Still sorting through impressions, perspectives, whatevers of the 2016 Bears and John Fox.
The fact that the Bears have for the most part remained competitive, focused and playing with professional intensity through a dismal season doesn’t ultimately mean much in a business which has only one true measure of success – winning. But events elsewhere in the NFL suggest that maintaining an even strain amid losing is an exception rather than the rule.
The Minnesota Vikings will take on the Bears Sunday in Minneapolis having fragmented in a loss last Saturday to the Green Bay Packers, with indications that players ignored coaches’ (including head coach Mike Zimmer’s) instructions in what could only politely be called insubordination. Zimmer and players have since claimed “miscommunication” as a lock-step explanation, but Zimmer’s comments after the game – “somebody decided they wouldn’t do that,” referring to not following the game plan for defending Packers wideout Jordy Nelson – suggested more than just “miscommunication.” Zimmer later went so far as to fault himself for being “too honest” after the game.
Subsequent reports suggested that the mutiny lasted only a series or two, and Zimmer will talk Wednesday via conference call with the Chicago media. Whatever that situation, the Vikings started the season 5-0, still stood 7-6 and in NFC North contention, then delivered double-digit losses the past two weeks to miss a postseason that appeared to be theirs, even sans Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Kalil and others.
Rex Ryan was fired on Tuesday, maybe doing the popular but underachieving coach a favor given the quagmire the Buffalo Bills have become. Ryan got to AFC Championship games his first two years coaching the New York Jets, then hasn’t had a winning season in the six since. He left with players complaining in his wake that his systems were too complicated, and noting that the unit supposedly his specialty had gone from No. 4 the year before he was hired to the bottom half of the league.
New York Jets players said that some of them were looking past this season as this year, their second under coach Todd Bowles, was winding down and unraveling. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said after last week’s 41-3 loss to New England that wide receiver Brandon Marshall “should be embarrassed.” And the New York Post mused afterwards that owner Woody Johnson uncharacteristically may have stayed away from the Patriots game because he was tired of watching his team be uncompetitive.
[MORE BEARS: Evaluating John Fox's bears based on the Redskins game]
No one is happy at Halas Hall. But “uncompetitive” wouldn’t be an overall Bears descriptor even with backups at times in as many as half the starting spots on both sides of the football.
For as well as the sometimes-makeshift Bears offensive line has played this season, tackle projects as one of the top three need areas along with quarterback and cornerback. This is not a simple swipe at Charles Leno Jr. or Bobby Massie, just a look around at what is working around the league.
Right now 10 teams have clinched playoff spots. Of those, seven have left tackles selected in the first rounds of drafts. And one of the others – Pittsburgh – used No. 1’s at center and guard in recent drafts.
The Bears have a No. 1 in Kyle Long at left guard, an elite veteran in Josh Sitton at left guard, and a budding star in Cody Whitehair, a No. 2 this year, at center. What they don’t have, following the NFL template, is “elite” at either edge position, and it is a spot that hasn’t been addressed by the Bears before the fifth round in a draft since 2011, and it didn’t work then (Gabe Carimi, No. 1) or the time before that (Chris Williams, No. 1, 2008).
Missing Cutler? Who’d’a thunk it?
If the Bears appeared to regress in 2016 from where they were at the end of their 6-10 first year under Fox, one obvious reality is that the Bears had Jay Cutler in the best full season of his career, relatively turnover-free, for 15 starts. This year’s edition had Cutler Interrupted (starting two games, miss five, play a few, then done for the year), then Brian Hoyer briefly, followed by Matt Barkley, with about the norm for results when a team loses its No. 1 quarterback for extended periods.
The 2013 injury riddled Green Bay Packers were slumped to 0-4-1 in games after Aaron Rodgers was injured on the Shea McClellin sack. They did recover to reach the playoffs with Rodgers returning to hit Randall Cobb over Chris Conte in Game 16 that season.
Cutler appeared to regress this season, returning to his high interception percentage and middling completion percentage. But amid all the IR’s, none stands as big as Cutler’s in what is likely his last season in Chicago.