New Bears head coach John Fox and his staff have an infinitely easier task than the one Marc Trestman undertook in 2013 and failed to achieve. Fox will not be burdened by lofty expectations. He inherits a 5–11 team that isn’t realistically expected to contend in Year 1. Trestman took over a 10–6 team that barely missed the playoffs and was considered, right or wrong, to be primed for a deep playoff run. Never happened. Under Trestman, the Bears regressed to 8–8 and then to the 5–11 disaster that terminated his employment and ushered in Fox, whose last three Broncos teams went 38–10 in the regular season and won the AFC West in each of his four seasons. But Fox failed to produce the postseason success expected by team president John Elway and was replaced by Gary Kubiak.
In Chicago, Fox has the additional advantage of a much more accomplished and highly regarded staff than what Trestman was able to cobble together.
Fox has an added obstacle since the Bears will be transitioning to a 3-4 defense for the first time ever, but he’s got highly respected coordinator Vic Fangio overseeing the conversion.
Adam Gase was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates in the offseason, interviewing for top jobs with four teams, including the Bears, but he settled for re-upping with Fox. Gase spent the previous six years in Denver, including four under Fox, the last two as offensive coordinator.
He inherits quarterback Jay Cutler, who will be playing for his fifth offensive coordinator as he enters his seventh season in Chicago. Cutler’s inability to play up to his potential is the major reason the Bears’ offensive coordinator job has been a revolving door of men who have tried but never succeeded in getting Cutler to avoid the mistakes and inconsistencies that have plagued his career. Last season was no different. Cutler’s 88.6 passer rating was the second best of his career, but he led the NFL with 24 turnovers, including 18 interceptions, which tied for second most in his nine-year career.
All-purpose, workhorse running back Matt Forté enters his contract year wanting an extension that he’s unlikely to get. He turns 30 in December and, despite becoming only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing while catching at least 100 passes last year, he is not getting better. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season, his lowest number by far in five years, and he averaged a pedestrian 7.9 yards on his 102 receptions. Forté had one run of 20 yards or longer last season on 266 carries. Cutler had three on just 39 attempts.
One of new GM Ryan Pace’s first major personnel moves was to send productive but distracting wide receiver Brandon Marshall packing. Pace sent the five-time Pro Bowler and a seventh-round draft pick to the Jets and was content to get just a fifth-round pick in return. The Bears used the seventh overall selection in the draft on his replacement, Kevin White.
The Bears also signed free agent Eddie Royal, a quick, veteran slot receiver who gives them something they’ve been missing. Royal had a bounce-back season with the Chargers in 2014, posting his best numbers since his rookie year in 2008 with the Broncos, when his quarterback was, yep, Cutler. The Bears had high expectations for long, lanky Marquess Wilson a year ago, but a fractured collarbone in training camp limited him to seven games.
Alshon Jeffery is the go-to guy with Marshall gone and White a bit of a project. Jeffery has nice size, a wide catch radius and the ability to win jump balls downfield. He has 174 receptions for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns in the previous two seasons, but it remains to be seen how he handles the No. 1 role without Marshall around.
Tight end Martellus Bennett stayed away from a voluntary minicamp, wanting a new contract just halfway through his four-year, $20.4 million deal. Difficult as it is to believe, Bennett may be more self-involved than Marshall, but he turned in a career year in 2014.
The offensive line, not great to begin with, was devastated by injuries. The guard tandem of Kyle Long and Matt Slauson is excellent, but left tackle Jermon Bushrod’s best years appear to be behind him, and the Bears need better play at right tackle than they got from Jordan Mills. Will Montgomery seems like a stopgap solution at center. Michael Ola, a rookie last year with CFL experience, showed exceptional versatility, starting games at every O-line position except center.
Fox and Pace downplay the effect that a scheme change will have on a roster built to play a 4-3, because they’ll play 4-3 on some passing downs, making the defense more of a hybrid. Defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins were signed based on their 3-4 experience, and 336-pound Eddie Goldman was drafted 39th overall to play nose tackle. Unfortunately, McDonald was released in May following another arrest on domestic violence-related charges, the same situation that led to his suspension and eventual release when was with the 49ers last season.
The Bears’ biggest free-agent acquisition was 280-pound Pernell McPhee, who is primarily a linebacker but has the versatility to play almost anywhere in the front seven on a 3-4. McPhee was a key backup to superstars Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil last year with the Ravens, getting 7.5 sacks while playing 49 percent of the snaps. The Bears are convinced that the 26-year-old is an ascending player whose numbers will rise proportionately with increased playing time.
The key to the conversion will be how former 4-3 defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young adapt to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. Young seems like a natural, but he’s coming off a late-December Achilles injury. Houston will be trying to bounce back from a forgettable 2014 that ended in Week 8 when he suffered a torn ACL celebrating his only sack. The Bears also added inside linebackers Sam Acho and Mason Foster to their holdover collection of run-of-the-mill linebackers.
Veteran safety Antrel Rolle should upgrade a position that has been a weakness for years, but he’ll be 33 before the season ends. Cornerback is thin: Last year’s first-round pick Kyle Fuller could be a centerpiece, but he had an up-and-down rookie season, and veteran Tim Jennings slumped badly after getting a big contract following back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. In early June, the Bears signed veteran Tracy Porter to a one-year deal to boost both the depth and experience at the position.
There’s no reason to believe that Robbie Gould, the seventh-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, won’t bounce back from the worst season of his 10-year career. Gould hit a career-low 75 percent of his 12 attempts and missed the final four games with a quad injury. Punter Pat O’Donnell was a bit inconsistent as a rookie, but he’s a keeper. The long-snapper job will probably go to free-agent addition Thomas Gafford. Late-season veteran pickup Marc Mariani upgraded the kick return game in 2014 and is the leading contender to handle punt returns.
The Bears have been to the postseason once in eight years, and hardly anyone believes that this is a one-year fix. In his two other head-coaching stops, Fox has taken the Panthers (2003) and the Broncos (2013) to the Super Bowl. But neither of those teams was in the same division with Aaron Rodgers.