Antrel Rolle played three seasons with the New York Giants before he was named a team captain. It took him less than six months to become a captain on the Bears. He hasn’t even played a real game yet.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” the three-time Pro Bowl safety said. “Obviously these guys see something in myself. I like to be held accountable. I think it puts that much focus on the game. It allows you to understand that you have a much bigger role.
“You don’t have to say much. But just go out there and lead by example and play ball between the white lines. Because that’s what it all boils down to.”
The overhaul of one of the worst Bears defenses in the 94-year history of the franchise is in full swing at Halas Hall. General manager Phil Emery, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker were fired in January. Veteran leaders Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs were not resigned. Cornerback Tim Jennings was cut — leaving Shea McClellin as the last remnant of Lovie Smith’s defense.
The hiring of John Fox, a former defensive coordinator, made it clear defense was a priority. The hiring of Vic Fangio and converting to a 3-4 defense made it clear the Bears didn’t care about how much money they invested in Jared Allen or that the team was built for a 4-3 alignment. This team needed as clean of a slate as possible.
The voting of veteran newcomers Rolle and Pernell McPhee as defensive captains last week was the latest sign of just how much of a fresh start this team needs. Doug Buffone played eight years with the Bears before he was named captain.
Truth be told, there weren’t a lot of options. With Jennings gone, only five players with more than one year with the Bears remain on the roster: defensive end/outside linebacker/inside linebacker Shea McClellin (40 games, 20 starts); strongside/weakside/middle linebacker Jon Bostic (29 games, 17 starts), defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (16 games, 15 starts); cornerback/special teams ace Sherrick McManis (39 games, one start) and reserve defensive end Cornelius Washington (15 games, zero starts).
Rolle at least has three Pro Bowl appearances, started on a Super Bowl-winning team with the Giants and was a two-time captain with the Giants in 10 seasons in the NFL. But McPhee has started just six games in the NFL — none since 2012 — and now is a team captain. Is that some sort of record?
“It’s an honor,” McPhee said. “It shows that my teammates have a lot of respect and look at me as one of the guys they’ll follow.
“You could ask the guys in Baltimore, the last two years, they’d say, ‘Phee was one of the leaders even though he wasn’t a captain.’ I was always one — I’ve just never had the “C” on my chest. I’m comfortable with [the role].”
With all due respect to the leadership qualities of Rolle and McPhee, their selection says more about just how much of a rebuild this is on defense. This is just the beginning. More than likely, more changes are in store.
“Well, it’s a challenge,” Fangio said when asked how this rebuild compared to others he’s been involved in. “Obviously, they’ve been pretty bad here for two straight years defensively. We’ve made some changes, but that’s an on-going process. It’s not an overnight thing. You just have to keep building week to week.”
The challenge for Fangio and Fox is to evaluate what they’re seeing quickly and decisively. Fangio’s forte is putting players in the right position to succeed. Part and parcel of that is putting the right players in the right position to succeed. With Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense up first, this could get ugly early. But unlike last season, it also figures to get better instead of worse.
“One thing we’re going to find out [against the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks to start the season] is see how we matchup,” Fox said when asked what he was expecting from his defense Sunday. “Two of those three [the Packers and Seahawks] played in the NFC title game. The other was in the playoffs so, I’m as curious as y’all are. I haven’t watched this team play a real game yet.
“It’s a little bit different when you … haven’t seen this exact team play yet. With a new staff, new offense, defense, special teams, you’re extra excited, anxious. We’ve worked hard, I think we’ve made progress and now we get the test. It’ll be a learning experience no matter how it goes.”
Therein lies the key to success for a coaching staff undergoing a major rebuild: Just how well do they learn? And how quickly will they be able to do something about it? This season will be worth watching no matter what happens Sunday.