Fox calls coaching storied Bears team a 'tough job'
John Fox is no stranger to the challenges of coaching in the NFL. So when Fox stepped to the lectern Monday as the 15th coach in the storied history of the Chicago Bears, he knew the difficulty of the task in front of him. "It's like holding Jell...
John Fox is no stranger to the challenges of coaching in the NFL.
So when Fox stepped to the lectern Monday as the 15th coach in the storied history of the Chicago Bears, he knew the difficulty of the task in front of him.
"It's like holding Jell-o," Fox said with a smile. "It's a tough job."
In that regard, a big pile of Jell-o awaits Fox on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The Bears introduced Fox three days after hiring him to replace Marc Trestman, who went 13-19 in two seasons and stumbled to a last-place finish in the NFC North in 2014. Chicago lost eight of its final 10 games and missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons, prompting sweeping changes in the front office and coaching staff.
New general manager Ryan Pace marveled at his good fortune in his first coaching search. Four days after the Bears hired the 37-year-old player personnel director from the New Orleans Saints, Fox became a free agent.
"When he became available, honestly, the game changed," Pace said.
Fox joined the Bears less than a week after mutually agreeing to part ways with the Denver Broncos, where he won four division titles in four seasons but ultimately disagreed with general manager John Elway about the team's plans going forward.
Fox declined to delve into specifics about his departure from the Broncos.
"It was a great four-year run," said Fox, who posted a 46-18 record in the regular season but went 3-4 in the playoffs. "We hugged and moved on. It happens in football."
Rebuilding projects also happen, and now Fox is a part of one. He said he immediately would begin the process of building a coaching staff and assessing the Bears' roster.
In Carolina, Fox turned a 1-15 team into a Super Bowl participant in a two-season span. He said he would tackle the Bears' challenges with a similar coaching style.
"I'm brutally honest," Fox said. "Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. But I'm not afraid or intimidated to tell people the truth."
The truth is that the Bears need a lot of help.
Chicago's questions begin at quarterback, where Jay Cutler flashes a big arm and little consistency. Cutler led the NFL with 24 turnovers in 2014 - his ninth season - and was benched in Week 16 for pedestrian backup Jimmy Clausen.
Now, Fox and the Bears must decide what to do with the mercurial quarterback who will turn 32 in April. The team could save millions after the initial cap hit from releasing or trading Cutler before March 12, but no guarantee exists that the Bears would find a better option at quarterback in free agency or the draft.
What kind of quarterback does Fox prefer?
"One that wins," he said.
Recent history indicates that Fox might get his way. He reached the Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme, won a playoff game with Tim Tebow and produced top-five offenses in each of the past three seasons with Peyton Manning.
Fox said he wanted to get to know Cutler - and all of the players on the roster - before making any decisions about next season.
"I know everybody makes a big deal about the quarterback, and I get that," Fox said. "But it's still a team game. We all have to do it for our teammates, for something bigger than ourselves."
Fox also must find a way to repair a broken Bears defense that finished No. 30 in the league in 2014. Veteran linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman have expiring contracts and are not expected to return, and glaring needs exist for pass rushers and safeties.
"It's people," Fox said. "It's finding the right kind of people. We look for smart, tough people that are going to condition themselves to be the best they can be. Football is a combative, physical game. It takes combative, physical people."
Fox has high hopes that he can find the right people to turn around the Bears. Next season will mark the franchise's 30th anniversary of its last Super Bowl championship.
"I can't make any promises other than I'm going to give you everything I've got," Fox said. "That trophy looks kind of lonely out there in the hallway."
Nearby, Bears chairman George McCaskey felt an immediate connection with the new coach.
"That was one of those, 'You had me at hello' (moments)," McCaskey said with a smile. "When I conduct tours of Halas Hall and we get to the Super Bowl trophy, I say exactly the same thing. 'She's lonely, and she needs some company.'"
--Ryan Pace will be the next general manager of the Chicago Bears.
The team agreed to hire the veteran personnel man who spent 14 seasons with the New Orleans Saints in various roles, including the past two as director of player personnel.
Pace replaced Phil Emery, who was fired Dec. 29 after three seasons as general manager. Pace will be the third general manager in five years for the Bears. Jerry Angelo, like Pace and Emery a first-time GM, was fired after the 2011 season.
