SOLDIER FIELD — In his most important game as head coach of the Chicago Bears, John Fox flopped.
In fact, he flopped spectacularly.
With two weeks to prepare for an opponent that looked virtually incompetent just six days ago, Fox’s team came out unprepared and uninspired, losing 23-16 to the Green Bay Packers.
The mistakes started long before kickoff, with odd game plan decisions made during the week. Let’s start with Josh Bellamy inexplicably being promoted to the No. 2 wide receiver. This after Tre McBride broke out with a big game in New Orleans two weeks ago. McBride barely saw the field Sunday. This after Fox talked about how Markus Wheaton was healthy again. Wheaton barely saw the field Sunday. And this after Kendall Wright continues to look like a good receiving option. He once again was limited to the slot in three-wide receiver sets.
The Bears will undoubtedly use Bellamy’s 46-yard touchdown to defend his playing time, but the reality is that he caught two passes on seven targets and was way too involved in the game plan. The guy has been on the roster for four years now. Everyone knows what he is. He’s a great special teamer and a below-average wide receiver with 50 catches in 45 games.
And has anybody seen Tarik Cohen?
Then there was the decision to have linebacker Christian Jones handle the defensive signals on the field with Danny Trevathan sidelined with a calf injury. Don’t get me wrong, Jones has been a bright spot on the defense this year, but he has enjoyed his success when playing next to Trevathan. When Trevathan missed the Vikings game earlier this season, Jones did fine next to John Timu, but when Timu got hurt, Jones had to take over the defensive calls on the field and that’s when the defense started to slip. Sunday, both Timu and Nick Kwiatkoski were healthy and both have handled the defensive responsibilities well in the past. It was an odd decision by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to have Jones do it Sunday and there were multiple instances during the game when there was pre-snap confusion on defense.
And we haven’t even begun to address the sloppiness on the field. Illegal shifts. Illegal formations. An undisciplined personal foul by reserve offensive lineman Bradley Sowell before halftime. Not to mention, A DELAY OF GAME ON AN EXTRA POINT.
All-in-all the Bears had eight penalties for 78 yards. Seven of them were in the first half and four more were declined by the Packers.
“I guess we weren’t focused at that moment,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We’re going to analyze that, because we know it’s one of our weaknesses.”
Then there was “The Challenge,” which may end up being the defining moment of Fox’s tenure in Chicago. Trailing 10-3 in the second quarter, the Bears finally got some life with a 23-yard screen pass to Benny Cunningham. Cunningham dove for the pylon, but was ruled out at the 2-yard-line. Fox wanted the touchdown and challenged the ruling, which turned out to be a disaster. Beyond the fact that the replays clearly showed Cunningham’s knee (and perhaps foot too) down out of bounds, it was also apparent that he actually fumbled the ball as he reached for the pylon.
“Every indication we had was that he scored,” Fox said after the game. “And if anything, he would be at the 1-yard-line or inside the 1-yard line.”
This is an alarming response considering that even if his replay staff had missed the fumble, Cunningham’s knee was clearly down before the ball hit the pylon. And missing the fumble was an egregious error.
“I don’t think anybody saw that,” Fox said. “Maybe you can see it after you look at it 50 times like some people are able to do.”
Actually, you could see it on the very first replay.
“Looking at the review, I feel like the refs made the right call,” Cunningham said.
Of course, at this point in the second quarter, the Bears already looked poorly coached. The challenge — which isn’t completely on Fox if he’s getting bad information from upstairs — was just the cherry on top.
But then there were the typical clock management issues before halftime. Fox could have used his timeouts earlier, but that can be debated. However, he let six seconds run off the clock after his defense delivered a third down sack with 1:55 left before the half. It wasn’t the end of the world, but calling timeout in that situation is Coaching 101 and Fox didn’t seem ready to stop the clock.
There were also few halftime adjustments. For a minute it looked like offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains had found McBride during halfitme, using him on the first series of the second half, but the wide receiver disappeared again after that. Markus Wheaton was finally used late in the fourth quarter, which confirmed he was healthy enough to play — so why did it take that long for him to get in the game?
This is now the third straight year Fox’s teams have come out of the bye week looking flat and they’re 0-3 in such games. I asked him after the game why his teams have looked so sloppy coming out of the bye. His response: “Everyone has their own interpretation. But we had an opportunity to win that game.”
But unlike other games against better opponents earlier in the season, this wasn’t a game that would be considered a success simply by having “an opportunity to win.” This was a must-win game against a banged up, Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team that came into Soldier Field looking defeated.
“You drop two, you expect to come back and show a little moxie,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Some teams go the other way.”
The Bears went the other way, coming out of the bye week with less intensity than the Packers.
But that wasn’t even the most significant quote delivered by Matthews after the game, as he delivered an indictment on the Bears’ offense:
“Obviously, (Trubisky’s) pocket presence will come along. You have to take advantage of that. That’s exactly what we did. We ended up with five sacks, a number of quarterback pressures and hurries. That’s what you expect to do when a team is so one dimensional.”
Other teams know it, and the excuses are gone. The Bears had a capable wide receiver Sunday in Dontrelle Inman, who caught six passes for 88 yards. They had tight end Adam Shaheen, who delivered a 31-yard catch-and-run but was only involved in one more passing play the rest of the game. And they still have Tarik Cohen — their most electric playmaker — who touched the ball on offense twice Sunday. Twice.
It’s the coaching staff that decides the personnel and calls the plays. And it’s simply impossible to continue defending the offensive game plans, whether it’s Fox or Loggains who deserves the blame. The answer is both.
Fox is now 1-5 against the Packers as the Bears’ head coach and 12-29 overall. There’s no doubt he has greatly improved the culture inside Halas Hall and has earned the respect from his players, but none of that really matters when your team flops like they did in a must-win game against your biggest rival.
Sunday was an important game for John Fox. And it went as poorly as it possibly could. Just imagine if Aaron Rodgers had played.