With the Chicago Bears halfway through their 2015 season, Jay Rigdon (@JayRigdon5), Matt Eurich (@MattEurich), and I decided to do a roundtable assessing the Bears' first half of the season, as well as look ahead to the second half and offseason.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments or hit us up on Twitter.
1. All things considered, should this be viewed as a successful first eight games for the 2015 Chicago Bears?
Clapp: The coaches and players would tell you a 3-5 record is unacceptable, but the rest of us can be real about where this team is at talent wise, and what the expectations should be. Coming into the season, most of us realistically saw a four-to-six win team. That was also before knowing the offensive line would be an injury mess, Alshon Jeffery would miss four games, Eddie Royal would miss multiple games, Matt Forte would miss time, etc.
That they've had all of those things happen and still managed to go 3-5 -- while also having a defense greatly lacking talent -- is pretty impressive. The main thing we (again, realistically) wanted to see this season was the team making strides under a new coaching staff, and have some potential long term pieces emerge. I think we're seeing that.
Eurich: In terms of wins and losses, Chicago is obviously not where it wants to be, but the team has done a good job of staying in almost every game this season. The Bears simply got blown out too often during the Emery/Trestman era.
Rigdon: All things considered (which reminds me that there's nothing worse than NPR covering sports) I'd say no. It hasn't been a disaster, despite a roster caught in the midst of a rebuild and a rash of injuries, and they've managed to start 3-5. In a vacuum, that doesn't sound so bad. But that Vikings loss is a bad one, as was the Lions game. Maybe my standards are too high, but in a soft NFC, those are badly missed opportunities, regardless of circumstance.
2. What grade would you give the new coaching staff so far, and what area has there been a noticeable difference compared to last year's Bears?
The effort is noticeably different from last year's team, and the players have clearly bought into John Fox and his staff.
Offensively, Adam Gase has done a tremendous job with Jay Cutler, and Vic Fangio has the defense playing about as well as they can given the (lack of) talent level there. The special teams play has bad, though. And while the pluses of John Fox have definitely outweighed the minuses, he's had some very questionable in-game decisions (something he's always been criticzed for).
Overall it's been very good and it looks like Ryan Pace made the right hire with Fox. This team needed a voice they took seriously, and Gase/Fangio make one of the better OC/DC duos in the league.
Eurich: I would give the coaching staff a B overall.
Offensively, Adam Gase's play-calling has been terrific. He has done a great job of designing an offense that fits Jay Cutler's skill set, and he has put an emphasis on the running game.
Vic Fangio has very little to work with defensively, but the unit has done a nice job considering how many players they have that do not fit this defense. The passing defense has held opposing quarterbacks to just 220.2 passing yards per game, but it has allowed 17 passing touchdowns. The defense isn't perfect, but it is showing signs of progress.
Rigdon: Overall, I'd give the coaching staff a B+.
Offensively, there's no denying that Adam Gase has connected with Jay Cutler; turns out all it took was an offensive coordinator both talented and tied in to the modern NFL.
Vic Fangio has cobbled together a surprisingly competent defensive unit from spare parts, young players, and wishing.
John Fox has been a welcome breath of emotion on the sideline; I think I've seen more energy from him in half a season than I saw from all of Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman's years combined.
That said, I'm always going to struggle with his game and clock management, which was likely directly responsible for at least one of those two unfortunate losses. And about the special teams, the less said the better.
3. Would the 2015 Bears be 3-5 with last year's coaching staff?
Clapp: You can't say for sure, but I think last year's staff would have this team at no more than two wins, if any. The Bears are more or less maxing out their talent level right now. The same can most definitely not be said for last year, where the effort was lacking, the team had clearly tuned out some of the staff, and the locker room environment was toxic (that's why Brandon Marshall is gone).
Last year's team looked like they flat-out didn't care much of the time. This year's team is constantly competing, and they certainly look better coached on both sides of the ball. I mean, just look at Jay Cutler. He was benched for Jimmy Clausen late in the 2014 season, and is now playing outstanding football in his first eight games under the John Fox, Adam Gase staff.
Eurich: It is hard to imagine this team, with its blatant lack of talent on both sides of the ball, being anywhere near as competitive under Trestman like they have been under John Fox this season. Many players have spoken on record this season about how much different this coaching staff is compared to the previous regime.
