The Bears We Expected

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The Bears up-and-down season has reached an end. A thankful, shoot-the-wounded-horse ending that couldn’t come fast enough, say casual viewers who see only a poor record and another playoff-less winter. Diehard fans see something different–the final pages in the first chapter of a new story that showed progress and holds promise. The Bears won just six games this season, only one more than the Trestman-led team of 2014. That’s not compelling progress for fans that expect a new regime to come complete with a winning season and playoff games. To the pragmatists among us the sometimes intriguing, often aggravating 2015 Bears season is exactly what we had coming. This is how some turnaround stories begin.

John Fox and Ryan Pace are building something. The new faces of the franchise aren’t trying to erect a Starbucks pop-up coffee shop. They’re laying the foundation of a building that should stand for years to come. The mandate from the owner’s box this past off-season was to field a team that would win. Perennially. Last January, Bears chairman George McCaskey explained the way forward1: “Our plan will start being put into place to get the Chicago Bears back to the sustained success this city deserves.” Success can be had with a single victory or a single winning season while sustained success demands a roster filled with Bears’ draft picks, first-round Pro Bowlers and annual visits to the playoffs. Have we seen anything in the first season of the Ryan Pace-John Fox regime that suggests the Bears are headed towards sustainability?

John Fox knows how to coach and, nearly as important, how to recruit coaches. That doesn’t mean the Fox experience is made for prime time television. When talking to the media, he says very little–it’s like Lovie Smith is back in town. Fox’s raspy, coach-for-life voice sounds way more authoritative than Marc Trestman’s ever did but, when speaking into a mic, it imparts almost no information about what he saw in a given play or perspective on the outcome of a game. But, at least in my eyes, the dance between a coach and the media matters very little. Prepare your team for game day and lead them–offensive, defense and special teams–until the final whistle blows ensuring the product on the field is respectable, win or lose. John Fox does that well. Bears’ players still commit far too many penalties but the coaching staff’s disciple and expectations has them trending2 in the right direction.

Foxy is an experienced head coach, something the Bears’ franchise hasn’t seen for a very long time. This season will be his twenty-seventh as an NFL coach, fourteen of those with the top job. All those miles walking stadium sidelines made him a lot of friends. People around the NFL respect Fox which is why quality coaches like Vic Fangio and Adam Gase come work for him. Fangio, Gase and their assistant coaches did more with less all season, coaching a roster that’s stocked with mostly below average talent. The Bears’ head coach does something many others fail at. He lets his coordinators actually be decision makers on game day. Having legit coordinators on both sides of the ball allows him to watch over his entire flock and install the overarching principles of disciple and work ethic that create sustained success. That eye for coaching talent is why I expect Dowell Loggains, Gase’s replacement as OC, to succeed. Alas, coaching is only half the battle.

Is Ryan Pace the next Ted Thompson? Is he any better than former Bears’ GM Phil Emery? The truth is we’re not sure. We know that four of the six players Pace selected in 20153 played significant time as rookies. The two that didn’t? First rounder Kevin White who missed the entire season with a stress fracture and Tayo Fabuluje, a sixth round offensive lineman you’ve likely never heard of. The rest–Eddie Goldman (DT), Hroniss Grasu (C), Jeremy Langford (RB) and Adrian Amos (S)–made big plays and head-slapping mistakes while gaining valuable experience. Several Ryan Pace draft classes will have to take the field before we can fairly rank his talent evaluation skills. Early returns, based his tenure in New Orleans and first full year in Chicago, suggest the general manager job isn’t too big for him. That’s a step forward from the missteps we saw throughout the Phil Emery regime.

The 2015 Bears season was never meant to be about this season. It was simply the beginnings of a tale that promises more wins, some playoff games and an on-field product that, if nothing else, fans can respect.

Niral Patel ~ ~ @SecCitySports

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