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Time for Ryan Pace and John Fox to turn Bears into a winner

It’s over, finally and thankfully and appropriately. A bunch of Bears you never heard of lost Sunday to a Lions team that finished with a losing record for the 13th time in the past 15 seasons.

Happy New Year to you too.

It means that everyone can move on from a ponderous season and set his or her sights on next season, provided there is no lasting eye damage. It means that the free year the Bears gave general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox when they hired them last January has expired. There will be no Cubs-like three-year pass. It’s time to speed-build a winner.

The Bears finished 6-10, including 1-7 at Soldier Field, which wouldn’t seem to be the foundation for future success but apparently is, according to Fox.

“It will get better,’’ he said.


“Just the kind of guys we’ve got, the way they go about it, the way we’re going to play football,’’ he said. “… We’re going to need a couple pieces. We’re not real far (away). I know it looks like we are, record-wise, but we’re really not.

“The core of our team is going to be with that group in (the locker room). They understand it.’’

This must be like Cubist art. Fox sees a core. I can’t recognize a thing.

Quarterback Jay Cutler almost surely will be back, for better or worse, in good times and bad, through Alshon Jeffery’s sickness and health.

“I’m excited about working with him moving forward,’’ Fox said of his quarterback.

That’s a tribute to Cutler for finally putting together a steady season in Chicago. It’s also a tribute to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who helped wrestle it out of him. Gase very well could get an NFL head-coaching job for his efforts this season.

Does Cutler expect to be back with the Bears?

“I hope to be,’’ he said. “I want to be. I haven’t had conversations with Foxy or Ryan yet. We’ll see what the future holds.’’

He did throw three interceptions in the Bears’ 24-20 loss Sunday, but two of them came after he was hit while throwing and another came off a deflection. That’s how it works in the NFL. Cutler got lucky with dropped interceptions more than a few times this season. The football gods giveth and they taketh away. They were generous with him in 2015.

Matt Forte probably won’t be back, which is too bad. He’s still the Bears’ best running back, and he’s still one of the best in the game. His only sin is that he’s a 30-year-old running back. The NFL sees 30 and sees a guy looking for daylight with the aid of a walker. But age hasn’t slowed down Forte, the way it did Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher.

“He’s still got some stuff left in the tank,’’ Cutler said.

Don’t be surprised if the Bears put the franchise tag on Jeffery, a gifted receiver who couldn’t stay healthy this season.

Rookie Kevin White enhanced his appeal by missing the entire season, which is so very Bears. But if his surgically repaired shin holds up and he’s as good as the franchise thought he was when Pace took him with the seventh overall pick, that would give Cutler two top targets in 2016.

This is all predicated on A) Cutler being back and B) the Cutler of 2015 being back.

The Bears need an inside linebacker, a pass rusher or two and some defensive backs. And, as mentioned earlier, quite possibly an offensive coordinator.

Pace has a lot more work to do than the head coach suggests. Even if Fox really does see a core on the Bears’ roster, he’d have to agree that it’s not a core with which the Patriots, the Panthers or, gasp, the Packers would be happy.

In the NFL, it’s possible to turn a 6-10 team into a winner the following season. But this will take some doing on the parts of Pace and Fox. If they choose to look at all the Bears’ close losses this season as a sign of a team about to turn it around, the franchise is not going to progress. If they recognize the talent deficit on their roster, the franchise has a chance in 2016.

There were lots of empty seats at Soldier Field on Sunday, which means lots of Bears fans aren’t buying Fox’s we’re-this-close optimism. It’s football, and they know what forward progress is supposed to look like.