View from the Moon: Amid Bears deals made and missed, looking for 'why’s' that make sense

View from the Moon: Amid Bears deals made and missed, looking for 'why’s' that make sense

Something isn't completely adding up from all that did and didn't happen for the Bears through Thursday's early hours of free agency.

If there was a mildly surprising side to the day, it lay in two places: some of the "no-way!" money flowing to some very mid-range talents. That happens in varying degrees every year.

The second, however, was the Bears pulling some of their financial punches. Why? Because simple explanations don't completely make sense.

The popular narratives of "Bears are cheap," "Nobody wants to play in Chicago" and "John Fox and Ryan Pace are one-and-done, win-or-else" somehow don't add all the way up when trying to get a handle on why none of the apparent top players at positions of Bears need chose Chicago.

Dead-coaches-walking? Maybe. Hardly necessarily. Fox and Pace haven't been given, nor would explicitly ask for, guarantees beyond 2017. Ownership will be looking for solid signs of program turnaround, but does anyone really think the Bears are a 3-5-win team again in 2017? Could happen – anything's possible – but 7-8 wins with another strong draft class likely demonstrate progress. If matters were so desperately dire, the absence of premium signings or letting go of safe veteran QB Brian Hoyer would have left blood on the Halas Hall walls Thursday night.

Players simply not wanting to come to the Bears doesn't work beyond one here or there. Cornerback A.J. Bouye would leave Houston for Jacksonville but not Chicago? Baltimore tackle Ricky Wagner saw more upside in Detroit with the Lions than Chicago and the Bears? (Maybe he just saw the $9 million/year the Lions were paying?) Alshon Jeffery just couldn't wait to bail on a Bears team and teammates who voted him a co-captain last year, and whom Jeffery thought enough of to declare after the last game would win this year's Super Bowl? Hyperbole aside, really?

Bears-cheap doesn't explain enough.

Various sources around the league said that the Bears stepped away from matching offers to two of their top choices because the prices got too high. Which two isn't the point. Suffice it to say that the Bears stayed too low to get Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who went to New England; Arizona safety Tony Jefferson, signed by Baltimore; Wagner, grabbed by the Lions; and Bouye.

Why did they do that, when they obviously had the money, and the permission to use it?

Pace and finance chief Joey Laine established parameters/limits on what they were willing to pay whom. Ownership has said explicitly in the past that money would not be the prime basis for personnel decisions (as in whether to stay with Jay Cutler vs. absorb a big guaranteed-money hit by cutting him in 2015).

[RELATED: On the receiving end: Bears add WR depth with Markus Wheaton as Alshon Jeffery exits with 'pay cut']

The Bears have spent major free-agency money on Pace's watch and attracted players from elite programs: a five-year deal for $38.8 million to Pernell McPhee, who'd won a Super Bowl ring with Baltimore; $24.5 million over four year for Danny Trevathan from Super Bowl-champion Denver; Josh Sitton, cut by Green Bay last September, went no farther than Chicago and the Bears' three-year, $21 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.

The Patriots reached out to Akiem Hicks last March, hoping to get him back. Hicks instead chose the Bears and a two-year deal with half of the pact's $10 million guaranteed.

Legions of players suddenly don't fancy Chicago? Follow the money.

If the Bears didn't keep upping the bid for a Gilmore, why not? They had the money. Hicks, Trevathan, Willie Young and others would've sold the Bears.

Or did the Bears look at Bouye, picking one, and decide that an undrafted free agent with one standout year as a starter behind arguably the NFL's best front seven might not be a sound target at $13.5 million per year, in a year when the draft consensus is that the cornerback class is perhaps the best ever, with starters to be had as late as the third round?

Or did the Bears like Jefferson, go to the limit of their "parameter," and make a decision that, holding the No. 3 pick of the draft, LSU's Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker of Ohio State offer "great" instead of just best-available-free-agent?

Understand: Pace and his front office, as every NFL organization does, have an integrated strategy that incorporates both free agency and the draft. And it factors in an element of "time" – what will needs be in 2018 and what players will be coming available via both free agency and the draft?

Case study: The San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers had edge rusher as their No. 1 need last offseason. They ignored the position in free agency, then used the No. 3 pick of the draft for Joey Bosa.

Pace indeed operates from a core philosophy and plan. Nothing says it's a good plan or the philosophy will translate into right choices. But somehow a lot of the narratives flowing out of early Free Agency III under Pace just don't all add up.

