Make the Right Call  

 

John Fox, Ryan Pace headline culture change for Chicago Bears

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When the Chicago Bears hired Ryan Pace as general manager back in early January, it seemed like all anyone could do was feel old. The guy looks younger than ... well ... you, and in an odd tribute to Chicago lore, he resembles Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Elliot Harrison examines some of the busiest NFL teams this offseason and attempts to answer whether the moves they've made will pay off in the 2015 campaign.

I don't know if he can pose as a parental figure and get you out of class, but it sure looks like he can change the culture of a football team pretty quickly. Team chairman George McCaskey said the hiring of John Fox had Pace's hands all over it, and most league observers feel the Fox-Bears marriage is a good fit.

But before we get to the import of the Fox hire, the question must be posed: Did the Bears make the right call with Ryan Pace? Well, in order to answer that, we will endeavor to give at least an off-the-cuff evaluation of the young GM's moves thus far. After all, that's what this "Did they make the right call?" series is all about. And in the Bears' case, there is much to look into ...

A Fox among the sheep

Of the coaches on the market at the time, was John Fox the best for this organization? Obviously, it's impossible to tell whether or not this is the guy to turn around the last-place Bears before we start playing games. Yet, I think he is. Fox has proven he can work with different personalities in the front office as well as at quarterback.

Fox has gone from working under a Hall-of-Fame-player-turned-franchise-head in John Elway to working under a relative newbie in Ryan Pace. But this is a coach who has seen it all. Over the past couple of decades, he's been a highly successful defensive coordinator for a conservative, old-school organization (Giants), a young head coach for a still-in-its-youth squad (Panthers) and the leading man of a proud organization with legit title aspirations (Broncos). Operating under an inexperienced GM -- although "inexperienced" might not be the best descriptor, as Pace did previously put in 14 seasons of work in the Saints' front office -- shouldn't require much more than a mild tweak on Fox's part.

Quarterback quandary

Fox has plenty of experience with different types of quarterbacks, as well. As a head coach, his teams have won with Jake Delhomme, Tebowmania and Peyton Manning. Of course, now he inherits the much-derided Jay Cutler.

Fox and Pace's handling of the quarterback position certainly will go a long way toward determining the future of this franchise. You can deduct points for not being able to bring back Josh McCown; more than a few fans I know wouldn't have minded seeing that happen. But then, if the intent is to provide the best possible environment for the success of the 126 Million Dollar Man, perhaps re-acquiring the guy who outplayed Cutler in 2013 wouldn't have been the smartest idea.

That said, Pace gave a half-hearted endorsement of the mercurial signal-caller last month: "We're moving forward with Jay as our starting quarterback." And Fox himself said there would be an "open competition" at the position. Could the new regime add a new face early in the 2015 NFL Draft? Definitely wouldn't shock me.

Scheme shift

I sat in line at the airport trying to think of the last time the Bears ran a 3-4 ... Know what? They never have. The 34 defense started getting some run with Bum Phillips' Oilers and Hank Bullough's Patriots in the mid-'70s. Red Miller's "Orange Crush" Broncos rode the relatively new scheme to a berth in Super Bowl XII. And around that time, Buddy Ryan was tweaking his 4-3 as defensive coordinator in Chicago, ultimately coming up with the "46."

When Ryan left Chicago in 1986, Vince Tobin stuck with the four-man front. And when Dave Wannstedt took over for Mike Ditka as head coach in 1993, he brought his version of the 4-3 to the Windy City.

Thus, the shift to a 3-4 signals a significant structural change for one of the NFL's oldest teams. Pace and Fox hired Vic Fangio, who was a veritable sage of the 3-4 in San Francisco. Given the spectacular success enjoyed by the 49ers' defense under Fangio's watch, things are looking up for a unit that needed a major change after finishing 30th in each of the past two seasons. Now the Bears just have to sort out the relevant parts.

Roster reconstruction: Most notable moves

In order to get to a 3-4 base, Pace and the coaching staff had to make some moves. That started with moving Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston to OLB. And in reviewing the offseason activity that's occurred so far, you can see a strong emphasis on the defensive side of the ball in free agency:

Re-signed

Jimmy Clausen: Depth. Get excited.

Signed

Vladimir Ducasse: More depth on the offensive line.

Mason Foster: I'm surprised Bucs coach Lovie Smith moved on from Foster in Tampa Bay. Having just turned 26 last month, Foster still has upside. And if he can stay healthy, he could make a viable ILB in the 3-4.

Jarvis Jenkins: Jenkins will play DE in the 3-4, but honestly, I would have tried to just keep Stephen Paea instead, even at a way higher price.

Ray McDonald: McDonald has some off-the-field question marks tailing him, but he was a solid presence on the field in San Francisco.

Pernell McPhee: Very good signing. Play him on a pitch count -- which the Bears can do with Allen, Willie Young and a host of other pass rushers -- and he will create pressure.

Antrel Rolle: Another signing worth liking (... or loving). Rolle might not be the player he once was, but he is certainly better than what the Bears had at safety in recent years. The seasoned vet fills a leadership void, as well.

Eddie Royal: He can't replace Brandon Marshall, of course, but Royal is coming off a nice season (778 yards receiving, seven TDs) with the Chargers and will be a solid safety valve on third-and-medium. He can contribute on special teams, too.

Traded

Brandon Marshall: Dealing away one of the best wide receivers of the last decade and a seventh-round pick in exchange for a fifth-rounder? Not a fan. Sure, Chicago unloaded Marshall's contract and the distractions he can bring, but ultimately, I think the new regime will dearly miss the steady production of a guy who's averaged nearly 1,200 yards receiving over the last eight seasons. Personally, I don't think someone flying to New York to tape a TV show on an off day is the worst thing in the world. So the guy gets ticked off when the team doesn't play hard? Not a distraction that merits getting unloaded, at least not to me. If he and Cutler were suddenly having trouble working together and the team decided to roll with the controversial quarterback, then OK. And, in theory, some of the money saved went to signing defensive talent.

Departed

Stephen Paea: The defensive tackle's defection to the Washington Redskins wasn't exactly front-page news. Still, it would have been better for the Bears had he stayed. Paea outplayed just about everybody on Chicago's defense in 2014. He has the versatility to play inside in a 4-3 (which is what he did for the Bears) or outside in the 3-4 (which is what he will be doing for the Redskins). Letting him go when you don't have enough quality players at DE isn't wonderful. On the other hand, 2014 was a contract year for Paea, and giving a guy who's had one good year $15 million guaranteed -- which is what Washington did -- seems a bit suspect.

Have the Bears made the right calls?

Overall, yes.

In the NFC North, where the Packers' high-powered offense remains intact, the Lions' offense likely will get better (with Eric Ebron in Year 2 of his NFL career and everyone in Year 2 of coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense) and the upstart Vikings are looking friskier by the day (especially if Adrian Peterson stays in Minnesota), Chicago had to improve its defense. Pace did that.

Most importantly, the overall culture around this team changed for the better with the introduction of an inspiring, Fox-led coaching staff. Let's face it: Watching Marc Trestman on the sideline at the end of last year, you were more fired up about getting a jump-start on Turbo Tax than watching this team play football. No more.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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