In the end, John Fox authored his own Bears coaching epitaph: “It’s a results-based business,” he said on multiple occasions.
With precious little to show in the way of results for three years of work – 14 wins, 34 losses, second-worst three-year stretch in franchise history – Fox was fired on Monday with a year remaining on the four-year contract that brought him to Chicago in January 2015. The Bears were looking for an architect to direct a turnaround from the dysfunction of the two Marc Trestman seasons. Instead, while the internal chaos was largely calmed, the losing accelerated to near historic levels for one of the NFL’s charter franchises.
The ultimate failure somehow seems all the more acute because on more than one occasion, that hoped for turnaround appeared at hand – as recently as eight weeks ago at the off-week this season – before any signs of progress degenerated into the precipitous final collapse.
Still, the end did not completely eclipse beginnings left in his wake, in Fox’s thinking, with a near-complete makeover of a roster with 10 starters aged 30 or older coming out of the 2014 season.
“I think we’ve basically retooled the whole roster,” Fox said last week. “I think a lot of the heavy lifting has been done. I think we’re kind of at ground zero, level field, however you want to do it, right at water line. And making that transition and change at the quarterback position this year bodes well for the future.”
Just not a future that includes Fox, who oversaw events ranging from the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 and from Jay Cutler to a new age of Beas quarterbacking.
Fox had not been the initial choice to replace Trestman in a search process that, somewhat oddly, began even before the hiring of GM Ryan Pace. That had been then-Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn before Fox was eased out by the Denver Broncos and consultant Ernie Accorsi, retained by the Bears to lead the searches for GM and head coach. Pace was hired as general manager, and when Fox became available, Pace and Bears senior management collectively heeded the recommendation and hired Fox. Quinn, who’d been interviewed by Bears officials even before Pace was hired, went on to coach the Atlanta Falcons into last year’s Super Bowl.
Twice in his three Chicago years Fox had the Bears on the brink of what appeared to be launch points, only to buckle and collapse completely. Notably perhaps, the inept efforts in mid-2015 after standing at 5-6 (three straight losses) and this season at 3-4 five straight losses became ironic echoes of the criticism of Fox made by Denver Broncos GM and EVP of football operations John Elway when he wanted Fox done in Denver after four straight playoff seasons because, “I think two years in a row it didn't feel like we went out kickin' and screaming because of the way we played in the last game,” Elway said as Fox was leaving.
Whether Fox’s Bears teams played with the requisite kickin’-and-screaming, a general positive of Fox’s Bears was that they never dissolve into the dysfunction that marked the end of the Trestman tenure. But in the end, too many instances in particular over the last half of the 2017 season unfolded where discipline, execution, and fire and focus in critical situations were clearly absent, in the judgement of the organization.
Perhaps prophetically in retrospect, a player confided to his agent back late in the 2017 preseason that Fox seemed less than completely engaged. He was not alone in his perception, even as players almost universally both respected and liked Fox.
As for a lasting sense of this season, Fox was philosophical: “How close [success] was. I think some of the teams, a lot was made in games [in which] we‘ve been favored [and lost]. I think when you look back, arguably there will be three playoff teams that we defeated. I think the effort and the closeness those guys have in that locker room.”
Fox’s Bears had that 2015 decline and fall, and then had 2016’s nightmare of injuries and quarterback shuffling that finished with the franchise’s historically bad 3-13 mark. “I think when I look back I don’t think that we were anywhere in the midst of being picked to win the Super Bowl or anything of that nature,” Fox said. “Our expectations are higher than what our record is. I think that’s probably true every year I’ve ever coached.”
By mid-2017, with rookie Mitch Trubisky ensconced at quarterback and at the head of a promising rookie class, the Bears stood poised for what looked to be a run in the right direction. Even a one-score defeat in New Orleans and the accompanying loss of tight end Zach Miller to a career-threatening knee injury did not quell the beginnings of talk and thought that the Bears might be a playoff-surprise team as they stood 3-5 at the break.
Had the Bears continued in the apparent upward direction of that moment, perhaps Fox, too, would have continued. But then it all came crashing down over a period of just five weeks, low-lighted by three milestone losses:
Packers 23, Bears 16
Green Bay came into Soldier Field without Aaron Rodgers and left with a win in the first NFL start for backup Brett Hundley. The Packers rushed for 144 yards on 35 carries using a third-string back extensively, while the supposedly run-based Bears netted just 55 yards on 17 carries. The loss to the organization’s chief rival was franchise-shaking, intensified by a performance that included 11 penalties flagged in just the first half.
