For Bears, Super Bowl teams provide templates for multiple franchise quarterback decisions

For Bears, Super Bowl teams provide templates for multiple franchise quarterback decisions

The tagline for the Bears going into the 2017 offseason has been evident for some time, ever since Jay Cutler made it painfully clear with his injuries and performances that he is not the quarterback answer for the Bears. The natural storyline became: “The Bears have to get a quarterback.”

That’s not exactly right. In point of fact, the line confronting GM Ryan Pace and staff, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is more specific than that.

The Bears have to get THE quarterback.

The reason for the refinement to the mandate is right there in Super Bowl LI. Reasons, plural, actually.

It is beyond obvious that the quarterback situation involves several layers, with increasing levels of importance. First is the decision on Cutler, which, as Fox and coaches everywhere hold to, is a decision the player makes himself. Cutler has.

After that is the “bridge” quarterback decision, which may have been between Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer at one time, but, again, Barkley made that decision for the Bears. Camp competition with Connor Shaw, maybe, but anything beyond that will be a surprise.

After that it becomes more interesting, which is where the object lessons provided by the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots come in.

The Bears hold the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. That was the slot the Falcons owned in 2008 when Matt Ryan was in the draft pool. Selecting Ryan was not a terribly difficult call for the Falcons, since the Boston College standout graded out as worthy of the spot. (Then again, so did Blake Bortles in 2014, Joey Harrington in 2002, Akili Smith in 1999, Heath Shuler in 1994, and… you get the idea).

The 2008 draft also included Joe Flacco, who the Baltimore Ravens took at No. 18, which actually netted the Ravens a Super Bowl and playoff success faster than Ryan has gotten the Falcons.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

But that draft also featured Chad Henne and Brian Brohm, who both went in the second round, the only quarterbacks taken before Kevin O’Connell went late in the third to the Patriots.

Point being: The No. 3 pick is where true elites live — Joe Thomas, Gerald McCoy, Larry Fitzgerald, Cortez Kennedy. The temptation may be to take best-available, always a sound, reasonable philosophy, and get a quarterback in the second round. Except that it didn’t work for the Miami Dolphins (Henne) or Green Bay Packers (Brohm).

No, it has to be THE quarterback, and if Deshaun Watson has a Russell Wilson (third round) or Flacco (mid-first) grade on him, and he is THE quarterback, should be an easy decision.

Which then turns to the final decision in the process. The “When.”

The Patriots had Drew Bledsoe in place when they drafted Tom Brady in 2000, and Bledsoe was still in place to start 2001. Then he suffered a serious chest injury in game two, whereupon the Brady legend commenced.

But there was a fork in the road, and Bill Belichick took the right fork, for the organization and history.

I was covering the Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Championship game in 2001 when Brady was injured and Bledsoe came off the bench to get the Patriots through the Steelers and into the Super Bowl.

During Super Bowl week, THE question was whether Belichick would stay with Bledsoe, who’d been given a 10-year, $103-million contract just the previous March. Belichick matter-of-factly announced that Brady was his quarterback. Period. Bledsoe, who’d gotten the Patriots to the 1996 Super Bowl, was done in New England after that, playing five more years between Buffalo and Dallas.

But the final piece was the decision to go Brady, which just as easily could’ve gone back to Bledsoe, who’d just played well in the AFC Championship game. Just as it was this season with the Dallas Cowboys to stay with Dak Prescott over owner-favorite Tony Romo.

At some point, assuming it falls something like this, Fox and the Bears will need to make a choice between Hoyer (hopefully not involving any injury situation) and “The Kid.” That decision projects to be the pivotal last call in a decision process that the Bears can only hope turns out as well as that one did for the Patriots.

Difficult to find common thread in departures of multiple Bears assistant coaches

Difficult to find common thread in departures of multiple Bears assistant coaches

NFL rosters undergo upheavals and turnover on an annual basis. NFL coaching staffs undergo their own changes, obviously when a fire-hire happens at the head-coach level, but also in some surprising situations – in this case, the Bears.

The Bears have seen five assistant coaches exit John Fox's staff since the end of the disastrous 3-13 season, the latest being wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson this week, as first reported by the Chicago Tribune. This follows departures of the team's running backs, outside linebackers, assistant DB's and offensive line staffers.

A 3-13 season creates different types of internal goings-on. But while once the hot topics were whether Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would return for a year three, those two have remained in place while others under them have split.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

If there is a common thread through it all, that thread is difficult to find. "Jumping ship" may be the convenient thought but not the accurate one, since O-line coach Dave Magazu and safeties coach Sam Garnes were not tendered contract extensions. And Stan Drayton wants to become a college head coach, so left the Bears to become associate head coach and run-game coordinator for the University of Texas.

Johnson, who was widely praised for his developmental work with Cam Meredith and Kevin White, had signed just a one-year contract with the Bears in what appeared to be a step to get back into the NFL from a disappointing stint as a college head coach (Tulane). Assistants typically sign two-year contracts but Johnson left himself an out to explore other options in the NFL.

The situation does raise questions of continuity as Fox heads into a pivotal third year after consecutive losing seasons for the first time in his career. What it really does, however, is keep the personnel work under GM Ryan Pace at a premium: Because of what they had in place player-wise, the Bears lost defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan after the 1985 season, replaced him with Vince Tobin and a different mindset, and proceeded to set the NFL record for fewest points allowed.

