John Fox will begin preparations Tuesday for what figures to be his last game as Bears coach.
How did he get here?
A look at five moments — some Fox’s fault, some not — that swung his three-year tenure with the team:
The Cutler decision
A month after Fox and general manager Ryan Pace were hired in January 2015, they went to the NFL Scouting Combine, where they chose not to endorse their inherited quarterback, pending further evaluation. Jay Cutler’s salary for the upcoming year was guaranteed, with $10 million for 2016 due to kick in the next month, as long as he was still on the Bears’ roster.
Pace and Fox evaluated Cutler and decided to keep him for 2015 — which, because of the contract framing, meant 2016, too.
“I think there’s a talent level there that, obviously, we feel good enough to explore,” Fox said that March.
Pace looked at trading up for Marcus Mariota in the draft, to no avail. Cutler had perhaps his best season in 2015, but all that resulted in was offensive coordinator Adam Gase being hired away by the Dolphins.
The Bears didn’t hit reset on quarterback until this year — a mistake, in retrospect. Their rebuild didn’t get into full swing until Fox’s third year, when he needed to win games to keep his job.
With no quarterbacks available who were worthy of the No. 7 pick in 2015 — Jameis Winston and Mariota went Nos. 1 and 2, respectively — the Bears drafted wide receiver Kevin White. White missed mandatory minicamp with shin pain, but Fox downplayed its severity, calling White day-to-day even after he started training camp on the physically unable-to-perform list.
“It’s not a long-term problem,” Fox said at camp. “Like any injury. A blister could become a long-term problem if you don’t treat it right.”
White never ran without pain and was shut down Aug. 15 for shin surgery. He didn’t play that year and has played in only five games in three seasons.
His injuries have crushed the Bears. It’s hard to rebuild when you whiff on such a high pick. Plus, Fox’s public insistence that White would be fine hurt his relationship with the media and some fans before he ever coached a game.
A bloody 2016
The Bears lost three quarterbacks to season-ending injuries last year. Cutler missed five games with a thumb injury and later was put on injured reserve after tearing the labrum in his throwing arm. His replacement after the thumb injury, Brian Hoyer, broke his left arm against the Packers.
“If you look at what’s happened to us in the first half, just at the quarterback position, it’s enough to cripple a lot of teams,” Fox said at the time.
Matt Barkley — who was only on the team because Connor Shaw broke his left leg in the preseason — led the Bears in starts.
How rare were the Bears’ quarterback injuries in 2016? Their signal-caller hasn’t missed a snap because of injuries this year.
They finished last season with 19 players on IR.
Pace’s decision to trade four draft picks to move up one spot and select Mitch Trubisky No. 2 overall might have solved the Bears’ quarterback problem. If it does, it was a home run.
But it also separated Pace’s timeline from Fox’s. Pace likely will survive the offseason because it’s impossible to judge him without knowing how Trubisky turns out. If Fox doesn’t survive, it will be because he didn’t win enough games. A plug-and-play defender or a wide receiver drafted No. 3 overall — Solomon Thomas? Jamal Adams? Corey Davis? — might have changed that. A league-average performance from Trubisky’s predecessor, Mike Glennon, would have helped, too.
It was a major blow, both practically and symbolically, when Fox threw the challenge flag after Benny Cunningham’s dive for the pylon on Nov. 12 against the Packers. The ball was spotted at the 2-yard line, where the Bears faced first-and-goal. But Fox thought Cunningham had scored a touchdown.
When officials looked at the replay, they spotted something: Cunningham had fumbled the ball into the end zone and out of bounds. They gave the ball to the Packers in a game the Bears would lose by — you guessed it — seven.
“Maybe you can see [the fumble] after looking at it 50 times, like some people are able to do,” Fox said. “But during our look, during the game, that wasn’t even discussed.”
Any hope for a strong second half was crushed. The Bears wouldn’t win again for a month.
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.