PHOENIX — John Fox came to Chicago in a hurry.
Just a few days after getting eliminated from the playoffs and parting ways with the Broncos, Fox found himself interviewing with Bears general manager Ryan Pace — the youngest GM in the league — who had only been on the job for a week.
The marriage felt rushed, even if it felt right. Fox was by the far the most accomplished and established coach available, a fit that made sense for an organization picking up the pieces after a disastrous two-year run under Marc Trestman.
Still, Fox was 59 when he took the job. He’s 62 now. And, nine wins and 23 losses later, it’s fair to wonder if he knew what he was getting himself into.
“You do always look back. Obviously there are always things that in hindsight you would change,” Fox said. “I think all of us sitting here would look back at things we’ve done and consider that.”
Sitting at a ballroom table at the Arizona Biltmore, you could tell Fox caught himself. He was starting to generalize his answer, the way he often does anytime he talks to the media. But this was actually a mostly thoughtful and insightful 40-plus minute chat with reporters at the NFL Annual Meeting, and Fox regrouped, taking the time to consider the question:
Was this a bigger rebuild than you thought it would be?
“You know, I think,” Fox took a long pause to consider his answer. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s kind of been what I thought it would be. Other than that I would have thought that we would have done better to this point. But I kind of still feel really positive and encouraged for where we’re headed. I just saw it happening a little bit faster.”
For a coach who is rarely candid with the media, it felt like a raw, honest response — and an understandable one at that. How could Fox have known what he was getting himself into when he took the job? Pace was at least a well-known GM candidate, in a position to scout out organizations and pick the right fit. And yet, even he would probably admit that he didn’t realize how much “tear-down” was needed to get the Bears on the right path.
But Fox was coaching in a playoff game just four days before getting offered the Bears job. Even if he had a feeling that his days in Denver might be numbered, he wasn’t studying the Bears’ depth chart. He was trying to beat the Colts.
“We spent two years basically flipping this roster … from the oldest roster in the National Football League to one of the top five youngest,” Fox said. “We’ve been subtracting. Even last year with changing guys out like Matt Forte and Robbie Gould — even that’s erasing. Now, finally, I think we’re in a position where I think we can add.”
That doesn’t mean the Bears’ plan is to make huge splashes in free agency, and their measured approach this month proves as much. Fox is just referring to the process of “flipping the roster.” They gutted what they didn’t like, and now he and Pace are in the process of building it back up with players they believe fit best.
“I think we’re finally in striking distance,” Fox said. “I think some of the acquisitions we’ve made this offseason already in free agency, we’ve addressed our secondary. We hadn’t really done much from that standpoint prior to, whether it was in free agency or currency in the draft. I think those are areas where we’re not done yet.”
Make no mistake, the Bears are still in the beginning stages of building the roster back up, but it’s pretty clear that everyone in the organization is expecting to see progress this year, not just on the roster, but with victories as well. Things can change quickly in the NFL, but both Pace and Fox are standing on solid footing within the organization and their jobs are safer than most outsiders would like to believe.
“We have confidence in Ryan and John,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said Wednesday. “We want to build through the draft. Ryan said that in his interview when he said he was interested in coming to the Bears. And we like how he has stuck to that plan. We saw it last year when we had three rookies (Leonard Floyd, Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard) on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.”
If the Bears have erred in any way, it has been in not being more transparent in acknowledging the depths of this rebuild. But when the head coach acknowledges that this has been a larger undertaking than he first believed, perhaps you can understand why the messaging has been somewhat confusing. Of course, that hasn’t helped an anxious fan base looking for tangible results, which may or may not come in 2017.
“We’re not on any particular timetable that somebody else is wanting to set for us. We’re wanting to see continued progress toward our goal of sustained success,” McCaskey said.
Sustained success is what Pace has been preaching since Day 1. As for Fox, at 62, sustained success is nice, but it’s ultimately about winning that elusive Super Bowl. Even if it takes longer than he thought.