Helping Hands: New leadership council benefits Bears under John Fox

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Bears coach John Fox. (AP)

John Fox’s office at Halas Hall is spacious and scenic. Large windows overlook the practice fields and surrounding woods. In it, there is a large conference table.

And that table is crammed with players every week.

“You got a lot of guys,” quarterback Jay Cutler said. “It’s not a small office, but it’s not a huge office. Foxy usually leads it off, but guys at this point are very open and very comfortable to list our concerns or stuff with the game plan we don’t like.

“It ranges from week to week. Some weeks, we’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t have anything.’ . . . Other days it takes 10 minutes longer because we have so many things we want to complain about.”

The meeting is for Fox’s leadership council, a new addition to life at Halas Hall. It consists of the team’s permanent captains — Cutler, running back Matt Forte, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and kicker Robbie Gould — and representatives from the position groups.

In interviews with the Sun-Times, council members explained how valuable the established line of communication between Fox and players has been to the season.

It’s made for a healthy environment after last year’s toxic one.

“It lets him connect with the team and know the feeling of what’s going on,” Forte said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had it. It’s beneficial, and it’s smart to do, especially for a coach.”

Beyond the storyline of Fox’s first matchup with the Broncos after his unceremonious departure, there is a palpable sense of optimism about the Bears’ direction right now. Fox’s impact is real.

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Sometimes Fox is in his socks. The meetings have that laid-back vibe to them, which is appropriate for a coach who used to surf the California coast.

“It’s real cool,” Forte said. “He’s a realist, like he always says. He’s going to be honest with you and real. He’s not holding anything back.”

Fox shrugs and smiles when asked where the idea for a council came from — “Like everything else, I probably stole it from somebody,” Fox joked — but he does have a military background. Fox’s stepfather was a Navy SEAL.

Before playing the Chargers on “Monday Night Football” in San Diego, Fox, general manager Ryan Pace and other staff members visited the SEALs’ base on Coronado Island.

“You’re always trying to learn and steal ideas and concepts on how to reach your goal,” said Fox, who first used a council 10 years ago with the Panthers. “And that’s to win a championship.”

At Halas Hall, there is typically a captains meeting first, and shortly thereafter, the council convenes.

There are “replacement leadership guys,” Fox said, as injured players focus more on what ails them. Offensive lineman Matt Slauson and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins have filled in. Defensive lineman Mitch Unrein replaced Jeremiah Ratliff following his conflicts with staff and consequent release.

“They come up and we talk about any message I want to bring down there,” Fox said.

Fox’s messages vary and can be as simple as reminding teammates to rest after a Monday night game with an abbreviated practice week coming up.

The players also offer their own suggestions. Fox is open to their concerns about everything from practice format to meeting lengths to what’s on the menu.

“It’s a great thing for us as players that a coach really takes into consideration how we feel about practice and everything else,” McPhee said. “He’s open to everything from meals to meetings to traveling.”

Fox believes he has the right guys to lead, too. He said he doesn’t want or have a bunch of “yes men.” Disagreements lead to truth.

“Having a leadership council and captains voted by teammates, it’s like any relationship,” Fox said. “It takes a while to grow. . . . Sometimes you have to have conflict to really grow.”

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Having a leadership council isn’t breaking new ground. McPhee said the Ravens, his former team, had one, and as Gould said, “sometimes you’ve seen it on [HBO’s] ‘‘Hard Knocks.’’ ”

But it is new to Halas Hall.

Lovie Smith leaned on his captains, namely former linebacker Brian Urlacher and center Olin Kreutz. Marc Trestman had his weekly captains and everyone-is-a-leader philosophy. And the latter is why Fox’s council is important.

The Bears were a team in a desperate need of direction and leadership after last season’s 5-11 campaign full of turmoil and a lack of true accountability. Fox’s council has guaranteed players a voice and a response.

“It’s been great to the transition and to start learning some of the philosophies and things that mean a lot to him but also mean a lot to the players,” Gould said.

That’s particularly true for Cutler, whose relationship with Trestman and former offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer eroded last season. Cutler described his participation in the council as huge for himself.

“I don’t like comparing year to year, coach to coach, because everyone is different,” Cutler said. “Everyone has a different process and philosophies. This works for Fox, and I know a lot of the guys really enjoy it, feel respected and like the process he uses.”

Forte said the communication was needed.

“If you’re a coach, you don’t know the temperament of the locker room or what’s the feeling going on,” Forte said. “If you’re the player, for the coaches, you don’t really know their temperament, either, or what we need to do different.”

The constant communication has helped re-establish a sense of accountability. If changes are implemented according to the players’ concerns, Fox will hold them to an even higher standard.

Essentially, a players’ coach has made the Bears a players’ team again.

“And it’s really the players’ team,” Forte said. “Somebody’s got to hold them accountable. It keeps everybody’s arrows pointing the same way.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns


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