First-and-10: Bears fans should set their alarm for November
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Can the Cubs win the World Series if they hang on to make the playoffs as a wild card? Will Patrick Kane be with the Blackhawks when they open training camp next month? Will Derrick Rose be of right mind and body when the Bulls begin their first season under Fred Hoiberg? Can Elena Delle Donne and the Sky finally clear the last hurdle and win the WNBA championship? Can the Fire get their … oh, forget that.
Bears fans scarred by two disappointing seasons under Marc Trestman might want to find some kind of distraction for the first two months of the John Fox era. Mr. “Understate and Overproduce” has successfully deployed the first part of that equation — expectations for 2015 are at a Fox/Ryan Pace era low after Pat O’Donnell punted four times and Bengals backup quarterback Tom Brady — or whoever that was — picked apart the Bears’ first-team defense in the first half of a 21-10 loss Saturday night in Cincinnati. After three preseason games, the only thing we know about the Bears is that they can’t stay healthy, can’t get healthy and have too many remnants of the Phil Emery era on the field.
Unless Vic Fangio is saving all his good stuff for the regular season, the Bears are staring at a 1-5 start against the Packers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Raiders, Chiefs and Lions prior to the bye week. The bright side: where Trestman’s teams got worse, the Bears under Fox figure to get better as the season ensues.
Trestman’s teams were virtually 100 percent healthy coming out of the preseason but withered quickly in the regular season. Last year, Matt Slauson and Roberto Garza were injured in Week 1 and Jeremiah Ratliff, Charles Tillman, Shea McClellin and Lance Briggs all were injured in the first five games. It was all downhill from there. The Bears were 3-0 and 2-1 in the first three weeks of Trestman’s two seasons. they were 5-8 and 3-10 the rest of the way.
Fox is a bigger believer in conditioning his team in training camp for the brutality of the NFL regular season with physical practices. He’s paying the price now. But in theory, the Bears won’t lose as many players once the hitting is for real. Winning the war of attrition is half the battle in the NFL — maybe more than that, these days.
But until that factor kicks in, you might want to avert your eyes. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks open training camp on Sept. 18. The Bulls preseason opener is Oct. 3. The White Sox open Arizona Fall League play on Oct. 13. And the Cubs — they could conclude a glorious and historic postseason run with a World Series sweep on Oct. 31, the day before the Bears face the Vikings at Soldier Field. Coming off the bye week, that could be the real start of the John Fox era.
2. Cornerback Tim Jennings, who was released Sunday, is one of two Bears to make the Pro Bowl under Lovie Smith (2012) and Marc Trestman/Mel Tucker (2013). But at 5-8, he knows he’s always living on the edge. His decline last season — no interceptions after nine in 2012 and four in 2013 — put him in a tough spot with a new coaching staff that clearly prefers taller corners. The Bears signed Alan Ball (6-2) in free agency and are giving Sherrick McManis (6-1) his best shot yet at playing corner in four seasons with the Bears.
The other corners ahead of Jennings are Kyle Fuller (5-11), Terrance Mitchell (5-11) and Tracy Porter (5-11). In his last two years in Denver, the Broncos signed free agent corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-2) and Aqib Talib (6-1).
2a. In the previous four seasons with the Broncos, Fox has coached six defensive backs who have made the Pro Bowl; and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell coached seven with the 49ers. So, while not infallible, they have a pretty good idea of what they like in a cornerback.
3. Of the 10 veterans signed to be starting players by Phil Emery in 2014, only four could end up being starters in 2015: guard guard Matt Slauson (four years, $12.8 million), quarterback Jay Cutler (seven years, $126 million), defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (two years, $3.75 million) and linebacker Jared Allen (four years, $32 million).
The other players Emery signed in 2014: Jennings (four years, $22.4 million), defensive end Lamarr Houston (five years, $35 million), safety Ryan Mundy (two years, $3 million), defensive end Willie Young (three years, $9 million), wide receiver Brandon Marshall (three-years, $30-million) and center Roberto Garza (one year).
4. With all the holes to fill on defense, the Bears’ biggest concern heading into the regular season could be at right tackle, where neither Charles Leno, Jr. nor Jordan Mills looks like an NFL-quality starter. Signing Evan Mathis, moving Kyle Long to left tackle and Jermon Bushrod to right tackle probably only happens in fantasy leagues and on talk-radio. But the way things are playing out, Ryan Pace, John Fox, Adam Gase and Dave Magazu are going to have to deal with that issue eventually.
Fox’s description of the Leno-Mills battle as “competitive” seems to indicate he’s aware of the reality. He didn’t bother to try and convince us either one is getting the job done.
5. Cynics who weren’t buying the Shea McClellin/Christian Jones offseason/preseason storylines were big winners Saturday night. Though showing promise, both inside linebackers have been more hope than hype since being anointed as starters in Fangio’s 3-4 defense. They were exposed in pass coverage by the Bengals. The potential still is there, but the benefit of the doubt is tilting the other way heading into the regular season.
6. At this point, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery could start against the Packers on Sept. 13 — or be in traction. Jeffery has been “day-to-day” with a “mild calf strain” since Aug. 12. Coming off the Kevin White episode — when a “shin” turned into surgery to repair a stress fracture — the Bears didn’t do themselves any favors by telling reporters two hours before the Bengals game that Jeffery would be in uniform when in fact he didn’t even make the trip. You can still assume Jeffery will be ready against the Packers, but do so at your own risk.
7. Is it just a coincidence that Terrance Mitchell was primarily a practice-squad player in Mel Tucker’s defense, but is emerging as a potential starter under Vic Fangio? Mitchell’s snap-count has increased from 12 against the Dolphins to 29 against the Colts to 43 against the Bengals. It’s still early, of course, but the fast-rising Mitchell looks like the kind of naturally aggressive player who blossoms in Fangio defenses.
8. Hard to see the Bears not keeping defensive tackle Will Sutton. On paper, the former third-round pick looked like an odd fit for a 3-4 defense. Instead, he is becoming a prime example of a player who “transcends scheme.” The 6-0, 303-pound Sutton keeps finding ways to make an impact — wherever he lines up — and did again against the Bengals. There might be a bigger Phil Emery influence on this team that originally thought.
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Josh McCown just won’t go away. The former Bears quarterback will be the Browns’ opening-day starter (and won’t play against the Bears on Thursday) after leading the Browns to three scoring drives — including two touchdowns — against Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers on Saturday night. Johnny Manziel is resting a bum elbow.
With no true deep threat and a nondescript receiving corps led by Brian Hartline, McCown was 17-of-23 for 117 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 113.9 passer rating against the Bucs. McCown was 1-10 with a 70.5 rating (11 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) as a starter for Lovie last year.
10. Jay Cutler seems to be getting the hang of the McCown touch — not trying to do too much with too little. With a similar cast of wide receivers against the Bengals, Cutler was 13-of-17 for 98 yards and no touchdowns, but also no interceptions for an 89.8 passer rating. Not great. But it could have been worse.
Cutler finished the preseason 25-of-33 (75.8 percent) for 209 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions — a 91.6 passer rating. It’s only the second time in seven years he has not thrown an interception in the preseason. The last time was in 2012, when he completed only 47.1 percent of his passes (16-of-34) and had a 77.8 rating in Mike Tice’s first season as offensive coordinator.