The Bears fired coach John Fox a year ago Tuesday.
In the hours between the team announcing the move and the front office defending the decision — the firing and the call to give general manager Ryan Pace a contract extension — players cleaned out their lockers, loading their personal effects into black plastic bags and hauling them into their cars.
In that moment, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks sat at his locker talking to Tony Medlin, the Bears’ equipment guru, about how special the playoffs were. It hurt to watch other teams prepare for their games while the Bears were heading home.
A year later, Hicks spent New Year’s Day talking about his 12-4 team and their wild-card game Sunday against the Eagles.
“There’s a huge appreciation for being the hunted,” he said, “and people chasing you.”
Even at that low point last year, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said he would’ve believed such a turnaround was possible.
“If you said we had Matt Nagy coming in, then, ‘Yep,’ ” he said.
It’s clear, 365 days after the Bears set out to find a coach to transform their locker room, that Nagy has accomplished just that.
“Since he got here, our culture has just been shifted into a winning culture,” Leno said. “There’s no more accepting the fact that we’re going to go out there and lose. We go out there expecting to win every game.”
That’s what the Bears set out to accomplish by making their third coaching change in five calendar years. Cornerback Prince Amukamara said he felt momentum beginning to build in organized team activities, then in training camp.
“Everybody that was inside this building knew it — and I think the person that believed it the most was coach Nagy,” he said. “If only you guys could be inside those meetings, just what he was saying and the confidence and the swagger and how he spoke. I think it started with him.
“It’s remarkable more to outsiders. I think we surprised a lot of people, but we definitely didn’t surprise ourselves.”
The Bears saw glimpses of competence in their 5-11 season, be it in their top-10 defense, the electricity of then-rookie Tarik Cohen or the growth of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
“I knew we were gonna head in the right direction,” center Cody Whitehair said. “You just sensed that we were gonna take the next step. But the organization has done a great job of getting the culture back to where we need it to be to win a championship.”
Nagy was the spark — though the addition of star outside linebacker Khalil Mack didn’t hurt.
“The last two years, for me, we hadn’t been where we wanted to be,” Whitehair said. “It speaks volumes of the culture we have on this team and how hard we worked to get to this point.”
That point is, the Bears, winners of nine of their last 10 games, will make their first playoff appearance since 2010 against the Eagles.
“I know a lot of guys, including myself, didn’t want to see Fox go,” Amukamara said. “I felt Fox was great, but this is a phrase that you hear a lot: It’s the nature of the business.’’
A year ago Tuesday, Bears chairman George McCaskey brought up the same word, in a different context, when addressing fans directly.
“We know that you’re frustrated and disappointed, and rightly so,” he said. “We know that you’ve been getting the business for being a Bears fan when you go to the grocery store or church or pick up the kids, wherever. Because we’re getting it, too.”
Not anymore. Three hundred sixty-five days seem so much farther in the rearview mirror.
“It definitely feels pretty far away,” Amukamara said.