Once upon a time, the Chicago Bears were the most successful franchise in the National Football League.
Back in the days of George Halas and Sid Luckman, the Monsters of the Midway ruled the league with an iron fist, winning six championships from 1932-46. Since that time, Chicago has seen a considerable dip in productivity.
Since 1947, the Bears have amassed 17 playoff appearances and two titles, the most recent of which came in 1985. The new century has spawned just four postseason trips. In other words, the natives are restless and for good reason.
Heading into 2016, head coach John Fox has plenty of pressure on him to succeed. Chicago is not expected by any sane person to win the NFC North, but competing for a playoff spot shouldn’t be out of the question.
Things have gotten off to an uneven start. The preseason brought a trio of hideous performances against AFC powers Denver, New England and Kansas City. Still, these are games that go off without any type of weekly planning or scheming. The exhibition schedule is exactly that, and it takes out the importance of the head coach. In the Bears’ case, losing Fox’s abilities are crushing. This is a man that once took Jake Delhomme to the Super Bowl.
In the offseason, general manager Ryan Pace attempted to shore up the defense with the signings of inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan. In the draft, Pace selected outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and then plucked corner Deiondre Hall from Northern Iowa.
After ranking in the bottom half of the league for years in run defense, Chicago is hoping to plug up the holes in the front seven. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has reason to believe his new group can play the aggressive 3-4 he employs to a larger degree than 2015, although clear issues remain in the secondary.
Chicago has to score some points on offense, and the potential is there. Jay Cutler is a maddening player to watch (and assuredly, to coach) but he can throw the ball. With receivers Kevin White and Alshon Jeffrey, the Bears have some real talent on the outside. Zach Miller is also a capable tight end, replacing Martellus Bennett.
Ultiamtely, Fox needs to coax at least 7-8 wins from this group. Should the season fall flat and resemble the preseason debacle, Bears fans are going to be calling for his job. Considering the current temperature of the NFL, it wouldn’t be crazy to move on.
Chicago doesn’t need to be great for Fox to earn a third year, but it must be on the upswing.
The Tennessee Titans might not win the Super Bowl this season – or even six games – but there is reason to believe in Nashville. After years of lackluster play form the quarterback position, rookie Marcus Mariota stepped into the breach last year and threw for 2,818 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 games.
Mariota has issues to improve upon such as going through progressions quicker and improving his accuracy, but those are typical problems for a youngster. Here are two examples of why he should excite the Titans, and terrify the rest of the AFC South.
Week 9: Tennessee at New Orleans
It’s the second quarter, and the Titans are trailing the Saints, 21-10. Tennessee has a 1st and 10 at its own 23-yard line, and is going with 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends). New Orleans is playing a Cover 3, with four defenders playing an underneath zone.
Mariota sees the above picture developing. Both tight ends stayed into block, leaving a two-man route down the field. Mariota has all day to throw, and could make the typical rookie error of forcing a throw into coverage.
A mobile quarterback, Mariota also could have ran. However, he understands zone coverage and realizes the defenders are looking at him. The Heisman Trophy winner does the smart thing. He waits for Antonio Andrews, his running back, to leak into the play.
With no blitz coming, Andrews slips into the flat. For whatever reason, both Saints linebackers on that side abandon their responsibilities. With their backs turned, Mariota makes the throw. It results in a 22-yard gain.
The throw is easy, but getting there was impressive. It takes great poise for Mariota to wait this long. It also shows that with a good offensive line, he will make the right play.
Week 13: Jacksonville at Tennessee
It’s the first quarter of a scoreless game. Tennessee is on its own 20-yard line, facing 3rd and 10. The Titans have Dorial Green-Beckham split wide left with Kendall Wright in the slot and Delanie Walker wide right. Jacksonville is disguising its coverage, but is in Cover 2 sink (two safeties deep, five defenders in zone coverage underneath).
