Who Was the Most Important Signing So Far?

Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs visited the NFL Network and talked Bears [link].

Amongst his comments, I can completely agree with his statements regarding the signing of cornerback Charles Tillman.  Briggs said he was “the happiest man in Chicago” when Tillman resigned.  If that’s true, I wasn’t far behind.

I understand the Bears drive to get younger on defense but, unlike the other veteran players who have left the Bears over the past month, Tillman possesses one totally unique characteristic that would literally be impossible to replace.  You can find other, younger cornerbacks who can do a good job in both man-to-man and zone coverages.  But you’ll never find another cornerback anywhere who generates turnovers the way Tillman does.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I doubt very much that we’ll ever see anything like it again.  I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to watch Tillman do his magic for at least another year.

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Owners to Consider Moving Kickoffs Forward – Again

Apparently moving kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line a few years ago didn’t take things far enough for at least some NFL owners.  Via profootballtalk.com:

“The Competition Committee announced today that owners will vote at next week’s league meeting on whether to move kickoffs again, this time to the 40-yard line.

“According to the Competition Committee, this is a rule proposal designed to take player safety into consideration: Moving the kickoff will result in more touchbacks, fewer returns and therefore fewer collisions. The NFL in recent years has identified kickoffs as some of the most dangerous plays in the game of football.”

I will never understand this.  There is a proposal to to move the extra point back to the 25 yard line because the almost automatic kick from the 3 yard line is too boring and a waste of time.  But is there a bigger, more boring waste of time than a touchback on a kickoff?

Either the play is too dangerous or it isn’t.  If it isn’t they should have the kickoffs from the 30 yard line and let the players play.  If it is, the owners should stop playing around and eliminate it.

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Third Wide Receiver Officially Becomes a Need for the Bears

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune comments upon the release of number three wide receiver Earl Bennett:

“[MarquessWilson, a seventh-round pick out of Washington St., is positioned to compete with newly-signed Domenik Hixon for the No. 3 receiver spot. Wilson had two catches for 10 yards as a rookie.

“The Bears consider him a natural catcher and smooth runner. They like how he can beat press coverage with quickness and decisiveness.”

My gut tells me that the Bears won’t go into camp depending upon either Wilson or Hixon to do the job.  Wilson is unproven and Hixon hasn’t really shown himself to be in a class that deserves to be on the field that often.  I’d look for them to find at least a third, potentially better option.

One possibility is to find another receiver in what is thought to be a draft which is deep on talent.  The Bears will — and should — concentrate on drafting defense.  But if the right guys falls, another wide receiver is a very real possibility in either day two or three.  In the same way, a second tight end is also an option that I’m sure they’ll consider.

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Projecting the Future

Yesterday, I described the uncomfortable feeling I had about how the Bears were going about “improving” the defense.  Apparently I wasn’t alone.

Here’s what Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune had to say as he urged the Bears to sign defensive end Jared Allen:

“Jared Allen has recorded double-digit sacks in each of the last seven seasons. That’s a right defensive end the way it oughta be.

“The way Julius Peppers used to be.

“The way the Bears need one to be.”

When you are talking about replacing the sacks generated by veterans like Peppers and, potentially, Henry Melton, Allen seems more like the guy conventional wisdom would indicate is needed.

The 2013 Bears defense was essentially the same as the 2012 version.  There was a lot of talent there.  With the new signings by general manager Phil Emery, that talent hasn’t been replaced “by the numbers”.

In thinking about this situation I realized that my uneasiness reminded me of the way I felt after Emery drafted offensive guard Kyle Long and linebacker Jon Bostic last year and defensive end Shea McClellin the year before.  Here’s what I said:

“Emery appears drafting by the numbers.  Like former Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt in the days when the Bears drafted the likes of John Thierry and Alonzo Spellman, Emery appears to be enamored with measurables that can be derived from workouts rather than what he sees in terms of play on the field.  He’s drafting ‘traits’ not football players.”

And it suddenly hit me:  what Emery is doing is what he’s done in the draft since he’s been here – he’s projecting future performance based upon “traits” and player development.