Rigdon: No. No way. Based on what we saw last year from that staff, Marc Trestman have gone with Jimmy Clausen as the starter, Aaron Kromer would have hit Kyle Long with a beach chair, and Mel Tucker would have been Mel Tucker, which is perhaps the greatest crime of all.
4. Has Jay Cutler perhaps changed the Bears' post-2015 plans at quarterback with his play?
Clapp: I think there's a very good chance he has. There were whispers all offseason that he wasn't Ryan Pace's preferred option, and he seemed to only be regressing last year under Trestman. But oh what a difference new coaching can make, and no one has ever doubted Cutler's ability; it's top notch.
Jay looks like a different, smarter quarterback under Gase and company. His decision-making is better, he's made some mechanical adjustments (like with his feet out of the shotgun)... he just looks really comfortable and sharper than ever. In every game Cutler has played, the Bears have had a chance to win the game. This is also with a great talent in Brandon Marshall gone, with Jeffery and Royal missing plenty of time, the offensive line shaking up and having several injuries, etc.
Cutler is a better option than anyone that will be available via free agency or trade, and it doesn't appear there is an absolute stud at the top of the draft this year. Before the season I would've predicted the Bears would move on from Cutler this upcoming offseason, but now I'd say the opposite.
Eurich: I pegged Cutler as having a 50-50 chance of returning next year before this season started, but I would be very surprised if he is not the team's starting quarterback in Week 1 next season. His decision-making has improved, he has showed better mechanics in the pocket and he looks very comfortable in Gase's scheme.
With that said, I still think the team will look to add a young quarterback in the draft, but this is Cutler's team for the foreseeable future.
Rigdon: I would certainly hope so. Given the spate of trade rumors around the draft, I think it's safe to say that the Bears were not sold on Cutler, but given the unfairly negative reputation he has around the league, that's no surprise.
But look at the state of NFL quarterback play. Cutler has been a solidly top-12 quarterback. Given his contract going forward, it's actually entering the phase that most benefits the team, and he still has very rare physical talents that are finally being unlocked and harnessed by the partnership with Gase.
If the Bears are looking to contend next year (and in the NFL, regimes generally aren't allowed the luxury of long, multi-year rebuilds) I still think the best path to that is retaining Cutler.
5. Is the move to right tackle looking like a good one for Kyle Long and the Bears, or should they have just left him at right guard where he was already excelling?
Clapp: Even being well aware of the higher value of an offensive tackle vs an offensive guard, I was still hesitant about this move as there was no guarantee he'd be great there. And we knew he was a great guard. But Long is definitely making strides and looking like he can very much be a very good to great right tackle. I think the Bears made the right move, and it's much easier to find quality starting guards in the league than it is to find quality starting tackles.
Eurich: I like the move a lot. Long was arguably a top-5 guard, but I think he has far more value on the outside at tackle. He struggled in Week 1 against Julius Peppers, but he has been pretty solid all season long at his new position. I still think he is better suited to play left tackle in the future because of his athleticism, so moving him to right tackle is a step in the right direction.
Rigdon: This was a move made for the long-term, and I think Kyle Long can be an above-average right tackle, and perhaps a great one. I think that outweighs even a great right guard.
We're still just seeing the potential, as he's been forced to learn on the fly. That's the one element of the move that never made sense to me; what were they gaining by waiting until the regular season to move him over? I think his transition may have been eased by moving him into the role earlier in the offseason.
6. What player has been the biggest disappointment to you so far?
Clapp: For me it has to be Kyle Fuller as I really believed he was a core piece and would make a jump this year after an inconsistent rookie season. But he's only gone backwards.
There have been some impactful plays and the flashes are still there, but there is far too much bad play mixed in as well. Everyone knows his talent is there; the guy was a first-round pick one year ago. It seems to be a confidence problem as much as anything, so hopefully a good game or two could get Fuller going in the right direction.
Eurich: Kyle Fuller seems like an obvious choice here, but I am going to go with Christian Jones. Not to say that Jones has been a train wreck at inside linebacker, but I was expecting more from him. I thought he would really stand out in Fangio's defense because of his ability to blitz the quarterback and his athleticism. He appears to be thinking too much when on the field, resulting in him being a half step or so behind against the run.
The coaching staff appears to be very high on Jonathan Anderson, and that could spell the end for Jones as a starter once Shea McClellin returns.
