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.”