What traits is Emery looking for?  Here’s what he said about new defensive end Lamarr Houston: (via Melissa Isaacson at espn.com):

“He’s a good pass-rusher.  When I looked at him versus the players that we have on our team, his two-year combined total disruptions is higher than anybody on our team. And I know I’ve used that word disruption and there are a lot of variations of what that means …

“The research from 2008 on [shows] when a pass play is performed without pressure, without a knockdown, hit or sack, the percentage of completion is about 64 percent. When there’s a sack, obviously it goes to 0. But with a hit or a pressure, it goes to 38.5. So those are significant when you talk about disruptions of a passer. And he certainly has had those.”

Similarly, here’s what Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer at the Tribune emphasized about the signing of defensive end Willie Young:

“In his first year as a starter last year with the Lions, harass quarterbacks is exactly what Young did, recording 11.5 knockdowns and 15 hurries (according to STATS). But sacking them – he only had three in 2013 for six in his career – is another thing.”

Yes it is.

Emery continues to play a dangerous game.  Going from “pressures” to “sacks” is a line that is difficult to cross.  There are a lot of players that never do it.  Yet Emery continues to be completely focused on bringing in unproven youth not only in the draft, but now in free agency as well.  This involves projecting forward to what he thinks the player is on his way to, not taking the more sure route of buying what the player already is.  Perhaps he’s forced to do it by budgetary constraints.

In any case, he’s betting heavily on his ability to tell the future and the coaching staff’s ability to make it happen.  Sometimes it works out, as it did for Long.  Sometimes it doesn’t as it has yet to do with McClellin.  All we can do is hold our breath and pray that he knows what he’s doing.  We surely won’t be alone.

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Why Can’t the Bears Be About the Money? Because It’s All About the Money.

As DeMarcus Ware disappears from the list of free agents, the question presents itself:  how can teams like the Denver Broncos continue to sign high priced veteran free agent after free agent while the Bears are already bumping their heads up against the cap?  Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune provides the answer - in part:

“The Bears have a snug salary-cap situation but have mechanisms to create more room. At this point, it’s probably more about the cash budget and the team has spent big when you go back to the signing spree that began in the final week of December.”

It does, indeed, go back to the signing spree in December.  But the “cash budget” part of this excerpt is probably more to the point.

A Salary Cap Primer

Knowledgable, long-time readers of this blog can safely skip this section.

Nearly all teams “work” the salary cap by putting a certain amount of guaranteed money into a signing bonus.  This bonus is paid to the player entirely up front but the cap hit is spread over the length of the contract or 5 years, which ever is shorter.

If I give player A a five year contract with a $30 million signing bonus, the cap hit for that $30 million dollars will be $6 million dollars every year for five years.  If you release player A after 3 years, the cap hit from years 4 and 5 “accelerate” into the current year resulting in $6 million dollars of cap space occupied by a player who isn’t on the roster (known as “dead money”).

When the Bears released Julius Peppers it was said that they “saved” $9.8 million in cap space.  But this is misleading.  Before he was released, Peppers cap number was $18.2 million.  Because they now aren’t paying him his salary, that money will not count against the cap.  But the $8.4 million dollars in guaranteed money that has already been paid and spread out over the length of the contract still counts and Peppers still occupies this much cap space even though he’s no longer with the team.

The Bears and the Cap

Peppers aside, as someone who hates to rob Peter to pay Paul, I’m happy to say that the current Bears front office generally avoids situations where a great deal of dead money is generated when players are released.  However, it may surprise many fans when they understand how far the Bears go in this matter and what the consequences are.

The Jay Cutler contract from last December is an excellent case in point.  Cutler signed a seven year contract but because its structured in a very special and clever way, the $54 million in guaranteed money is spread across the first three years only.  This makes it effectively a three year contract with what amounts to a Bears team option to keep Cutler with no cap hit if he’s released after that.  This is outstanding cap management.

But here’s what will surprise many – when the details are examined, one finds that the split of $18 million per year over the first three years isn’t even.  In fact, the Bears have front loaded the cap hit so that it is $22.5 million in the first year and only $15.5 million and $16 million in the second and third years, respectively.  This actually means that their cap hit in the first year is $4.5 million higher than normal from this contract.  Though they have contractually retained the option of converting some of Cutler’s salary into signing bonus to create room, its fairly evident that this is only for emergencies and they have no plans to do so.

Similarly, the sharp fan will note that Peppers was likely released without a post June 1 designation.  Releasing him with the post June 1 designation would have allowed the Bears to absorb some of the dead money in 2015 rather than 2014.  Instead, they chose to absorb the entire $8.4 million this year, thus increasing their cap number significantly.