49ers 15, Bears 14
Cutting Robbie Gould before the 2016 season was a colossal mistake, fueled by Fox’s lack of trust in the veteran kicker, who delivered five field goals in home Bears loss to a team 1-10 at the time. The Bears managed just 8 first downs and allowed the 49ers five drives of 55 yards or longer.
Lions 20, Bears 10
Not the calamitous loss that the Green Bay and Detroit ones were, but a final straw because it followed an seemingly strong showing in the win at Cincinnati. Trubisky threw 3 interceptions, the offense rushed for an anemic 43 yards on 15 tries after amassing 222 on Detroit just a month earlier, and the 13 penalties reflected an alarming lack of focus and discipline.
With jobs and the season on the line, coaches and players all combined in a dismal run that vanquished any hope or thought of “progress,” the one thing that Chairman George McCaskey had insisted not that many months earlier on seeing from the John Fox regime.
Past was prologue?
Elway was believed to have lost some regard for Fox as an adequately aggressive leader when Fox ordered Peyton Manning to take a knee and get to overtime in a 2012 divisional-round playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, this despite Manning and the Broncos still having 31 seconds and 2 timeouts to use. The Broncos then lost in overtime and Fox was questioned on not going for the win when the chance was there.
Fast-forward to that Dec. 3 game this season against San Francisco, when Fox opted against allowing the 49ers to score a touchdown and then turning the game over to Trubisky with timeouts and time on the clock to go after an answering touchdown for the win. Keep coming forward, to the fourth-and-one situation at Detroit when Fox evinced a lack of confidence in his offense, or young quarterback, and opted for field position in a game long rendered meaningless. Whatever the reasoning, Elway’s criticism of Fox and in-game intensity was faintly echoing, fairly or not.
Indeed, Pace may privately have wondered how Fox and staff were handling the rookie quarterback that represented at very least the immediate future of the franchise. Rightly or wrongly, Fox carried the reputation of favoring veterans over youth; one is left to wonder if a tipping point in the final analysis lay in the decision to start the season with Glennon at quarterback instead of Trubisky, who’d outplayed Glennon through preseason. Fox controlled lineups, and while Pace had signed Glennon and expressed the hoped-for plan that Trubisky would sit and learn this season, strong voices were raised for Trubisky. Ultimately the Bears would win two of his first three starts.
Trubisky development and 2017 death spiral
The McCaskey demand ahead of the 2017 season was for “progress” in the form of talent development and presumably more than the three wins of 2016. Fox’s firing answers any remaining questions about what McCaskey and the organization felt they were seeing, and not seeing.
Pace was hired to rebuild the franchise around young players, ideally from the draft, which placed a premium on a coaching staff capable of and committed to player development. Most importantly, Trubisky, for whom the Bears invested massive 2017 draft capital.
The dismissal of the Fox regime obviously grew from multiple situations, not one or two games or moves. But the season was marked by suspect actions almost before it ever began. But the handling of Trubisky was marked by puzzling twists.
Fox mysteriously started Trubisky in the final preseason game, typically a throwaway against the Cleveland Browns, with a game script that consisted of running plays on the first nine snaps (three 3-and-out possessions), then give way to Connor Shaw – only to need to send Trubisky back into the meaningless game at the end when Shaw was injured and backup Mark Sanchez was inactive. The Bears then inexplicably called passes on the final two snaps of a 25-0 blowout loss, needlessly exposing the future of the franchise to risk, with Trubisky being sacked on the game’s final play.
Reasons for the bizarre use of the rookie franchise quarterback were never completely understood and left some members of the organization bewildered. It is difficult not to wonder how much of a factor the questionable handling of Trubisky was in the final evaluation of Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains and their overall development of the rookie quarterback.
After a near-miss one-score loss to Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta, blowout losses at Tampa and Green Bay sandwiched around an overtime win against Pittsburgh stamped the decision to start Glennon as a mistake. The change was made to Trubisky and the season effectively turned dramatically around with a four-game stretch with close losses to division leaders Minnesota and New Orleans bracketing wins over Baltimore and Carolina.
Those four teams finished a combined 35-29, and the conclusion was that the Bears, with a bye week to prepare for the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, were at the brink of the turnaround long expected under Fox, who’d twice engineered team resurgences (Carolina, Denver) that ended in Super Bowl appearances.
The exact opposite occurred.
