The Bears concluded their three-day mandatory minicamp on Thursday, ending on a short-term feel-good — coach John Fox canceling the last offseason practice before training camp starts on July 27.
“They’ve earned it,” Fox said with a tone that suggested a degree of satisfaction in what he’d seen at this point of his 15th NFL head coaching season. “I don’t just do that because I feel like it. They worked real hard. We had great participation and they worked extremely hard. They earned it.”
Positive beliefs are frequently easy to find this far in advance of games that matter. But within the work of the OTA’s and minicamp were “tells,” signs that the Bears clearly believe they are nothing like the squad that wobbled through four losses in its final five games to finish 6-10.
But how exactly DO the Bears look as their pre-camp work wraps up? Three answers to that question emerged over the past several weeks:
1. They really AREN’T the same team from a year ago, or even six months ago.
Fox is among those who maintain that big jumps occur from year one to year two for players, particularly young ones. But more than individual players make year-one-to-year-two leaps.
Fox’s Carolina Panthers improved from seven to 11 wins from his first to second seasons with them, reaching the Super Bowl in year two (2003). His Denver Broncos teams went from eight wins in Fox’s year-one (2011) to 13 in year two.
“It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Fox said. “But I’m pleased with where we are this year. If I had to compare to something, it would be this time last year and I feel much better about where we are now than I did at this time a year ago.”
Easy to say, but consider: This time a year ago, six current starters on defense (Mitch Unrein, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Tracy Porter, Harold Jones-Quartey) were not practicing. Jones-Quartey and Unrein were not even Bears.
This time a year ago, Jared Allen was trying to be a linebacker. Brock Vereen was a starting safety. Eddie Goldman was out of shape and barely practicing. Kevin White was busy stress-fracturing his left leg. Jordan Mills was the starting right tackle.
Yes, Fox should feel “much better.”
2. Bears D is visibly “night and day from last year”
The 2015 Bears defense went into Week 17 last season with exactly one defensive lineman (Will Sutton) who’d been with the team going into training camp. The unit finished 29th allowing third-down conversions and 30th in interception rate, among other less-than-stellar indicators.
Through this minicamp, the practice field frequently echoed with whoops from a defense that had picked off a pass or knocked a football loose. Quarterback Jay Cutler was rarely intercepted through camp last year, a sign of what was to come under coordinator Adam Gase through the regular season. This year he has not had his way with the defense.
“Just going against them from my perspective, it seems like night and day from last year,” Cutler said. “Just going against these guys, it’s a much different group, much different group. They’re faster, they’re quicker and they’ve got a confidence about them. I think Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] really doing a good job of mixing it up and showing us different looks.
“They’re going to help us out, get some short fields, get some turnovers, put some pressure on us to do our job on offense.”
3. Meshing vets adamant: “We can accomplish a lot here.”
Simply bringing a bunch of even talented veterans assures absolutely nothing (insert Daniel Snyder joke here). The Bears experienced that when in 2014 they brought in Allen, Houston and Young, then saw the defense remain at epic lows as the Bears went from 8-8 to 5-11.
This offseason the Bears brought in two starting inside linebackers (Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan) behind a massive defensive end (Akiem Hicks). On offense, Kyle Long returned to guard from tackle as the Bears signed workout-mate Bobby Massie, among other changes.
And the result of bringing together multiple players from winning programs has contributed to a palpable attitude adjustment to one that was conspicuously absent last year.
“I feel like, that you know a lot of people doubt [teammates] or some guys were hurt last year or this and that,” said Trevathan, a Super Bowl winner with Denver last season and who had his ring on display for teammates on Wednesday. “But you know, they're playing like they're hungry, with a chip on their shoulder. They're playing like they're hungry and that's what I'm used to and that's where you need to start.”
“Hungry” in June doesn’t necessarily mean wins in Fall. But a lack of hunger or shoulder-chip typically does point to looming problems, so the strong attitude the other way does count for something.
“There’s a lot of great talent here,” said Massie, a playoff veteran from the Arizona Cardinals under coach Bruce Arians. “And this team can accomplish a lot of good things. From the past team I’ve been with I see a lot of the things that we had with those past teams here. So we can accomplish a lot here.”