Ryan Pace and John Fox unlikely to place win-now mandate on Bears' draft plans

Ryan Pace and John Fox unlikely to place win-now mandate on Bears' draft plans

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most frequently asked questions of the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine — right after "Did Mitch Trubisky measure 6-foot-3?" and "Hey, what about Joe Mixon being barred?" — has been, "So is John Fox coaching for his job?"

Probably a pretty normal question given Fox heads a Bears team that has gone 9-23 in his first two seasons in Chicago.

Along with that would be an only slightly less acute question of whether general manager Ryan Pace is in a similar situation.

The answers are at once pretty simple and not so simple. One obvious is that coaches are coaching for their jobs just about every week of an NFL season, or at least that's how they truly do feel, the reasoning being that one bad season might not immediately cost them their job but that it takes up most of the slack in the rope that goes around their necks the day they're hired.

And the win-now pressure becomes potentially relevant for a team with the No. 3 pick in the draft and a lot of money to spend in free agency in a business where coaches typically think win-now and general managers think win-then, as well.

Meaning, what if any effect will job-related urgency have on the Bears' draft plans? Is the need to win now a potential tipping point in the Bears' decisions with that No. 3 pick?

Ostensibly, no. For two reasons:

One, Pace said as much: "We're looking to set this thing up for long-term success. You've got to be careful not for these quick fixes that sometimes won't work out." It’s what Pace might be expected to say, but there it is.

Two, signs of progress, whether in win total, player development or other measure, is what will keep Fox and Pace in their jobs. A three-win 2016 was a stunningly bad result, until factoring in three different starting quarterbacks, four different starting safeties and five different starting cornerbacks.

But it also sets a low starting bar. Winning, say, a very achievable seven games in 2017 will likely pass for "progress," particularly since that would presumably include a couple of good wins in there somewhere.

[MORE BEARS: NFL Scouting Combine presents opportunities — both good and bad — for Bears]

Looking at expectations from a high draft pick against that backdrop:

A quarterback at No. 3 does not usually project to make a major Year 1 impact. The Dallas Cowboys did go from four wins to 13 with rookie Dak Prescott, but the Philadelphia Eagles were 7-9 when they drafted Carson Wentz and 7-9 with him.

On the other hand, a defensive needle-mover (such as Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Texas A&M's Myles Garrett or Stanford's Solomon Thomas, all projected impact pass rushers) can. Leonard Floyd gave the Bears seven sacks in an injury-speckled year. Joey Bosa netted 9.5 scks in a late-starting season with San Diego. Yannick Ngakoue totaled eight in Jacksonville. DeForest Buckner had six for San Francisco.

Of course, as with quarterbacks, "impact" is a very fluid, very loosely defined concept. Of the Chargers, Jaguars, Bears and 49ers, San Diego had the most wins with only five.

For reference purposes, Ted Thompson had only one winning season in his first four as the general manager of the Green Bay Packers. But his trend line was so clearly up — from 4-12 his first year (2005) to 8-8 to 13-3 before a dip to 6-10 and then on to 11-5, followed by a Super Bowl winning season — that his example doesn't necessarily provide a useful template for the Bears' situation.

Fox and Pace were as surprised as anyone by the second-year drop-off, from 6-10 to 3-13, even with the injuries and Alshon Jeffery's suspension. It marked the first time in 28 years of coaching that Fox had been part of two consecutive losing seasons.

But a draft pick made with an eye toward any must-win-now mindset appears less and less likely as those potential picks fire up for this week's Scouting Combine.

Bears defense bends, then snaps back and breaks Cardinals in third straight dominant performance

Bears defense bends, then snaps back and breaks Cardinals in third straight dominant performance

In a Bears championship season a long time ago, one in which the Bears’ defense ruled the NFL, that unit was trotting off the field after a stop and the offense coming on, when defensive end Ed O’Bradovich snarled at the offense, “Just try to hold ‘em.”

Matters are far from that in 2018 but while the Bears offense struggles to find its stride and identity, the other side of the football has established both, underscored in a 16-14 win on Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals in which the Bears defense allowed first-quarter mistakes and 14 Arizona points, then shut the Cardinals down with 120 yards over seven scoreless possessions, four ending in Bears takeaways.

“They feel like they can be in a different league of their own,” coach Matt Nagy said after his defense held a third straight opponent to fewer than 300 yards of offense.

As readers of this space know, the ancient James Bond axiom on occasion is invoked: once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

So it was in Sunday’s win that the Bears defense for the third straight game generated at least four sacks and linebacker Khalil Mack delivered a sack and forced fumble. For the third straight game the Bears allowed less than 75 rushing yards, holding Arizona to 53 after giving Seattle 74 and Green Bay just 69.

“Three weeks in a row now, they’ve done some special things,” Nagy said.

Enemy action indeed. With an arrow squarely pointing in an upward direction.

The defense that collapsed in the fourth quarter against Green Bay and allowed the Seattle Seahawks back into last Monday’s game with touchdown drives of 75 and 99 yards in the fourth quarter closed down on the Cardinals. Arizona rolled to 101 yards in the first quarter.

“Our defense was not used to that,” Nagy said. “We haven’t been giving up those plays.”

Then… nothing.

“We just rallied the guys together,” said Mack, with four sacks on the season, tying for team-high with five solo tackles, one for a loss and a forced fumble. “In those situations you just know you can’t let the offense score any more points.