The Bears went from playoff hopeful to moribund, ticking briefly to life in an overtime loss to the Detroit Lions and smackdown of the Cincinnati Bengals, but playing generally lifeless football regardless of whether an NFL elite (Philadelphia, 140 yards of offense) or doormat (San Francisco, 147 yards).
QB change too late
Fox made do with Cutler as his quarterback his first two years in Chicago and was not entirely displeased with what Cutler gave the offense the first year (2015) with Adam Gase as coordinator. The quarterback situation then collapsed completely in 2016 under injuries to Cutler and Brian Hoyer.
Beyond signing Hoyer as a backup in free agency, Pace did not address the quarterback position in either of his first two drafts. Fox was then saddled in year three with a bridge (Mike Glennon) and rookie having just 13 college starts (Trubisky), plus veteran Mark Sanchez on the roster but never worked into any on-field plan.
The decision after the 2016 nightmare was to finally make a move for a franchise quarterback from the starting point of the No. 3 pick overall. Faced with a season on the brink and coaching for his job, Fox’s preference had been for an immediate-impact addition in the form of an elite defensive talent like Stanford’s Solomon Thomas. Fox was not in on the final call to go specifically with Trubisky but was deeply involved in meetings with and evaluations of all of the top quarterbacks in the draft, gave his input before the trade up and selection were made, and had signed off on any one of a tight cluster of options.
Bumpy hiring process
In hindsight, despite appearances to the contrary based on results of the Trestman hire, the Bears appeared to have had at least a passable sense of what a successful head coach should look like, whether because of help from consultant Accorsi or whatever. The main candidates list interviewed in the days around the Pace hiring was drawn from successful coordinators who subsequently went on to at least one double-digit-wins season in the past three seasons.
But the process of replacing Trestman was odd from the standpoint that some interviews were conducted before Pace was in place. Fox in fact was not in the first wave of interviewees talked to shortly before and after Pace’s hiring.
Seattle’s D-coordinator Quinn was the first candidate the Bears interviewed, even before Pace was hired. Quinn met with Accorsi, McCaskey, President Ted Phillips on Jan. 2 in Seattle, a full week before Pace was hired and in the bye-week window during which coaches from teams in the playoffs can meet with suitors.
Notably, the Bears also interviewed Gase, then Fox’s offensive coordinator with the Broncos and later to follow Fox from Denver to Chicago before taking the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs last season. Then-Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was interviewed by Pace and the Bears’ hiring “committee” a week before Fox split with the Broncos. Bowles then was hired by the New York Jets.
Simmering hostility early
Fox’s public persona darkened over time, which losing obviously can cause. He became increasingly testy in press conferences as his team’s play deteriorated, with sarcastic comments and tone bordering on the insulting. Those may have been directed at a question or questioner, but because those moments are broadcast, become the face of the organization to the public, not just the media.
To wit: Asked what he’d had to lose by going for a first down on that fourth-and-one at Detroit, Fox replied, “it’s called ‘field position,’” which was obviously Fox’s reason, but not the point of the question to a coach of a then-4-9 team that was ready to go for it and with a quarterback needing the experience.
Following the hiring process, the settling-in came with tensions relatively new to the Bears, including internal relations. Fox was the first non-George Halas hire of a coach who’d been an NFL head coach. That meant that, where first-timers Trestman, Lovie Smith, Dick Jauron and others came in and were told how the organization did things, Fox arrived with a strong idea how he wanted things done. He had clashes with Bears staff in the media relations area, for example, which was tasked with conveying his rules for access. Changes were neither well-presented nor received, with some reaction that Fox appeared high-handed toward the media and provoking blowback that led to Fox meeting with media members to address the situation.
It was against that backdrop of smoldering antipathy that the Kevin White situation arose, occasioning a rupture that arguably never healed.
The rookie wide receiver began training camp with what turned out to be a stress fracture in his lower left leg. But initial evidence was inconclusive. The Bears solicited more than a half-dozen medical opinions, a minority of which believed that the shadow on White’s x-ray was in fact a stress fracture. With so few conclusive yes-fracture opinions, Fox and the organization took a conservative tack with White, opting against surgery.
And without conclusive evidence that the injury was in fact a fracture, Fox refused to call it a stress fracture until all were sure. Fox was then pilloried as a liar, including one situation in an Indianapolis bar when a media member loudly declared Fox a liar in the presence of none other than Gase.
Fox knew what was being said and it left scars on Fox’s relationships with the media that never completely healed. Against that backdrop, as the losses mounted over the past three seasons, and as it had in the two years of Trestman, the situation became increasingly rancid and in need of a course correction.
For Fox and his staff, that came on Monday.