Who's in charge? Clear answer

One narrative circulating around the Bears over the past couple of years is who was really in charge of football operations around Halas Hall: John Fox, the coach with the NFL seniority? Or Ryan Pace, the younger GM who hired him? Since Fox was dictating certain internal policy and was seemingly the stronger public persona, some takes were that he was really the big hammer.

Events of the past week or so should have corrected any remaining misperception on the identity of lead dog. Sources said that a segment of the offensive coaching staff strongly wanted to stay with Brian Hoyer, which is not surprising or even unusual, having differing opinions on something like a quarterback.

The decision instead was for Mike Glennon, who is considered a roll of the upside dice rather than the safe Hoyer option. I texted one veteran agent in the wake of this decision and the others of the week, mentioning that it was funny that some opinions still held that Fox runs things. Came back the reply: "Not at all. It's all pace[sic]."

It obviously isn't really all Pace; at this level and with all that hinges on these decisions, consensus is an objective on the way to a collective goal. But if there still were any questions on the decision-making hierarchy, there shouldn't be now.

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?


Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

The coach of a woeful college basketball team was asked in a postseason media session if the fact that he had all five of his starters returning was cause for optimism. “The kids tried hard,” the coach pointed out, “but we won two games last year. So having everybody back isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

The Bears approach the 2018 season and training camp returning their entire starting secondary – cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller on new, multi-year contracts, safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson now being touted as one of the NFL’s top safety tandems.

And continuity is unquestionably a prized element, particularly with offensive lines and defensive backfields. Having the four principle starters back should be a good thing.

The problem is, the Bears tied for 29th in the NFL with eight interceptions, matching a franchise-low for the third straight season. The starting DBs four accounted for just five total interceptions, suggesting that for all the supposed continuity, the whole was somewhat less the some of the parts where the critical turnover ratio is concerned.

The last time the Bears intercepted more passes (19) than their opponents (13) was 2013 – the last time the Bears saw .500.

The importance of one statistic can be overstated, but turnovers, particularly interceptions, are the one measurable with the greatest correlation to winning. The top 11 and 13 of the 14 teams with positive turnover ratios all posted winning records in 2017 (the Bears were 15th, with a zero net differential). And while fumble recoveries obviously also count as takeaways, interceptions are key: The top 10 teams in interceptions all posted positive records and all 14 of the turnover-ratio leaders intercepted more balls than they recovered.

Of the takeaways by those top 14 in turnover ratio, 65.8 percent of their takeaways came on interceptions. The Bears and the bottom half of the NFL turnover gatherers picked up only 55.7 percent of their takeaways on interceptions.

“Well, we hope we’re going to improve there,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “That takes 11 guys doing it, but we’ll see. That’s obviously going to be an emphasis for us.”

Creating a different mindset

Individual Bears defensive backs had flash moments: Jackson became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 75-yard defensive touchdowns in a season; Amos returned an interception 90 yards for a score; Fuller was one of only two NFL players with at least 65 tackles and 20 passes defensed.

The Bears self-scouted enough to understand those for what they were – exceptions, bordering the fluke-ish, given the overall. The result was that even during minicamps and OTA’s, there was an edge to the play of the secondary. Mitch Trubisky and his quiver of weapons will have to earn things, beginning against their own teammates.

“We’ve been getting the receivers and the running backs a little mad, but they know that we’re just trying to get better at [takeaways],” Amukamara said. “And just catching the ones that the quarterback throws to you. But if we keep making the most of our opportunities we know that those numbers will go up.”

The numbers could scarcely go anywhere but up.

Amos, who was languishing on the bench and a possible roster bubble before Quintin Demps suffered a forearm fracture in week three, went 2,638 career snaps before collecting his lone career interception last season on a ball deflected to him seven yards away.

Amukamara was signed to a new three-year contract with $18 million of its $27 million guaranteed – this despite a dubious streak that has reached 2,340 snaps and more than two full seasons since his last interception.

The goal is to change that by “just getting to the ball, everybody,” Amos said. “Everybody is making efforts at the ball during camp. It’s just something that we just are emphasizing every day trying to create more takeaways.”

Pro Football Focus rated the Bears’ secondary No. 30 going into the 2017 season, factoring in veteran safety Quintin Demps signed coming off his best NFL season and Fuller coming off a season missed with a knee injury.

That is not a given. Pass defense begins with a pass rush, but roster losses have cost the Bears more than one-third (14.5) of their 2017 sack total (42).

