When it comes to secrecy in the name of out-witting his opponent, Bears coach John Fox is as earnest as either agent in Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” a spoof of clandestine operations where rival spies take turns over-thinking things and out-smarting each other.
It’s an entertaining farce, which brings us to Fox’s ploy of waiting until Sunday to announce whether Kyle Long will start at guard or tackle in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. You can assume the status of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson will be kept under wraps until game day as well.
It’s unlikely the cloak-and-dagger gambit is going to keep Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers up at night — or even appreciably alter his practice schedule or game plan for Sunday. The Bears will have a soft spot in their offensive line either at right tackle or right guard and it will take Capers all of one look to determine where that is. In Capers’ six seasons as defensive coordinator, 20 different Packers from virtually every position on the defense have sacked a Bears quarterback a total of 37 times in 13 games. He’s more likely to fool you than you are to fool him.
Be that as it may, Fox has earned the right to believe in what he’s done for years — whether or not it’s actually been a factor in his success. The Bears look like they’re headed for a rebuilding season, but already it is clear they are more well-coached than they were last year. In “Spy vs. Spy,” one of them wins half the time. If Fox can pull that off, he’ll be considered ahead of schedule.
2. What advantage is there to withholding the name of starters before game day?
“I don’t know how [the Packers] do it, but we put jersey numbers on guys on our scout team and kind of simulate a game as well as we can in preparation for that game,” Fox said. “I think they probably have a lot of offenses and defenses they’ve not used in the preseason just like we have and everybody in our business does. I don’t think it serves you well to advertise what you’re going to do — personnel or plays.”
You probably don’t want to open your playbook to the world (though some coaches believe in putting a trick play on tape to give their opponents something else to guard against). But the reluctance to name starting players seems like over-thinking.
When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was deciding whether to start Matt Flynn or rookie Russell Wilson in 2012, he had a perfect opportunity to wait until the last second and force the Cardinals to prepare for two different styles of quarterback. Carroll — whose practices at USC were often open to the public and media — named Wilson the starter two weeks before the opener. The Cardinals won 20-16 at home. But the Seahawks are 42-13 since.
3. The Bears provided one of the most intriguing statistics of the preseason in the NFL — they outscored their opponents 62-0 in the second half of their four preseason games. Nobody else in the NFL was even close — the Packers were next at plus-41 (56-15).
That kind of dominance is usually the sign of a team that has a deep roster or is well-coached. And the Bears are not considered to have a very deep roster.
For what it’s worth, the only other team in the last 10 years to allow 10 or fewer points in the second half of the preseason is the 2013 49ers (50-10), whose defensive coordinator was Vic Fangio and secondary coach was Ed Donatell — both now with the Bears.
The last time a team was that dominant in the second half of a preseason was the Super Bowl-bound 2003 Carolina Panthers (55-7), whose coach was John Fox — now with the Bears. Hmmm…
4. The Bears’ roster was due for an overhaul after a difficult 5-11 season. There are 22 new players on the current 53-man roster, including nine likely starters. (And that doesn’t include first-round draft pick Kevin White, who is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.) When Phil Emery took over for Jerry Angelo in 2012 — with Lovie Smith still the head coach — the Bears had 19 new players on their 53-man roster to open the 2012 season.
5. Only four starters from last year’s defense that ranked 30th in the NFL are starting for the Bears this season — defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (currently serving a three-game suspension), outside linebacker Jared Allen, inside linebacker Shea McClellin and cornerback Kyle Fuller.
The other starters from last year’s defense: Stephen Paea is a starting defensive end for the Redskins; cornerback Tim Jennings just signed with the Buccaneers; Charles Tillman is starting at cornerback for the Panthers; Chris Conte is a back-up safety for the Buccaneers.
Lamarr Houston is a back-up outside linebacker with the Bears; safety Ryan Mundy is on injured reserve with a hip injury. Linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams are not in the NFL.
6. Don’t be surprised if Fox’s first team takes a step back before finishing strong. Fox’s first team in Carolina in 2002 actually won its first three games — against non-playoff competition — before losing eight straight. The Panthers won four of their last five games — including a 24-14 victory over the Bears — and played in the Super Bowl the following season.
Fox’s first team at Denver in 2011 started 1-4, but won seven of eight games after the bye week — capped by a 13-10 overtime victory against the Bears — before backing into the playoffs with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
7. So far, so good for the Bears’ May-December braintrust of 38-year-old general manager Ryan Pace and 60-year-old Fox. The Bears’ roster has a long way to go, but Fox was encouraged by the process and the dynamic.
“I thought they did a tremendous job,” Fox said of Pace and the personnel department staff. “I didn’t see our scouts during camp; they were in looking at tape. That’s their job. The guys they brought to us make us legitimately better. Only time will tell, but they worked at it very hard and I thought it was very smooth, particularly for our first 53-man cut and even after that.”
8. Pick to click: Keep an eye on rookie safety Harold Jones-Quartey, a self-described “come-down-and-knock-your-head-off kind of player” who was claimed on waivers from the Cardinals. He was signing a practice-squad contract with Arizona when the Bears claimed him on waivers.
Jones-Quartey comes from a humble football background — he played on a club team in Columbus, Ohio (the Columbus Crusaders) because his high school didn’t have a football team. He played collegiately at Division II University of Findlay (Ohio). He was an undrafted free agent who made the Cardinals’ training camp roster off a try-out.
But he looks like a Vic Fangio kind of player. Though his favorite players is former Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed, he compared his style to Donte Whitner and Antoine Bethea, both Pro Bowl safeties under Fangio. “I’m a physical player,” Jones-Quartey said.
9. Rookie linebacker John Timu beat long shot odds to make the roster, but he also fits the Fangio profile. Timu was one of five players from the University of Washington’s 2014 defense to make the NFL, including defensive tackle Danny Shelton (12th overall), cornerback Marcus Peters (18th overall), linebacker Shaq Thompson (25th overall) and linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha (44th overall).
“A great group of guys — a lot of alpha-dogs who were ready to grow,” Timu said. “It was like death row, guys who had nothing to lose — that was our mindset. We were in attack mode.”
Timu said that mindset was instilled by former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who would show Fangio-era 49ers tape to his players. “We’d always watch how it should have been done — and it was the Niners’ film,” Timu said.
10. Little things count: Under Fox, lockers at Halas Hall are back to being organized by position. Under Marc Trestman, lockers of offensive and defensive players were interspersed to promote team-building.
The move typified the difficulty of the Trestman era. The intentions were good, but not really practical in the NFL.
“This is the way it should be,” offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod said of the traditional set-up. “We’re a unit and that goes for all three phases. I get the other set-up. But we have to be around each other. We have to talk to each other about different things. It doesn’t just stop with the classroom. It’s good for us to be together. It’s just part of our continuity.”