Early in the play, Tennessee has five players go into the pattern. However, the Jaguars have great coverage. The safeties are in perfect position to take the hand-off from the corners, who are breaking into their shallow zones. Meanwhile, the four-man rush is beginning to collapse the interior of the pocket.
Mariota is forced out of the pocket and begins scrambling right. He has an underneath option but one that’s unlikely to get the first down. Instead of tucking and running, Mariota extends the play by heading toward the sideline, about 25 yards away.
Meanwhile, Green-Beckham going into scramble drill-mode. He’s going to run across the field, mirroring his quarterback. For all of his flaws, Green-Beckham shows why he could be something in this league.
Mariota is under heavy duress and is throwing against his body. Still, keeping his head up, he spots Green-Beckham in a soft spot of the defense. With a throw over the linebacker and in front of the safety, he can notch a first down.
The result is beautiful. and a 23-yard completion.
Top 15 current players without a Super Bowl ring
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
2. Steve Smith Sr., Baltimore Ravens
3. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
4. Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers
5. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
6. Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
7. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
8. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
9. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
11. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
12. Odell Beckham Jr. New York Giants
13. Trent Williams, Washington Redskins
14. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
15. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
"“Nobody can really figure out [if they can thrive in an NFL offense] until you get your hands on them, ’cause they’re not being trained to do that,” Roman told NFL.com’s Mike Silver, who wrote an extensive feature on the challenges of the position. “They’re being trained to win the next game in college so the college coach can keep his job.”– Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, on quarterbacks coming into the NFL"
This is very true, but also laughable. Roman is correct about coaches worrying more about their jobs than developing a quarterback for the next level, but this has been true for some time. Go back and watch tape of a college football game in the 1970s and 80s. Teams, including Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners, were running the wishbone and throwing 10 times per game.
Getting quarterbacks up to speed in the NFL game is nothing new. It just hasn’t worked out for Roman or the Bills in recent years.
Random stat of the week
The AFC South is the only division with three teams yet to win the Super Bowl. While the Indianapolis Colts have earned the Vince Lombardi Trophy twice, the Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars are yet to taste elusive glory in the Super Bowl era.
Conversely, no division has seen all four teams win the sport’s ultimate prize.
Info learned this week
1. Vikings going with Shaun Hill; Eagles with Wentz
After the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota vikings pulled off a shocking trade on Saturday, it appears Sam Bradford would be replacing the injured Teddy Bridgewater. Yet, according to Minnesota’s official depth chart, it’s Shaun Hill who will play Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans.
Once Bradford gets his bearings, he’ll be starting and Hill will once more be a backup. Until then, the former first-overall pick will be riding pine. Meanwhile, the Eagles are starting rookie Carson Wentz over veteran Chase Daniel. Wentz was originally going to get time to learn the NFL landscape, but after the Bradford move, the timetable has been shifted.
2. Cowboys keeping Tony Romo active
The Dallas Cowboys are keeping Romo on the active roster despite a broken vertebrae in his back. Owner/general manager/professional meddler Jerry Jones stated as much on Tuesday, which means Romo could be back whenever he’s healthy. If he had been placed on the PUP list, Romo would have been out through the first six weeks. Injured Reserve would have required that Romo sat out for a minimum of eight weeks.
3. Rams making Goff inactive for Week 1
Head coach Jeff Fisher won’t be putting first-overall pick Jared Goff on the active roster for Week 1. Goff has looked awful in the preseason and clearly needs time sitting behind Case Keenum and Sean Mannion to learn the offense.
Give the Rams credit. Some would be pushing him onto the field, a la Philadelphia and Wentz. Instead, Los Angeles realizes their franchise quarterback isn’t ready and is giving him the proper time to develop. The Rams aren’t going to make huge offensive strides this season, but that could be coming in 2017.