Rigdon: Kyle Fuller has shown a few flashes of tackling ability of late, but my goodness is he a shadow of what he appeared to be at the start of last season. He looks a long way from a shutdown corner, and in fact the veteran Tracy Porter has looked the superior player by far.
7. What player has been the biggest surprise to you so far?
Clapp: Adrian Amos. This dude attacks the football but in a very disciplined manner for a fifth-round rookie. He hits hard, plays the run well, and seems to be around the football constantly.
All of that sounds like a description for the last young safety the Bears had to be excited about, Mike Brown. Now, not saying Amos is going to be nearly as good as Brown was in his heyday, but he looks like a very good player and a long term piece for the Bears' derfense.
Eurich: What Adrian Amos has done in the first eight games of this season may go unnoticed by many around the NFL, but fans in Chicago should appreciate just how steady he has been this season. He has yet to make much of an impact against the pass, but he has been a pleasant surprise against the run. I think he has chance to be an above average starter in Chicago's for years to come.
Rigdon: Adrian Amos has been the sort of hard-hitting, run support safety the Bears haven't had since, I don't know, Mike Brown? Maybe Danieal Manning? And he's not been exposed in the passing game, at least not to the point of notice. He's been a big key to the Bears defense surging to borderline respectability.
8. What player do you think could surprise, or make a much bigger impact, in the second half of the season?
Clapp: I'm going to go with a guy that has just been banged-up almost the entire season, Eddie Royal. This is a polished, solid all-around receiver that had 62 receptions last year for the Chargers, and 15 total touchdowns over 2013-2014 for the Chargers. He also has a history with Cutler of course, with 91 catches with Jay and the Broncos in 2008.
Obviously we have no idea if Royal can stay healthy the rest of the way, but if he can, he will add a dynamic weapon to the Bears' offense and give Cutler a reliable option out of the slot.
Eurich: I think Jonathan Anderson has a chance to be an impact player for the Bears in the second half. He's been taking reps away from Jones, and while he plays a little out of control at times, he's been a very active tackler. He showed against Detroit he has good hands, and he also has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback.
Rigdon: I think Jeremy Langford is going to be a popular answer, so I'll highlight Tracy Porter's steady, veteran play at corner. Porter is my favorite kind of undervalued NFL asset: former Indiana University standouts. He's brought a sense of awareness and intelligence that has helped the pass defense immensely.
9. Keeping in mind the roster they have to work with, what area of the game do the Bears have the most room for improvement in 2015?
Clapp: Special teams. This has been a very disappointing unit (again), and this is a phase of the game where it's harder to excuse a roster's overall talent. But in the talent department, they need to try someone else at returner over Marc Mariani. Really, the special teams play has nowhere to go but up. Heck, even Robbie Gould missed two field goals on Monday.
Eurich: Considering the pieces they have at outside linebacker, the Bears should be able to do a better job of getting after the quarterback in the second half. Pernell McPhee has been terrific, but neither Willie Young nor Lamarr Houston have shown a lot of consistency this season. Young and Houston both flashed against San Diego, and I think they are still working themselves back from their injuries. If they can continue to show progress in the coming weeks, I think the pass rush could end up being a surprise in the second half.
Rigdon: I think that given the roster, and performance so far, the Bears have the most room to improve on special teams. That's a boring answer, but kick coverage has been quite poor, the return game nonthreatening. I think the main issue is that the lack of roster depth shows up on special teams, and until the roster is healthier as a whole, the Bears are going to continue to struggle to replicate the halcyon days of Toub and Hester.
10. At the moment, what would you consider the Bears' biggest positional need to address in the offseason?
Clapp: Really anywhere on the defense needs to be addressed, as Pernell McPhee and Adrian Amos seem like the only two pieces to feel good about going forward. You could arguably add in Eddie Goldman, but the bottom line is there is talent that needs to be added at all levels of the defense.
But adding another pass rusher opposite McPhee, along with a legitimate starting cornerback would be near the top of the list. Obviously it would help if Fuller could figure it out and make the cornerback situation look better.
Eurich: Even though the Bears have McPhee, Young and Houston, they still need a young edge-rusher who can get after the quarterback. They had a chance to nab Vic Beasley in the first round this year but opted to go with Kevin White. In addition to finding another pass-rusher, they need to get younger at cornerback.
