John Fox is about to enter Year 2 with the Chicago Bears, which marks a significant step in the building process considering what it usually amounts to for his teams.
After a 7-9 season in 2001, Fox’s Panthers went 11-5 and marched all the way to the last play of the Super Bowl, where they ultimately lost to the New England Patriots.
After an 8-8 first season in 2011, Fox’s Broncos went an NFL-best 13-3 before they were upset at home by the Baltimore Ravens.
The spike in wins in both instances highlights how crucial the second year is for a coaching staff, given all the introductory stages that come in the first: Getting to know the players, building a coaching staff, installing new systems, learning new divisional opponents and fleshing out a roster to fit both a culture and a brand of football.
The examples also underscore what Fox is capable of, why he earned the trust of three organizations and has reached the Super Bowl with two different organizations. He has a brand that plays to his old-school nature. He’ll go down with it, as he did in both Carolina and Denver. But more often than not, he rides it on an upward trajectory from where he started.
It all begs the question of what this year can be for the Chicago Bears, who went 6-10 and finished last in the NFC North in Fox’s first season as head coach. After returning a number of players to health, retaining a majority of his staff and integrating a second draft after his first provided so many starters, conventional wisdom has the arrow pointing upward for this season.
Just how far they can climb will come down to how well they hide their weaknesses. They have fewer of them now that he and general manager Ryan Pace have had a second offseason to clean out a roster the last regime provided with few building-block players. Pace and Fox have transitioned the roster to a younger one with more athleticism. Against the Houston Texans on Sunday, they’ll start only one player from the first-team defense in the 2014 opener under Marc Trestman.
In less than a calendar year, the starting inside linebackers have gone from two undrafted rookies to the top two on the free-agent market in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Last year’s starting guards were solid-but-unspectacular veteran Matt Slauson and career journeyman Vlad DuCasse; now, they’re Pro Bowlers Kyle Long and Josh Sitton. These are the power positions of the offensive and defensive schemes for a team that wants to cover heavily with its inside linebackers and create downfield movement for a run-first offense.
Nonetheless, the Bears are still going to have to find ways to cover holes on the roster they haven’t addressed and in some ways helped create. On offense, they’ll hope that receivers Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White can stay healthier than they did a year ago, when they played just nine games between them (all by Jeffery). The other skill positions for Jay Cutler to work with are extraordinarily light after the organization split from Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett (traded to the New England Patriots) and Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte (signed with the New York Jets).
They’ll try it with a three-headed running game with a speed back in Jeremy Langford and power players in Jordan Howard and Ka’Deem Carey, who are all limited but can fill specific roles, which is much the approach they used last year to finish fifth in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). They’ll make the focus instead an offensive line that just earned a much-needed boost in the last-minute signing of Sitton, considering injuries have taken their toll on the interior this spring. They’ll hope it all amounts to what last year did with alleviated pressure off a more efficient quarterback in Jay Cutler, while trusting Jeffery and White to stay more healthy to create a little more of a vertical approach.
On defense, they’re going to bank on the fact that a front seven that can dial up pressure without blitzing can cover up a secondary that is more or less limping into the opener. Chicago did little to improve the back end after a 23rd finish in defensive pass DVOA, instead trying to fix the positions it puts its defensive backs in. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has long operated under the belief that teams only throw when they cannot run, which also helps explain the capital spent on the inside linebackers as well as the defensive line, which features an exciting free-agent signing in Akiem Hicks and a third-round pick in Jonathan Bullard out of Florida.
When teams do go to throw, they hope the third-down distances are longer, playing into the hands of an improved pass rush. Outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston ended last year hot with a combined 12.5 sacks over the final nine games. First-round pick Leonard Floyd brings the length and athleticism to factor in on obvious pass sets as well.
There’s no saying it’ll all work because the NFL is a mismatch league where teams are getting more and more creative at game planning to exploit a weakness on the other side. Injuries can unravel the best of organizational plans, which played into why last year’s team only went 6-10 in the first place.
But perhaps the biggest constant in the last two times a Fox team has taken a giant leap in the second year is the play the defensive-minded coach got out of his quarterback. Jake Delhomme was no star for the 2003 Panthers, but he was a significant step up from the 36-year-old Rodney Peete they trusted the year before. The Broncos went from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning.
These Bears are sticking with Cutler, but the version they get could decide plenty. Last year’s edition played a smarter and more efficient game, utilizing his underrated mobility to elude pressure and allow limited receivers to break open. It was a surprising step for a player who used to frustrate coaches with some of his mistakes under pressure. It came in his first season under Adam Gase, who worked similar wonders with Tebow and Manning for Fox’s teams in Denver.
After Gase took the head job with the Miami Dolphins this offseason, Fox promoted his quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains in an effort to try to preserve the Cutler he had last season. Given his quarterback’s up-and-down past, he’s in many ways playing with fire.
And it’ll decide whether this club has a Year 2 jump like he’s grown to expect.