When he was originally hired, Chicago Bears head coach John Fox was a symbol of safe stability. He was the experienced guy most assumed a green general manager like Ryan Pace would need at the start of his lead personnel executive career. An option who knew the ins and outs of a successful NFL organization.
Who could theoretically argue with the results of two conference championships with the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers? Or of a man with a reputation for putting together dynamite coaching staffs as the Bears had in 2015 with offensive coordinator Adam Gase and still current defensive coordinator Vic Fangio? Fox checked every box off the list that a rookie general manager would feel comfortable with, even if he was far from the most imaginative hire.
Two years, 23 losses, and just nine wins later, and it’s fair to wonder what kind of ground Fox stands on with Chicago. The Bears appear to, at least for now, be stuck in a perpetual rebuilding phase. Young talent such as Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair, and Jordan Howard from the 2016 Draft class have emerged, but the overall results haven’t panned out on the field quite clearly.
One could make the argument that the Bears’ roster hasn’t been good enough for Fox to really flex his coaching muscles and have the team progress, though.
Odds not in Fox’s favor
For example, Jay Cutler was the primary quarterback in 2015, and it worked out well as he enjoyed the highest passer rating of his career at 92.3. It didn’t translate into a winning season for Chicago, but a 6-10 mark made it seem like there was more hope on the horizon.
Due to many reasons in offensive stability and roster turnover, Cutler heavily regressed in 2016. He just never seemed to be able to catch the same groove as injuries also mired a campaign where he appeared in only five games. That led to a quarterback carousel of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, and yes, even Cameron Meredith. (David Fales even played for a spell!) For a team in transition almost everywhere else, the last thing you want is a lack of quarterback stability, let alone less than able quarterback play.
As a whole, every quarterback that played for the Bears last season had a cumulative 81.8 passer rating when bunched together. That’s effectively quite average and not good enough for the overall talent Chicago possessed. A notch just above general efficiency, which when you have a bad team, gets you nowhere.
All considered particularly when you see the well-documented injuries that many feel was the primary detractor against any Bears’ success in a 3-13 franchise-worst season. Chicago had 19 players on injured reserve last season and an NFL-high $32.7 million in cap space on the shelf. This was an already bad to mediocre team gutted heavily by injuries over the course of the year.
In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Bears had the highest amount of adjusted games lost since they’ve recorded the statistic in 2000. Quite the lofty height to reach for Chicago.
So yes, the odds didn’t look like they were in Fox’s favor to do much of anything in 2016. At least until you dig deeper for actual context.
Let’s start with the injuries.
Of that 19-player list and the games they spent on injured reserve; consisting of Nick Becton (16 games missed), Brandon Boykin (16), Ego Ferguson (16), Kyle Fuller (16), Hroniss Grasu (16), Danny Mason (16), Connor Shaw (16), Lamarr Houston (14), Kevin White (12) Brian Hoyer (9), Kyle Long (7), Will Sutton (7), Zach Miller (6), Jay Cutler (5), Danny Trevathan (5), Eddie Royal (5), Mike Adams (4), and Eddie Goldman (2), not everyone was necessarily a major contributor.
Fuller, Grasu, White, and Houston all missed a majority of the season as players who were expected to factor in heavily into the Bears’ 2016 plans as starters or high-snap depth. Their losses did have an impact more than most, sure.
However guys such as Long, Miller, and Trevathan were already lost deep into the season when the Bears were already well out of the playoff race and with nothing to play for. Most of the rest of the injured reserve roster was depth or special teams players or the occasional small injury towards the end of the year.
Obviously that ignores the missed games or two by say, Floyd, or Pernell McPhee starting the year on the PUP list due to a knee injury, but even then this ideal paints the picture of an injury situation not really much different from any other NFL team. The crux of the matter is that with the actual amount of impact guys Chicago lost, the easy assumption is that they went from more of a five to six-win team to three, as opposed to the playoff contender that was supposedly heavily derailed.
Not exactly the huge excuse you can point to for Fox when looking at the list from first glance.
A generational helping hand
When it comes to quarterbacking talent, yes, this is a player’s league first and foremost. You are defined almost inherently by what you can put on the field in ability. Case in point: the 2015 Cutler factor.
However, none of it is to the degree that Fox was enhanced by a first ballot Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning.
Fox, again according to Football Outsiders, is actually in the top half of the league in adjusted games lost for head coaches since 2002. Not what you’d expect. His overall win-loss record in that same time frame is 128-112. Relatively impressive. Until you note that other coaches such as Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy, and Andy Reid rank lower on the list and have had worse injury luck while enjoying better records.
That also ignores the 38 regular season wins Fox had in Denver with Manning and his 131 touchdown passes over the course of three seasons. It could be said that it’s not his fault he was paired with Manning and that shouldn’t be a knock against him. No, it shouldn’t.
But by simple extrapolation the assumption is that a generational talent such as Manning would’ve really won and played well no matter who was on the sideline. That’s what great players do: enhance resumes.
Take out that logistical wins mark and Fox sits at a career record of 90-112 pre-Denver. It’s not logical to just put things in a vacuum, but it’s easy to see that this is more of a .500 level, completely transitional coach, than a guy that takes you over the top.
Fox’s mandate in 2017
What does all of this mean for the Bears who just drafted a young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky and who appear to be on more of a five-year rebuilding plan as opposed to traditional NFL turnarounds?
It’s not quite clear for now, but one thing’s for sure, Fox likely needs the Bears to show progress in 2017 even if they didn’t receive much help from a project 2017 Draft class led by Trubisky and others such as tight end, Adam Shaheen.
The talent on the roster hasn’t been upgraded as much in retrospect as you’d expect a three-win team (five to six wins in talent) to jump up in the standings. Another disastrous catastrophe such as 2016, and the Bears are moving on with an offensive mind to develop Trubisky moving forward, as opposed to Fox - who has never developed his own young quarterback (another odd strategic move by this franchise who had ample opportunity to pick someone else to groom their future man under center).
It should be said though, that this doesn’t mean Fox’s seat is blazing hot, even if the Bears didn’t draft with win-now in mind. That’s simply more of a contingency. Let’s gauge the temperature at more “getting ready to boil.”
The 62-year-old could actually be in for the long haul and Pace, his boss, could really be committed to him as his original choice. After all, Fox wasn’t in the dark on the trade-up for Trubisky as most wanted to assumed after this year’s draft.
Sticking with Fox feels like a monumental mistake long-term even in the short-term development effect he will or should have on the current roster, but it’s definitely in play.
What has to happen in 2017 for Fox to not be preparing for a FOX networking gig is that the Bears hover around .500, have previous draft classes in 2015 and 2016 flash and flash consistently, and for no embarrassing blowout losses to happen at any point. This team can’t look like it mails it in much in the same light as three humiliating defeats to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins, and Minnesota Vikings in the second half of last season.
The future in Chicago
If all of that happens, Fox will likely return in 2018 to coach the Bears and a newly-minted Trubisky as the starter. Definitely easier said than done with previous history and the talent cupboard available in mind.
If not, it’ll be time to search for the next hot offensive coordinator on the block in January. Or if going off Pace’s recent history in picking his Drew Brees (Trubisky), his Jimmy Graham (Shaheen), and his Darren Sproles (Tarik Cohen), another New Orleans Saints connection in Sean Payton (Payton) could be in line.
For a man whose been in the NFL coaching ranks since the mid 1980’s, everything’s now finally up in the air for Fox and his Bears platform.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.