“The way we rallied was very positive.”

The unit had little to no impact pressure on Bradford in the first quarter, during which he beat the Bears for TD passes of 35 and 21 yards, both times exploiting coverage mismatches and mistakes. Bradford found tight end Ricky Seals-Jones running loose in what appeared to be a breakdown five plays into Arizona’s first possession and Seals-Jones completed the 35-yard play untouched. The score came two plays after wideout Christian Kirk turned a short toss into a 30-yard gain.

One play after the Arizona defense had forced a Mitch Trubisky fumble, the Cardinals got running back David Johnson in space against linebacker Danny Trevathan. Bradford’s touch pass to Johnson for 21 yards gave Arizona a 14-0 lead and their final points of the game.

The defense sacked Bradford twice in the second quarter, including one in which defensive lineman Akiem Hicks forced a fumble that the Cardinals recovered. It also allowed zero net yards while forcing three punts.

The group was just getting started. On Arizona’s first four possessions of the second half:

  • Safety Eddie Jackson intercepted Bradford at the Chicago 33, from where the Bears offense scored a touchdown on a Jordan Howard run
  • Cornerback Sherrick McManis, pressed into service at nickel back in a shuffle necessitated by Prince Amukamara’s hamstring injury, intercepted Bradford at the Arizona 44, from where the Bears scored on a Cody Parkey field goal
  • Mack forced a Bradford fumble, recovered by linebacker Danny Trevathan at the Chicago 16
  • Cornerback Bryce Callahan intercepted rookie Josh Rosen, the latter making his NFL debut as Arizona made a change looking for a final spark

Jackson “added” a pick-six with 22 seconds remaining but the interception was nullified by an offside call on Mack.

The offense was able to score 13 points off the Arizona turnovers, opportunities not lost on members of a unit looking to catch up to teammates currently in that “different league of their own.”

“They have our back,” said wide receiver Allen Robinson.

Bears learn more about themselves in slog to win over Arizona Cardinals

Bears learn more about themselves in slog to win over Arizona Cardinals

It took four years and virtually an entire turnover of front office, coaching staff and roster, but the Bears are back on top of the NFC North early in a season.

Coach Matt Nagy said last week that he’d seen how his team responded to a tough loss, shrugging off the collapse in Green Bay and rebounding to defeat Seattle. His next horizon was to see how his team responded to a victory, with an added mini-payoff of climbing ahead of the Packers and Minnesota Vikings.

He found out.

The Bears (2-1) took the field against the Cardinals with a chance to move into first place in the NFC North, shook off early issues on both sides of the football and won for the second straight week with a 16-14 comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals (0-3).

“[The Cardinals] came out and scored 14 points [in the first quarter],” Nagy said, “and it’s a credit to our guys that they rallied.”

Nagy’s young team did not dominate against a bottom-feeder that had scored a total of six points in two previous games but rang up 14 in Sunday’s first quarter. The Chicago quarterback had another undistinguished performance.

But they won without playing well start to finish, which suggests that when quarterback Mitch Trubisky does figure out how the key fits into the ignition switch of the offense that the Bears could have something in the offing at a time when their biggest rivals are scuffling. A Bears defense that made costly mistakes to allow two first-quarter touchdowns then forced three punts and four turnovers in Arizona’s final seven possessions.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we’re winning games because of our defense,” Nagy said. “But that doesn’t mean the offense isn’t a huge part of this.”

The offense did generate 316 yards, its first 300-yard day of 2018, and Trubisky had his first 200-yard (220) passing game this season. But the Bears in the final analysis won with average-at-best quarterback play. Trubisky completed 24 of 35 passes for those 220 yards, but lost a fumble, had a screen pass deflected into an interception, missed multiple downfield throws and took a third-down sack that cost 15 yards before a missed field goal on the Bears opening possession. His 73.5 passer rating did not reach even his modest career average (77.9).

“We’re getting better,” Nagy insisted. “He’s getting better.”

Trubisky is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes on the season. And the Bears have moved the football into opponents’ side of the field on 11 of the last 21 Chicago possessions, albeit with too many field goals rather than touchdowns.

“We just have to finish in the red zone and when we cross the 50,” Trubisky said. “We want touchdowns.”

Leading a division in September means nothing. But how it came to be might, because of what happened to Green Bay and Minnesota and what it suggests about a division that is in fact not out of reach even for a developing Bears team.

The last time the Bears were in such rarified NFC North air after three games was Marc Trestman’s second year (2014), and after four straight years finishing in the division cellar, the change in view is at least noteworthy.

The NFC North on Sunday did set up nicely for the Bears, with Minnesota blown out, at home, by the previously lowly Buffalo Bills, this while Green Bay was going into Washington and losing to the Redskins in a game with, of course, the requisite bizarre roughing-the-passer penalty called on Clay Matthews.

The weekly attempts at discerning exactly what the 2018 Bears are will continue. Along with that come assessments of Nagy, who twice burned timeouts making decisions to go for field goals.

“I’m growing right now with decision-making,” Nagy conceded with a smile. “These are all situations, I’m learning as I go, and I’m OK with that.”

Which, after a 2-1 start, a road win and a defense that projects to keep the Bears in games against even good teams, is probably the right perspective.