Rigdon: Left tackle. Gase has done a good job scheming around the makeshift offensive line, and Cutler has covered up the rest with fantastic movement in the pocket, but the O-line has been in flux all season, and the demotion of Jermon Bushrod and elevation of Charles Leno Jr. is less than inspiring, long-term.
11. Will Matt Forte be back next season? Why or why not?
Clapp: I don't think so. It's not that Ryan Pace and John Fox wouldn't gladly take the guy, but this Forte's last shot at either a nice multi-year contract, or a pricey (for a 30-year-old running back) one-year deal. Not to mention Forte may want to move on himself. What if the Patriots wanted him, for example? That could be a great shot for Forte to get his first ring.
And after how well we saw Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey run the ball on Monday night, it looks like the Bears will still be able to run the ball with success in this offense. They'd probably draft another young guy or bring in a cheaper veteran as well.
If the money is equal, there is no guarantee Forte would choose the Bears, and it's probably not in the Bears' best interest to overpay for a 30-year-old running back given the state of their organization (and, again, given how Langford has looked). There are just too many factors at play here that point to Forte likely ending up elsewhere.
Eurich: I'm torn on this. He's been unbelievable this season when healthy, but he turns 30 next month. If there is anyone who could defy the odds and be a productive running back after turning 30, I think Forte can be that guy, but how much is he going to cost the Bears?
I think if Forte believes he has maxed out his earning potential and wants to stay somewhere where he is comfortable, then he will be back next season. But I also would not be surprised if a contending team comes along and offers him an opportunity to go after a Super Bowl.
Rigdon: My guess is no. Wrong side of 30, lots of mileage, classic warning signs for a free agent running back. It's a shame, as he is an incredibly valuable player with a unique set of skills, but sometimes it's just time to move on, for both sides.
12. Will Alshon Jeffery be back next season? Why or why not?
Clapp: I'd be stunned if he isn't back. Maybe if the injuries are looking like that much of an issue on a week-to-week basis?
But even still, if there isn't a chronic injury concern, his talent is too good to not try to keep in Chicago for a long time. The Bears are looking for young, talented pieces to build around. Alshon is just 25 and looks like the best player on the field almost every time he is out there.
The Bears will also be in a great cap situation this offseason and aren't tied to many long term deals. They could always just slap the franchise tag on him as well, but they should try to get an extension done in the near future regardless. Jeffery and Kevin White would set the Bears up for a potentially top-notch wide receiver duo over the next several years.
Eurich: I think re-signing Jeffery is a no-brainer. If I was Ryan Pace, I would be in the process of getting a discussion going right now with Jeffery's agent. Jeffery has proven, when healthy, this season he can be a No. 1 wide receiver. While his injuries have been a concern, I would not be too worried about them moving forward. If the two sides are unable to reach an agreement this offseason, the Bears will undoubtedly franchise tag him to keep him in Chicago in 2016.
Rigdon: Yes. He's a #1 receiver, in his prime, with nothing resembling a replacement on the roster. With the cap room the Bears are projected to have, I think both sides are motivated to continue the relationship.
13. Does this look like a team that is capable of being a playoff competitor by next season? This is of course assuming there are some roster improvements made over the offseason.
Clapp: Sure. This team has competed every time Jay Cutler has played, and you could argue they should be 5-3 after blowing games against the Lions and Vikings. As we've made clear, that's with several key pieces missing time with injuries (heck, Kevin White hasn't even played an NFL snap yet), a roster that is below average talent wise, and with an entirely new coaching staff. And switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 on defense.
So, yeah, keep progressing, put together a nice offseason, and it would seem this team could definitely compete for a playoff spot next offseason.
Eurich: I think so. They could very easily be 5-3 right now. They had chances against both Detroit and Minnesota, but they let those wins slip away. Offensively, they have a chance to have a strong one-two punch at wide receiver with Jeffery and White, Martellus Bennett should be back and if they move on from Forte, Jeremy Langford has shown he has some promise.
The defense obviously needs to improve, but I think the team is taking steps in the right direction.
Rigdon: It's the NFL, I tend to think that just about every team is an offseason of roster improvement away from being a playoff contender. But in the case of this team, yes, I do think that. I worry most about losing Gase, because so much of what's been promising about this team has been the obvious symbiosis between he and Cutler. Hopefully continuity is possible, and if that is combined with some key roster additions, retentions, and a string of good health, the Bears could easily be a 10-6 team. (Again, that describes all 32 teams, but still.)
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