When John Fox and the Denver Broncos decided to part ways on Monday, speculation immediately connected him to Chicago. He’s been the presumed frontrunner for the job ever since, and the Bears made his hiring official today.
This is not the direction I would have gone if I were running the Bears this offseason, but I’m not, and that’s a good thing. It’s a safe move intended to restore the Bears to respectability both on and off the field, but I don’t think it is one made with a serious goal of winning championships in the next few years (though you could argue that’s a good thing given where the franchise is at right now).
A familiar path
To me, Fox is Lovie Smith, which-as Bears fans should know-comes with both positives and negatives. They’re both around .500 coaches* who will have the team be disciplined and competitive. They both have issues with in-game management, struggle with using the clock and time outs correctly, and make overly conservative decisions. They both establish solid defenses and like to run the ball on offense.
(*They’re both around .500 coaches when they aren’t given an all-time great quarterback as a finished product to pad their record with. In his 10 years before Peyton, Fox averaged 8.1 wins and 0.6 playoff wins per season. In the 8 years of his prime before Fox, Peyton averaged 12.4 wins and 1.1 playoff wins per season. In their 3 years together, they averaged 12.7 wins and 0.7 playoff wins per season. Since Fox’s presence didn’t change Peyton’s outcomes at all from what he was, you’ll pardon me for not giving Fox credit or blame for those 3 seasons with Peyton).
The Bears made a move to go away from Lovie 2 years ago. It was a risk, and it backfired spectacularly. Now they’re going back to a Lovie-esque coach, and you can see the appeal. Fox should help stabilize the franchise and prevent it from being the laughingstock it was in 2014 (on and off the field). The Bears currently have a lot of big personalities in the locker room, and you can be sure that Fox will keep them in line much better than Trestman did.
Here’s what the next five years will likely look like for the Bears: they will beat most of the bad teams they face, lose to many of the good ones, and end up somewhere around .500 overall. They will not win the NFC North unless something happens to Aaron Rodgers, but should get 1-2 wild card berths. And you know what? That’s not such a terrible outcome; you can definitely do worse.
In 4-5 years, Fox will likely be ready to retire. He is currently 59 (60 in February), and only one current NFL coach is older than 65. The hope is that the Bears in 2020 will be in a similar place to where they were in 2012, with a good team (albeit hopefully younger than the 2012 version) looking for a great coach to take them over the top.
My fear with this is that Fox will try to pressure the Bears to make win-now decisions, bringing in older free agents that give them a better chance to be good now but hamper their ability to be great in the future by stunting the growth of young players and/or creating future cap problems (like are an annual event in New Orleans, where GM Ryan Pace comes from). Pace must maintain the control of football operations he says he has and avoid making moves that help the team’s present at the expense of the future.
Of course, the win-now approach Fox brings also starts to give us some clues on veterans whose futures in Chicago were thought to be up in the air. With Fox hired, I think it is very likely that Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are both in Chicago for the next two years at least. And that is not a bad thing, I just hope these moves don’t preclude the Bears from planning ahead and looking for their eventual replacements sooner rather than later.
Those veterans sticking around makes sense if Chicago’s plan is to be competitive now while building to be better in the future. That is exactly what they should be doing, I only hope they don’t tilt that balance too far towards the now at the expense of the future.
Personally, I wanted to see the Bears take a risk on a younger coach with more upside than Fox, and somebody who would be around longer than 5 years if they pan out, but I can see why Chicago thought otherwise. In 2012, they were positioned to make a safe hire in Bruce Arians, but went for the home run with Trestman, and ended up striking out. Now they don’t want to repeat that mistake, so they went with a solid double in John Fox instead of swinging for the fences and risking setting the franchise back even further.
You can do much worse in a head coach than John Fox, as Bears fans should know after watching Marc Trestman slowly destroy the franchise over the past two years. But I think you can do better than him as well, and I wish the Bears would have made more of an effort to do just that instead of settling for a well known good-but-not-great coach.