In an organization that is rarely transparent, Vic Fangio’s candor is refreshing.
“They weren’t built for anything,” the Bears defensive coordinator said this week about the defense he inherited when he took the job in January of 2015.
Fangio was answering a question about his frustration regarding the length of time it has taken to turn around the Bears defense. Keep in mind that Fangio inherited one of the worst defenses in franchise history — one that lacked an identity, and as Fangio discovered, even a scheme.
“I think the scheme thing is overblown because you’re playing a lot of nickel right now and the group we inherited wasn’t built for the 4-3 either, obviously, by the two years they had prior to us getting here,” Fangio said. “So they weren’t built for anything. We had to start at ground zero.”
This is not breaking news to anyone who witnessed Mel Tucker’s 2013 and 2014 Bears defenses, which couldn’t rush the passer, couldn’t cover, couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t take the ball away. Technically, it was a 4-3 defense, but the scheme doesn’t really matter if the players within the scheme can’t play. That’s the reality Fangio faced when he got here, but one he likely didn’t realize until well into his first year on the job after he was able to self-scout what was left on the roster.
“I think there’s only one or two guys that we inherited still playing on defense,” he said. “And I think those are mainly backups. So there’s been a big transition.”
Indeed, Willie Young is the only active defensive player from the Phil Emery era who still has a significant role in Vic Fangio’s defense. Defensive end Cornelius Washington and linebacker Christian Jones count as holdovers who have stuck as backups, and technically Sherrick McManis and Demontre Hurst are on the defensive depth chart, but they are primarily special teamers.
What Fangio, head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace must have hoped was that they at least had something with cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, who were the first three picks from the 2014 draft class, selected just nine months before their arrival at Halas Hall. Fast forward two seasons, and those three players have accounted for just six starts in 2016, with Fuller and Ferguson spending the entire year on injured reserve so far (Fuller could still return for these final three games).
So excuse Fangio for being brutally honest about what he inherited in Chicago. Fox and Pace undoubtedly feel the same way, they just aren’t as open about it publicly.
“I think I did a count the other day, even counting on IR, we have 18 guys still remaining on the team that were originally here when we got here two years ago,” Fox said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the facts and it puts a little more burden when you’re training new people — even with injuries — but it’s part of the game. Everybody deals with it.”
But not every team deals with it to this extent. Despite two solid draft classes under this regime, the Bears’ depth already looked thin coming into the regular season and with 16 players currently on injured reserve — including three of the organization’s last four first round draft picks — it really should not be surprise that the Bears only have three wins.
Which is why recent reports about Fangio potentially moving on or a shakeup in the front office are particularly confusing. Despite the 3-10 record, there are noticeable signs of progress and the early returns on Pace’s first two draft classes are more positive than anything this organization has seen in over a decade.
“Everybody looks at the record. Everybody does. We do, too,” Fox said. “Obviously, that’s very disappointing. But some of the progress we’ve made, some of the people that study the game, look at it and can see, statistically, quite a bit of growth. Again, we’re not at the point where the statistic in the win-loss record is where we would like it and expect it to be. But you do see progress.”
This progress seems to be much more evident on the defensive side of the football, where Fangio’s unit currently ranks eighth in the league allowing just 5.1 yards per play. This is much improved from 2015 when the Bears ranked 25th with 5.7 yards per play and 2014 when the Bears ranked 30th with 6.0 yards per play.
Thus, it is imperative the Bears do everything in their power to keep Fangio around in 2017. If some kind of rift exists between he and Fox, as has been reported, Pace’s top priority right now should be fixing that divide and ensuring he doesn’t have more rebuilding to do by finding a new defensive coordinator.
But while the defensive improvement has been more obvious, Fox insists his offense has made strides in 2016 as well.
“Really, on the offensive side of the ball, I know the explosive plays sometimes, we haven’t converted that to points as much. But for what’s happened, some of the things we’ve had to deal with, I see progress in both phases,” he said.
Before your head explodes, consider this: The Bears’ offense actually ranks eighth in yards per play with 5.8. In 2015, it ranked 19th with 5.4 yards per play, and that’s when the Bears still had Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett. This number, of course, has not led to points (the Bears are 30th with 17.0 points per game), which is ultimately why Fox’s team only has three victories, but it does support the head coach’s claim that “some of the people that study the game look at it and can see, statistically, quite a bit of growth.”
If this seems like a stretch you, that’s understandable. The Bears’ biggest problem all year has been converting yards into points. Yet it does seem significant that despite losing three quarterbacks, their No. 1 draft pick from a year ago, their Pro Bowl right guard and their top tight end, the Bears have actually been able to move the football for most of the season.
Thus, the last thing the Bears need right now is a major staff shake-up or some kind of football czar to come in and undermine the authority of a general manager who has turned a big pile of nothing into something in just 23 months.
The time to shake up the structure of the front office was when they hired Pace in the first place. Remember, part of the reason why Chiefs director of football operations Chris Ballard didn’t end up as the Bears general manager was because he and the organization didn’t see eye-to-eye on some of the structural changes he wanted to make. Bringing in some kind of “consultant” or “senior executive” in an advisory role to Pace now would only look perplexing just two years after the organization could have re-structured the front office. Doing so now makes very little sense considering Pace has stuck to a measured plan that has yielded positive results, even if those results are not apparent in the Bears’ 2016 record.
You know what the Bears need? They need another full year of talent development. Pace needs more time to get Fangio the players he needs to turn pressure into takeaways. He needs more time to find a couple more explosive playmakers on offense to turn yards into points. He needs to be trusted to find a new quarterback. And, beyond that, he probably needs at least another two talent cycles to build the kind of depth playoff teams possess, with special teams units that can swing a football game.
“You know, when you have our record, nothing seems rosy,” Fangio said. “But I think we’ve made improvements.”
Fangio sees those improvements. Fox and Pace see them too.
Time will tell if the higher powers within the organization see the improvements too. If not, a shake-up might just delay the progress even more.