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Dear Mom and Dad:
Camp’s finally here, the guys all reporting and I think really ready to get started for real after the camps and OTA’s this spring and summer. Practices start tomorrow (Friday) and fans’ll be able to watch practice starting on Saturday. 
I and the other quarterbacks decided to come in Monday with the rookies, kind of to get going but really to connect with the young guys. I know what they’re going through – they were me this time last year. Allen Robinson came in, too, and he says his knee is feeling great and there won’t be any holding back, which is good to hear since Allen is a wide receiver who is great at going up and getting the football.
Coach Nagy tells us this’ll be a physical training camp. He says he wants to get his team “calloused.” Akiem Hicks said that physicality wasn’t really a problem in the past but the coaches want to establish an identity from the get-go, and a big part of my job will be to be a leader at setting that.
Someone asked whether it was fair that the coaches last year got so much criticism for holding me back. I said that I guess from my point of view I want to just say I was doing what I was asked to do. Last year is definitely different than this year. I’m going to have more responsibility and more, I guess, responsibility to do what I wanna do in the offense. I’ll have more options. Last year, it was what it was. the coaches’ philosophy. I tried to do to the best of my ability what they asked me. this year I’m going to do the same. Whatever they ask me to do I’m gonna do, and just roll with it.
Gotta run. Send money. (just kidding).
Your quarterback son,
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No Ro’ yet
Barring a late contract breakthrough, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t expected before the start of practices on Friday. Smith is one of more than a dozen No. 1 picks still unsigned, not completely unusual because of details like offset language in the event a player is released before the end of his fourth season and the structure of paying signing bonuses. The Bears are not evincing serious concern at this point, although defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is among those who have acknowledged the impediment that missed time poses to a player’s development.
“There's a lot of details that go into these things,” said GM Ryan Pace. “We're optimistic that he's here soon. It's really part of the process and meanwhile we're rolling forward with the guys that are here and you know that chemistry and continuity is important.
The Bears are working on contract extensions for a handful of what they deem to be rising talents, as they did this offseason with a four-year contract for cornerback Kyle Fuller. “Obviously we're mindful of the guys in the final years of their contacts,” Pace said. “We've got a handful of them. Obviously those contract [details] we're going to keep internal. Those are really good players and we're mindful of it as we go forward and we'll have a plan in place.”
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Long-range danger
Wide receivers Allen Robinson, Kevin White, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton have been tasked with bringing a level of firepower that the organization is counting on to be on par with the Martellus Bennett-Matt Forte-Alshon Jeffery-Brandon Marshall cluster of five seasons ago. One key member of this year’s group sees danger for defenses regardless of where the Bears are on the field.
“Kevin White brings a lot to the table, as well,” Robinson said. “I think for him being such a big physical specimen, I think he’s at any point on the field and any point in time, I think he’s where we literally can possibly get six points on the board. Maybe off a deep ball. Maybe off a catch-and-fun. Anything like that.
“Whenever you’ve got him and Taylor and Anthony and those guys on the field, I mean, to be honest, we can any point in time are six points away.”
*                          *                          *
How “physical” is too physical? Too soft? Just right?
The Bears have grappled with injury demons for too much of the past five seasons, with training-camp intensities ranging from a lighter, get-off-your-feet program under Marc Trestman to a time-tested system under veteran head coach John Fox. Neither approach saved the Bears once the season commenced, and now Matt Nagy has declared “physical” to be the measuring standard. The trick will be balancing full-contact, padded practice sessions with enough near-realistic intensity without risking injury any more than necessary.
“It has to be competitive,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It has to be where you get out there and a couple days hot, back to back to back, and coach is running you hard and it’s giving us a little test. You need those moments. Those are the moments I look forward to at training camp, where you know it gets a little aggressive out there. I think that builds not only your team confidence but that tenacity, that edge you need to have to play, especially defense.”
Training camps before the backing-off occasioned by the strictures of the collective bargaining agreement were notoriously physical, with double-session days in full pads common. They were also longer, as long as the 32-day first camp under new coach Dave Wannstedt in 1993. Camp opened that year on July 14 for a season with a Sept. 5 opening day.
This preseason year is in that range. The Bears begin their season Sept. 9 at Green Bay, and are starting now with the extra week of prep for a fifth preseason game on Aug. 2 as part of Hall of Fame ceremonies.
“I think it’ll be good to get a chance for our offense to sharpen up what they need to sharpen, our defense to relearn and revisit some of the things we need to revisit.,” Hicks said. “More time together is only beneficial. You just have to make sure you’re taking care of your guys. And I’m sure our coaching staff won’t have a problem doing that.”