Written by: Joshua A. Guelda – Staff Writing Intern (@JAGbaggage)
As the Chicago Bears report to training camp in Bourbonnais, coach John Fox’s knack for Year 2 turnarounds gives players and fans plenty of optimism for the 2016 season.
When general manager Ryan Pace hired John Fox in January 2015, many questioned if the 61-year-old was the right man for the job. Fox inherited a Bears team who were in dire need of a reboot after the previous regime left the franchise in shambles. Fox’s resume boasts the unique ability to right the ship in short order, however this will be an all hands on deck situation if the Bears are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Back in 2003, John Fox led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in just his second year. He did it again in 2013 by transforming an 8-8 Denver Broncos team into a 13-3 juggernaut. He is one of only two head coaches to win both an NFC and an AFC Championship game. Despite a disappointing 2015 campaign, the Bears showed signs of progression by remaining competitive throughout an otherwise hapless season.
Hope everyone has an updated roster handy. There has been considerable turnover on defense and the offensive line, two areas in need of it. The team appears to have done better in free agency than it did a year ago and certainly went with a younger approach when it came to bringing in outside players. The Bears made a whopping 27 additions in a busy offseason. Both Pace and Fox have stated that while in this transitional stage, one of the team’s goals is to get younger, faster, and more athletic.
Now I would not suggest spending gobs of cash on Super Bowl tickets just yet, Bears fans. Of course everyone at Halas Hall is hopeful for a breakthrough season and Fox is no doubt in “win now mode,” but perhaps more important for Pace than wins and losses this season will be the performance of his two first-round draft picks, wide receiver Kevin White and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. To really turn this thing around and keep it heading in the right direction, the Bears desperately need a young nucleus of star talent to build around.
It is essential that a team strikes gold when picking inside the top 10. White and Floyd represent the first back-to-back top-10 picks for the Bears since Brian Urlacher (ninth in 2000) and David Terrell (eighth in 2001). Urlacher was the face of the franchise for a decade, while Terrell busted out quickly. Before that pair, you have to go back to Jim McMahon (fifth in 1982) and Jimbo Covert (sixth in 1983), both of whom were key players for the Super Bowl XX team in 1985. Both of the aforementioned newcomers are projected to make their NFL debuts together on Sept. 11 in Houston.
These highly touted rookies have been given guidelines to accelerate their growth and development. For Floyd, it’s learning how to use his body to his advantage, by complementing his natural bursts of speed with added strength and power. For White, it’s all about showing he can be a reliable, sure-handed receiver, as well as becoming a more polished and sophisticated route runner.
Kevin White has so many natural qualities to eventually become the face of a franchise. For starters, he is charismatic, humble, and hardworking. All of which make him popular among coaches and teammates alike. As far as his ceiling at the position, new receivers coach Curtis Johnson compared him to Andre Johnson, yeah that Andre Johnson, with his rare combination of size, super strength, and electrifying speed.
The Bears are also banking on Leonard Floyd developing into a weekly playmaker. When the pads come on, we’ll be able to see how Leonard Floyd operates at the point of attack. More specifically, how he separates and “doesn’t get wired to blocks,” as Pace explained on draft night. His elite level of athleticism and speed should be noticeable, although he can’t exactly hit the quarterback in practice. Let’s not forget, the Bears defense had only 14 takeaways last season. That’s the lowest total in franchise history. YIKES! Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio seems keen on creating more chaos in the backfield, thus forcing more turnovers. Floyd will bear a bulk of that responsibility, pun definitely intended.
Ryan Pace remains in the “honeymoon period” since taking over for Phil Emery. Fair or not, the perception of Pace moving forward will likely be based on the performance of his top draft picks. The Bears’ five first-round picks before Pace arrived were Kyle Fuller, Kyle Long, Shea McClellin, Gabe Carimi, and Chris Williams. Long was an outstanding value pick, who coincidentally became the anchor on a spotty offensive line. The jury is still out on Fuller, who has had difficulty displaying consistency and confidence since entering the league two years ago. As for the rest, well, it’s rather self explanatory why Ryan Pace became the third Bears GM in the last five years.
Sure, it would be a positive sign to see the Bears compete in the NFC North this season, and if that happens, White and Floyd will have certainly played significant roles. In the big picture, it’s not realistic to view them as Super Bowl contenders, but it is reassuring to see the front office take a long-term, sustainable approach.