Bears-Lions: And the winner is…

1-2-matt-forte-bears-lions.png

Bears-Lions: And the winner is…

Coach John Fox addressed his team at a special meeting on Friday. While he wasn’t getting into details of his remarks, the general tenor was clear for the wrap-up of a season of reforming a destitute culture within one of the NFL’s marquee franchises.

“I think this is unique in that you're kind of finishing one season and beginning another year so how you finish is important,” Fox said.

The specific outcome of the Bears-Detroit Lions game Sunday has not mattered since the playoffs dealt both teams out over the past couple weeks. But it does matter in the minds of Bears coaches who’ve worked since last January to install not only different systems in all three phases, but also a different mindset around winning.

[MORE: Complete Bears-Lions coverage on CSN]

So while the stated objective of avoiding a second straight season with double-digit losses may seem both meaningless and menial, it isn’t for those invested in the process and wanting to be part of a Bears future.

It was more than coincidence that GM Ryan Pace’s first three signings in free agency were two players from winning Super Bowl teams – Pernell McPhee, Antrel Rolle – a third who’d been part of playoff teams two of his previous four seasons – Eddie Royal – and a fourth who anchored offensive lines for playoff teams two of his last three seasons – Will Montgomery.

The point has been to import building blocks with talent and character and, particularly now, to “get some good energy in the building, some wins, some confidence,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “Because I really don’t feel like that we’re that far off.”

A season on the rebound from its 0-3 start went completely off the rails with losses to lesser opponents with losing records (San Francisco, Washington). A victory over Detroit does not give the Bears a winning record. But it would end a five-game losing streak against the Lions, longest run of futility against that division rival since the six straight losses from 1968-70.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Coaches and personnel staff will be continuing an evaluation process that has been going on for nearly a year for more than a few players. But the bigger focus is on building a culture from within.

“It’s mostly about trying to stay positive,” said defensive end Willie Young, “and keeping all the young guys on the same page and doing whatever it takes to get this thing rolling again.”

And the winner is…

For all of the talk of attitude shifts, none of that really happens without wins to sustain confidence of players in themselves and in everything the coaching staff is presenting. For most of this season, that has been present as the schemes of coordinators Adam Gase, Vic Fangio and Jeff Rodgers put players generally in positions to make plays, and players not making them and pointing thumbs, not fingers.

The Lions (6-9) are a better team than they were when the scraped out an overtime win at Detroit back on Oct. 18, the first of the three times the Bears (6-9) played and failed to reach .500. The Bears? Not so sure what they’ve become.

The Bears had lost three straight before thumping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. The Lions have won their last two and five of seven since a 1-7 first half-season with the only win over the Bears. The Lions are wondering about the future of head coach Jim Caldwell; the Bears don’t have a head-coaching question but do have others about themselves and the ability to target a game and win it.

“It would be big,” said cornerback Tracy Porter. “To have that momentum going into the offseason, to finish the season out on a two-game wining streak, that would create huge momentum leading into next year.”

So who comes out of Sunday with momentum?

Moon's prediction: Bears 23, Lions 17

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

Can Leonard Floyd break out in 2017? The Bears like the early signs

The Bears believe Leonard Floyd will make the leap from being a promising rookie to a breakout second-year player, the kind who can be a centerpiece of a defense as soon as this fall.  

The Bears in 2016 totaled 37 sacks —12th in the NFL — despite dealing with a rash of injuries and not having a standout player in terms of getting to the quarterback. Willie Young led the team with 7 1/2 sacks, which tied him for 31st in the league last year, while Floyd and Akiem Hicks each had seven. 

Sixteen players recorded double-digit sacks last year. That’s not the end-all benchmark for Floyd in 2017, but for a former top-10 pick with elite skills and, as his coaches and teammate said, the right mentality, it’s not out of the question. 

“With most players, you go from your freshman year to sophomore or rookie to second year, … it slows down, they understand it, they're not thinking, they're reacting,” coach John Fox said. “And so I'd expect that and I've seen that already even in the off-season.”

Floyd, earlier this month, talked about how much more comfortable he feels after a full year of practicing and playing at the NFL level. 

“Everything was just fast when I got here last year,” Floyd said. “This year’s it’s way slower and I feel like I’m doing pretty good this year.”

There are two issues with Floyd that won’t go away until he proves they’re not problems in the regular season, though: His weight and his concussions. 

The weight issue is one Floyd has heard for a while, joking with reporters during veteran minicamp that he was surprised it wasn’t the first thing he was asked during his session with the media. He said he “definitely gained some weight” without revealing how much he’s put on, only saying he feels like he’s in much better shape now than he was as a rookie.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year,” Floyd said. 

The concessions are a far more serious — and scary — issue given it took Floyd two months to fully recover from the second concussion he suffered in 2016. 

The Bears believe Floyd’s concussion issues are correctable, though, given they were the product of poor tackling form made worse by collisions with Hicks. The crown of Floyd’s helmet was too low, so he and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio worked with tackling dummies and sled machines in an effort to fix that issue. 

The hope is that Floyd can stay healthy and marry his skills with a better knowledge of the game to put together a breakout year in 2017. His teammates sounded confident during the offseason program that everything was falling into place for the former ninth overall pick. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Hicks said. “Great energy, fast, athletic, he’s everything you want in an outside linebacker, right? Nonstop motor — I can give you all the cliche terms, but I just feel like as far as the defensive line or an outside linebacker, another year under his belt is only going to make him better.”

Added linebacker Jerrell Freeman: “That guy is going to be good for a while.” 

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.