In a league designed to create 32 equal teams, advantages come hard to find. But John Fox thinks he’s found one during 13 years as a head coach: leadership.
It’s a skill that can be developed, he said, just like blocking and tackling.
“It doesn’t fall out of the sky,” he said after the Bears hired him in January. “Just like your own children, you’re teaching young men how to be better young men.”
That “starts upstairs,” he said, from assembling a coaching staff to acquiring the right players. The Bears began the latter Saturday at 11 a.m., the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period. Teams can talk to agents, but not players, leading up to the start of free agency Tuesday.
Make no mistake: the Bears are looking for leaders.
Say what you will about Brandon Marshall’s histrionics and mistakes, but the Bears owe him a departing debt of gratitude for helping turn Alshon Jeffery into a Pro Bowler, training him at Marshall’s Florida gym. He also hosted his teammates — from Jay Cutler to Kyle Long to Jermon Bushrod — at Florida home last offseason for team building and workouts.
Marshall, though, is on his way to the Jets. Longtime defensive stalwarts Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman figure to be the next out of the door. Matt Forte has a year left on his deal, and Jeffery is a church mouse.
Jared Allen carries the respect of a future Hall of Famer and Willie Young is coming off a career year that ended with an Achilles injury, but both will be asked to switch positions.
Who will lead?
Asked about defensive players, Fox suggested one obvious choice — veteran tackle Jeremiah Ratliff — and, somewhat surprisingly, second-year cornerback Kyle Fuller.
“A young guy like that, a core guy, he was a first-round pick,” he said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I think he has the right kind of tools to be a guy that can lean into that leader spot as he goes.”
Maybe the Bears got the leaders they deserved last year.
Coach Marc Trestman named different captains for each game, a move that rankled some in the locker room. In all, 22 different players were captains, led by Ratliff and Allen, who served seven games apiece despite playing only their first full season with the Bears.
Marshall was named captain only twice.
Five captains can walk this offseason — Briggs and Tillman, linebacker D.J. Williams, defensive tackle Stephen Paea and center Brian de la Puente.
And then there’s Cutler. Were he to return —if the Bears cut or deal him by Thursday, they won’t have to pay his $10 million 2016 guarantee due then — he’ll still never be confused with Gen. Patton.
That doesn’t make him a poor teammate, but the two-time captain last year wasn’t vocal. Remember when tight end Martellus Bennett called Cutler “emotionless at times?”
Last month, new general manager Pace listed his intangibles for any quarterback: “his preparation, his study habits, and leadership.” Evaluating Cutler’s before he plays a single game perhaps Pace’s greatest challenge this offseason.
Finding a leader at any position isn’t an exact science, whether he’s already on your team or on the free agent market. But the Bears will spend the next three days trying.
“You’re evaluating and trying to acquire the best human talent you can find,” Fox said, “and then motivating them on a daily basis to be the best they can be.”
Marc Trestman named captains on a per-game basis last season, resulting in 22 Bears earning the title at least once. Here’s look at how many games each served as captain:
7 — DE Jared Allen, DT Jeremiah Ratliff
6 — C Roberto Garza, K Robbie Gould
5— OT Jermon Bushrod, RB Matt Forte
4— S Ryan Mundy, S Danny McCray
3— QB Jay Cutler
2 — CB Sherrick McManis, DE Willie Young, LB Lance Briggs, LB D.J. Williams, WR Brandon Marshall
1 — WR Alshon Jeffery, TE Martellus Bennett, DT Stephen Paea, CB Tim Jennings, CB Charles Tillman, G Matt Slauson, G Kyle Long, C Brian de la Puente