Kalyn Kahler reports on from Bears camp, where new coach John Fox is under immense pressure yet appears happier than ever
Site: Olivet Nazarene University campus, Bourbonnais, Ill.—or as the locals say, Bearbonnais.
What I saw: A morning practice, the Bears seventh day at camp. Ed Hochuli and several NFL officials visited practice as they do each year to explain rules changes.
Three things you need to know about the Bears:
1.This season is Jay Cutler’s last stand.General manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox inherited Cutler. Pace comes to Chicago from New Orleans, where his quarterback was Drew Brees; Fox, from Denver, where he had Peyton Manning. Fox and Pace aren’t sure if Cutler is the answer, but they do know that it takes a quarterback to win it all, and without Cutler the Bears don’t have a chance. As of Thursday’s practice, Cutler had yet to throw a pick. It’s a small detail that's no real indication of how he’ll play this season, but it’s certainly not a negative. The key for Cutler's is to limit interceptions (over the past six seasons in Chicago he has thrown 129 touchdowns and 93 picks). Maybe Cutler just needs a reliable option, a go-to safety valve for worst-case scenarios—a guy like Eddie Royal. Cutler targeted his old Denver teammate Royal several times the practice I saw, including a long touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone and a 10-yard pass that Royal slid to catch when the throw wasn’t quite on the mark. It’s easy to see that the two have good chemistry from their 2008 season together in Denver, when Royal caught 91 Cutler passes for 980 yards and five touchdowns.
2. Does John Fox have another playoff run in him? Chicago is Fox’s third head coaching stint. His track record in taking dysfunctional teams and turning them into Super Bowl contenders is impressive. In Carolina, Fox took a 1-15 Panthers team to a Super Bowl just two seasons later, and in Denver, he took at 4-12 team to a Super Bowl just three seasons later. But Fox has never won the big game. After practice, Peter King observed that Fox was as happy as he’s ever seen him in his career. The energy at practice was palpable, but the reality is, Fox faces his biggest task yet.
One last Bear point: John Fox is a happy, peppy guy normally. Today, he was as up/happy as I’ve ever seen him. Change good for him+Pace.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 6, 2015
3. Can the Bears revive the Monsters of the Midway identity? Chicago surrendered 920 points in the last two seasons, dead-last in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's goal is to transform a team battling a severe identity crisis. Fangio's solution? Install a 3-4 defense. With San Francisco, Fangio’s defenses consistently ranked in the top 10, and last season the Niners ranked No. 5 in yardage even while missing Pro Bowlers Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis for much of the season. It remains to be seen if the Bears have the right personnel to fit Fangio’s scheme; the roster is stacked with defensive ends and lacks a hybrid linebacker—after 12 years as a defensive end, Jared Allen is learning to play outside linebacker. The Bears did land an important free-agent signing in Pernell McPhee, a situational pass rusher for Baltimore last season. McPhee had 7.5 sacks last year in mostly passing situations. He’ll need to take a more prominent role in Fangio’s scheme in Chicago and improve against the run. The success of this defense relies on whether players like Allen and McPhee can play well in their new roles.
What will determine success or failure for the Bears in 2015… A return to the Monsters of the Midway of lore. Under Lovie Smith in 2012, the Bears had a +20 turnover margin, second behind New England. Last season the team was –5, 22nd in the league. “It’s no surprise if anyone picks us last because the way we played last year wasn’t good,” inside linebacker Shea McClellin said. Fox and Gase have a tough task trying to achieve a breakthrough with a quarterback who has a "coach-killer" reputation, so it’s on the defense to give this team a fighting chance.
Player I saw and really liked: Shea McClellin, linebacker. McClellin was a first-round pick in 2012 who never lived up to his first-round billin during his first three seasons for the Bears as a defensive end and outside linebacker. Under Fangio’s 3-4, McClellin has moved to inside linebacker, and he looks like an entirely different player. He had one of the best plays I saw in Thursday practice, hitting running back Jeremy Langford for a loss during a live-tackling goal-line drill. McClellin has established himself at inside linebacker with the first team. “I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable,” McClellin said, looking back on previous seasons. “My mentality wasn’t right. This year, I have nothing to lose so i am just trying to go out there and let it loose every time I am out there.”
Five dot-to-dot observations… The Bears O-line sorely missed left guard Matt Slauson last season. Slauson missed 11 games from a sprained ankle and a torn pectoral muscle. In his absence, the O-line started nine different combinations and allowed 41 sacks. Right guard Kyle Long is thrilled to have Slauson back healthy, “I can’t even put it into words what Matt Slauson does to this offense,” Long said. “He is the undoubted leader of this offense.” … I was disappointed to miss first-round pick Kevin White in action. The rookie receiver has been sidelined all of training camp with shin splints and is expected to start jogging Monday. … With Fox and Gase coming from Denver, Bears fans at camp were curious to know, will they hear Cutler calling out Peyton Manning’s signature ‘Omaha! Omaha!’ in the snap count this season? I didn’t hear it any Omaha grunts at practice, but Kyle Long had a suggestion of his own for Cutler’s snap count, “I’m not really sure in terms of the marketing strategies there with the ‘Omaha.’ I would throw in like a ‘McDonald’s! McDonald’s!’ ” … The best part of practice was a live-tackling goal-line session. The first-string defense prevailed and kept the first-string offense out of the end zone, but when the reserves took the field, it was a different story. On third down, running back Daniel Thomas fought his way past cornerback Demontre Hurst and hurtled into the endzone. … As usual, Walter Payton jerseys outnumbered the current Bears jerseys in the crowd. Payton’s son, Jarrett, was among the media covering practice. Taking in the scene he said, “I feel my dad everywhere.”
Player I forgot was on the roster: Will Montgomery, center. Montgomery followed Fox and Gase from Denver to Chicago, replacing long-time center Roberto Garza, who was released in April after 10 seasons. Montgomery is a veteran himself, with 10 years of experience, and is well-versed in Gase’s offense. “Montgomery has done a tremendous job with this offense," Long said, "to be able to relay the subtle nuances and changes from last year to this year.”
Thing I’ll remember most about Bourbonnais: On my walk back from the cafeteria to the media workroom on the small, quiet campus of Olivet Nazarene, I spotted Martellus Bennett reclining underneath a tree. He was completely alone and had his legs stretched out, a small book rested in his lap. The 6-6 tight end was busy with his own thoughts, calmly sketching and writing in his notebook—a sight unlike any I’ve seen on this training camp tour. It’s widely known that Bennett is a "visionary architect" off the field—he writes short stories and produces animated short films. I walked over and asked him what he was doing, and he casually replied, “Writing my next short story.” Ladies and Gentleman, Martellus Bennett, the most interesting man in the league.
Gut feeling as I left camp: The defense improves under Fangio’s 3-4 but Cutler continues to throws too many costly interceptions in the red zone. This team finishes 7-9 and disgusted Bears fans turn attention to the defending Stanley Cup champs.