Pace started with the Saints as a scouting assistant in 2002 and helped build a team that won the franchise's first Super Bowl title (XLIV).
The decision to hire Pace might be viewed as a mild upset. The favorite for the job was considered to be Chris Ballard of the Kansas City Chiefs, who worked under Angelo in Chicago. Ballard interviewed with the Bears on Wednesday.
--Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long has been in the NFL just two seasons and made two Pro Bowls, but his concept on the team's next coach might be one the team's decision-makers need to take into account as they seek a replacement Marc Trestman.
"The right coach for Chicago is one that wants to instill an identity, demands a team that has an identity, and when we play, opponents should say, 'we don't want to play those guys.'
"There's a handful of teams in the NFL that are like that and I feel like we have the nucleus to be able to do that. And we haven't done that, and that's something that we need to do."
The search for a coach will now commence in earnest after the hiring of Ryan Pace as general manager.
--The Bears of 2014 under Trestman had no identity. They set out in 2013 to become an offensive team and failed. Their defense existed only in spurts and rarely did they reach a high level of physical play in the franchise's long tradition.
As a result, the future will be dictated by a different coach than Trestman and a different general manager than Phil Emery.
"We need to re-establish our identity," Chicago Bears board chairman George McCaskey said. "People need to know that when they play the Chicago Bears, that they've been through hell."
Several opposing players who came to Soldier Field throughout the season commented about the Bears' lack of physicality on either offense or defense. On offense, it all started and stopped with the lack of a real commitment to the running game by Trestman.
The Bears finished 27th in rushing, and although they were a respectable 16th in yards per carry (4.1) and did this with the second fewest runs of 20 yards or longer, they only ran the ball 355 times -- only two teams ran it less. They wasted Matt Forte's running skills, providing him with enough dump-off passes to let him set an NFL record for catches by a back (102). However, this did nothing to establish physical dominance or wear down a defense.
Their lack of a running attack went a long way toward getting them into trouble early in games, and they fell behind to start 11 of the last 12 games.
The real root of problems for the Bears on offense, though, remains enigmatic quarterback Jay Cutler. He threw for his Bears highs in yards (3,812) and touchdowns (28), yet he turned the ball over more times than anyone in the league with a league-high 18 interceptions and six lost fumbles in an offense that had 28 false start penalties a year after committing nine.
"It's a lot of things that added up throughout this season," Cutler said of the offensive problems. "All things that inhibited the offense; it seems like we hit on those every game."
"It's a long list of things that we could go down and pick and choose," agreed tight end Martellus Bennett. "At the end of the day, we didn't get the job done. It's not just coaches. It's everybody. We didn't have a successful year as players. So the coaches didn't have a successful year.
"I think everybody has their hand in the pot. And the gumbo doesn't taste that great when everybody's hand is in the pot. Then everybody is responsible for the bad taste of the gumbo."
The defensive gumbo tasted no better.
A year after finishing last against the run, the defense improved to 16th thanks in part to off-season moves in draft and free agency to plug these holes. Then again, there was another reason for the run defense being better: The pass defense was so poor that teams didn't see the need to try to run against the Bears.
They allowed opposing quarterbacks a 101.7 passer rating, better only than Washington. Only the Eagles gave up more completions of 20 yards or more (65) than the Bears.
An obvious need exists for safety help, if not another cornerback. Although better, the pass rush had periods in games when in vanished as Jared Allen wound up with a career-low 5.5 sacks. Only a career-high sacks from defensive end Willie Young kept it from behind another disaster rushing the passer.
One halftime score told the story of the Bears' defensive failures under coordinator Mel Tucker: Green Bay Packers 42, Bears 0. The stats of the year came in their first game with Green Bay: The Packers had zero turnovers and zero punts.
"It's been one of those down seasons for us," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "The defense is something we didn't expect. As a team we didn't hit many of our goals."
So for the seventh time in eight years the Bears missed the playoffs, and for the second time in three years they fired a head coach.
"I'm pretty sure there is going to be a lot of player change throughout the summer, as well," Bennett said. "A lot of things are going to be different next year."