Bears Mobile-ize efforts to identify, acquire players via draft

Bears Mobile-ize efforts to identify, acquire players via draft

Back from a week in Alabama that should help them identify Day Two and Three draft candidates three months from now (yes…it's still three months away!), Ryan Pace and John Fox's coaching staff now start ping-ponging back and forth for several weeks in targeting potential draft and free agent acquisitions. 

While the new members of their coaching staff settle in, with Jeremiah Washburn, Curtis Modkins and Roy Anderson bunkering down into the film room, going over every snap this season of the offensive linemen, running backs, and safeties they respectively inherit, brainstorming has likely begun as well about ways to keep the players they have healthier. Thirty-three of them landed on injured reserve in this regime's first two seasons.

But last week's exposure as the North coaches in the Senior Bowl has gotten the staff a getting-to-know-you head start on the crop of collegiate talent available. While unfortunately, I wasn't there to watch in person, my football-nerdism found me watching every hour of NFL Network's coverage of the three days of televised practices, and finally, Saturday's game, won by the South, 16-15.

I'm not sure one can draw a straight line between the fact Vic Fangio's defense in Mobile collected five takeaways, when his professional version this past season totaled a franchise-low 11 in 16 games. But it leads me to wonder just how much it was pounded into the players' mindset any more than he's done with the Bears these first two years (just 17 turnovers in 2015). When the cameras took us into the locker room at halftime, we heard Fox stressing takeaways when they already had three of them. I'm not sure Fox, Fangio, or anyone else will admit to putting any greater emphasis on it going into this year than they previously have, but the results were certainly there Saturday afternoon. Perhaps those players simply have "noses for the ball." But my Pre and Postgame analysts, Lance Briggs and Alex Brown (who played on those Turnover Party defenses under Lovie Smith) have sworn repeatedly it's an attitude and mindset way more than a knack for picks, punches, and recoveries.

[RELATED: Bears depending on Ryan Pace for major hit at quarterback]

One of their safeties, Lorenzo Jerome of St. Francis (PA), had two interceptions and a forced fumble that was recovered by the offense. Another safety, the freakish (6'4, 219) Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut, impressed in practice all week and flashed a couple of times in the game. Depending on how he couples that with what he does at the Scouting Combine, he may have moved himself into the first round, which would be bad for the Bears. Cornerback Rasul Douglas (6’2) of West Virginia impressed all week with his ball skills and aggressiveness at the line.

None of the quarterbacks appeared to become a revelation in the game more than the expectation level heading into the week. While Pitt’s Nate Peterman may have been most impressive of the group in practice, it was not a good game at all for the two-year starter. He seemed rattled into bad decisions and throws (thought to be a strength) and the arm strength didn't show, either. Even the MVP, the South's Davis Webb (11-of-16, 165 yards, TD) seemed just OK in these eyes. The one-year starter at Cal (succeeding Jared Goff) averaged 52 passes per game last season, but just moved under center for the first time ever this week. He became the most promising prospect, but a lot of work is needed, and who knows if he ever grows into a starter in the NFL?

Fox and position coach Curtis Johnson had the two best receivers on their side, in East Carolina's Zay Jones and Eastern Washington's Connor Kupp. Jones (6'2) ascended all week, and while he had six catches Saturday, the two ruled incomplete were the biggest eye-openers.  But he may be an even better bet to have moved into the first round than the aforementioned Melifonwu. Kupp (also 6'2) averaged 107 catches and over 1,600 yards over his four seasons, remained productive versus FBS opponents and knows how to return kicks (three punt return TD's in his career).

The biggest star of the week was Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, not rich enough for the Bears' number-three pick, yet not likely to last past the midpoint of the first round. But it's a deep tight end class where the Bears could help themselves on Day Two.

Still, there are still so many areas where the Bears need help and only so many picks to address them with. It's about getting it right, and while Pace may relish the pressure, I'm not sure anyone in their right mind wants to be in his shoes to fix this quarterback quandary. There's still time to sort through some of these unknowns, and which path to take, from the Combine, interviews, and Pro Days. But just think: the Jaguars' staff had Jimmy Garappolo and Derek Carr on their Senior Bowl team in 2014 and chose Blake Bortles anyway. What to do with, and about, Alshon Jeffery (and potentially replacing him) lingers for now, but becomes clearer in a month. The Bears got clearer answers and a jump-start on a bunch of college talent this past week, but there’s still so much digging, decision-making, and trigger-pulling that remains.

Key Upcoming Offseason Dates:

Feb. 15: First day for clubs to designate Franchise or Transition tag players

Feb. 28 - March 6: Scouting Combine (Indianapolis)

March 1: 3 p.m. deadline for clubs to designate Franchise or Transtion tag players

March 7-9: 48-hour window begins at 3 p.m. (CT) on the 7th to negotiate with agents for unrestricted free agents

March 9: 2017 league season begins at 3 p.m. (CT) and teams can begin signing unrestricted free agents

April 17: Offseason workouts begin for teams with returning head coaches

April 27-29: NFL Draft (Philadelphia)