4. Byron Maxwell says it’s about the benjamins
In the 2015 offseason, Byron Maxwell signed a six-year, $63 million deal with the Eagles. At the time, it made him the richest cornerback in NFL history. Now, he is a member of the MIami Dolphins after being traded by Philadelphia as a salary dump this winter. Maxwell, originally Richard Sherman’s sidekick with the Seattle Seahawks, talked about leaving Seattle and the Legion of Boom for one reason. Money.
Give Maxwell credit, he’s honest. His career has been an epic disappointment since leaving Seattle, but he has tens of millions to help him sleep at night. In a game that can be taken away in a single hit, Maxwell smartly maximized his earning potential. Good on him, bad on the salary cap.
5. 49ers make right move with Bruce Miller
Former San Francisco 49ers fullback Bruce Miller was released by the team earlier this week after it was alleged that he assaulted two men in a hotel. Miller was arrested and charged with assault, and the 49ers swiftly released him.
This is a touchy issue. The NFL needs to move further and further away from these types of incidents, as soon as possible. At the same, the league needs to let due process play out. In this case, though, Miller’s past probably played into the decision coming so quickly.
Given the bevy of offensive systems that Sam Bradford has been through, does film study show that he can be successful with the right OC? Is Norv Turner the one?
MV: Turner has proven to be a great coordinator throughout his years, but I’m not sure the fit is great. Turner’s offense is designed after the Don Coryell school, which means three reads on each passing play: long, medium, short. The idea is to read long to short, and Bradford will need to make some big throws with questionable receivers.
The knock on Bridgewater to this point is that he doesn’t go deep. I think the same issue applies for Bradford. I think the perfect quarterback for Turner is Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions. He’s a smart guy with a huge arm who simply needs to be coached up. Turner is a great teacher of the Coryell offense, but unfortunately for Minnesota, it won’t be getting Stafford anytime soon.
Can you give us an idea who you think are the Top 5 coaches in the league right now?
– Lord Harry
MV: I would go with Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid.
Belichick has won four Super Bowls as a head coach and two as an assistant. Carroll has been to two and won one. Arians has yet to make it, but he’s a terrific coach who should have been given an opportunity 20 years ago.
The other two are controversial. Tomlin has made two Super Bowl appearances and won once, but many see him as a middling coach that took over a great team. I would say Tomlin is a master motivator, and that’s huge in this sport. Reid has never won a title and been to only one Super Bowl, but he’s a brilliant offensive mind. Reid has never coached a truly great team, and yet has a better winning percentage than Chuck Noll.
I really enjoy your game-study breakdowns. Comparing the previous two NFL MVPs, which player will have the statistically better season, Cam or Aaron? Asking for a friend…
MV: I would tell your friend to bet on Rodgers. Newton is a great player and the reigning MVP, but he’s not likely to produce another 45 touchdowns with an injury-prone running back and poor offensive line.
On the flip side, Rodgers had a bad season by his standards in 2015. Much of this was because the offense relies heavily on Jordy Nelson, and his absence was crushing. Nelson is now back and with youngsters Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery primed to break out, look for Rodgers (my MVP pick) to go off again.
History lesson of the week
In 1986, the Cleveland Browns played perhaps the most stressful postseason slate in history. In the AFC Divisional round, Cleveland beat the New York Jets in double overtime, only after coming back from a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes.
Then, the Browns lost the AFC Championship Game in overtime, allowing John Elway to tie the game in the final moments on his infamous 98-yard drive. The Browns followed that up by losing on The Fumble to Denver in the 1987 AFC title game.
No team is going into the season with more hype than the Oakland Raiders. After a strong offseason that saw the Raiders acquire Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, Reggie Nelson and Kelechi Osemele, some believe they are the team to beat in the tough AFC West.
We will learn plenty about Oakland come Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The game is in the Superdome, a loud venue that Drew Brees and Co. usually electrify with points. The Raiders were porous in the secondary last year but believe Smith and Nelson have shored up those issues, alongside rookie safety Karl Joseph. The preseason wasn’t pretty for Oakland’s defense. Let’s see if it steps up with the bright lights on.