshall once grandstand-ranting “Unacceptable!” in the locker room. Teammates told Marshall to shut up. No one told Cutler or McPhee to stow it.

Fox handled the Cutler-Brian Hoyer situation correctly

Cutler going down for five games with a thumb injury put Hoyer into the starting lineup and that position in play as it has not been since Cutler’s arrival in 2009, with the brief exception of Josh McCown’s moments in 2013. Two elements here:

What made the Cutler-McCown situation different was that coach and general manager were at odds over the resolution. Trestman wanted to stay with McCown and his offense management; Emery ordered Cutler back in the lineup when healthy and gave the quarterback $54 million guaranteed after that season.

Coach and GM are decidedly in unison in the Cutler-Hoyer drama, which was rendered moot when Hoyer suffered his broken arm at Green Bay. Both Fox and Ryan Pace viewed 2016, marking the end of guaranteed Cutler money, as a prove-it year for Cutler, which it will have been, regardless of where he ends up in 2017.

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But Fox did what Trestman was enjoined from doing: underscore the “competition” mantra by making it clear that Hoyer could win the job based on performance. This was not Tom Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo in New England, where Bill Belichick laughed at a question whether Garoppolo could keep the job if he played well during Brady’s suspension.

Cutler will never be confused with Brady any more than Matt Flynn was going to make a starter case for himself (in Green Bay, anyway) while Aaron Rodgers was out injured in 2013.

Fox supported Hoyer; you play better than the other guy, you keep playing. Then he supported Cutler, who clearly didn’t like his job being put in play. But there it was. Indeed, Cutler performed his best (2015) when he was on a prove-it count, as he did again Monday night.

Fox critics (they are legion, and it’s weirdly personal) depicted his statements as mixed or conflicting messages. They weren’t. It was about performance. And this time coach and GM were in complete agreement.

Finishing is everything

Multiple players alluded on Monday to finishing, something the Bears have failed to do, with calamitous results. Four of the Bears’ eight opponents (Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Green Bay) scored double-digit points in their fourth quarters against the Bears, all four handing the Bears defeats. The Vikings scored their one touchdown in the fourth quarter, but that was with the Bears up 20-3.

“The defense held them to three points until the final five minutes to go,” Cutler said.

But that was only half the story. “Finishing” involves more than defensive stops.

Cutler and the offense did some finishing of their own. The Bears had the football four times in the second half, with an average starting position of the Chicago 19. They scored just once, a clinching touchdown. But they controlled the ball on possessions of 5:08, 4:15, 3:57 and 5:37, all six or more plays long, when any one of those possessions could have positioned the Vikings for a game-change if the Bears gave up the football with a three-and-out deep in their own end.

CSN colleague and former Bears quarterback Jim Miller noted on our postgame show that the Bears’ running of their four-minute offense was pivotal to him, and results underscore that.

“We had a good drive to start the third quarter,” Fox said. “Obviously we had a pretty impactful four-minute drive at the end to secure the game.”

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”