So, while other teams spread their guaranteed money out to avoid hitting the cap, the Bears have actually fixed their contracts such that they will hit the salary cap sooner.  Why would they do this?

Cash is King

The answer comes in the first part of Biggs’s statement above.  Its about the “cash budget”.  And its evident that the franchise has limited cash on hand to spend.

The key is understanding that though you can spread the cap hit from a signing bonus across several years, the money has to be paid up front.  In order to avoid paying cash that you don’t have, you have to limit the number of big signings that you make.  Therefore, its not just a matter of spending the cap (which all teams must effectively do).  It’s a matter of spending the cap while limiting the cash spent – i.e. front loading the cap hit on a few contracts to limit the number signings that you make before hitting the ceiling.

Conclusion

Some might assume from this that my conclusion is that the Bears organization is “cheap”.  It’s not.  The Bears aren’t the Packers, who almost never spend anything in free agency and almost never improve their team except through the draft (which fortunately for them they are very good at doing).

However, it is important to note that though the Bears exist in a big market, they’re a family run organization.  It’s highly likely that the major portion of the family income still derives itself from the team with limited diversification.  The result is a large market franchise that essentially has to be run like a small market team.  And when you are a fan of a small market team, you have to accept the fact that they aren’t going to spend like the rich boys who run their franchises as much for hobby as profit.

Like the Packers a few other franchises around the league, the Bears have to make less money work smarter.  More than many teams, they have to spend carefully, draft effectively and they have to develop that young talent.  Former GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith weren’t up to that task and it resulted in their downfall where, more than usual, repeated mistakes can’t be made.  Preliminary indications are that current GM Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman are up to the challenge.

One thing is certain.  However they manage to beat the competition, it won’t be by out spending them.

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Newcomers To Count for More than Just Statistics

In considering the moves that the Bears have made since December, I find the question of whether they are actually better than they were at the beginning of 2013 to be debatable.

Though the offense has been left largely intact, we all know that the problems were on defense and that’s where improvements need to materialize.  In that respect, the lousy pass rush didn’t get any better with the loss of Julius Peppers (assuming he had anything at all left).  The addition of defensive end Lamarr Houston doesn’t help much there as he had a career high six sacks last year, lower that the 7 1/2 that Peppers generated in a “down year”.

Though he’s not officially gone, the return of corner back Charles Tillman and the turnovers he generated is also looking less and less likely.

However, all is not bad news because:

  1. GM Phil Emery emphasized yesterday in his press conference that the free agent signings (and re-signings) were only the first steps in the rebuilding process and there is a lot of work yet to be done before final judgment can be passed.
  2. The defense will be definitively younger, one of Emery’s stated goals.  Houston may not be a pass rushing force now but he’s on the rise and may yet quickly become one.
  3. The run defense will be better with the signing of both Houston and new safety Ryan Mundy.  Mundy may not start but if he doesn’t, whoever beats him out will have to bring at least the same physical style of play that he does.

And then there are the intangibles and this may be where the Bears made their biggest gains.  For instance, Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune quotes new Bears defensive end Houston about his role as a potential leader:

“‘[Emery] said he is looking forward to my leadership developing through my actions as a player,’ Houston said. ‘That is very important. I’m not really too much of an outspoken leader. I like to lead more by example and that is exactly what he is looking for.’”

Though it wasn’t the emphasis of his article, this quote from Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune seems to emphasize the same possibility for Mundy:

“Mundy, after four seasons with the Steelers and one with the Giants, envisions an opening to become, in his words, ‘a tone setter’ and impact playmaker on the back end of the Bears defense.”

The fact that Emery actually took the time to emphasize this role with Houston and probably  Mundy indicates the importance that he attaches to it.  Setting “a new tone” may be as important as anything new additions to the Bears defense may do next year.

As good as the start was for the coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball, the start on the defensive side was miserable in 2013.  Faced with a new coaching staff that clearly catered to the defensive veterans already on the team rather than the other way around, its more than likely that both Emery and Trestman believe that the defense got complacent in 2013.  How else to explain, for instance, the 54-11 total demolition of the Bears by the Eagles late in the year?  Whatever was wrong that night, it was more than just talent and technique.  What was missing was pride and attitude, as well.

Replacing a defensive line coach who was an “assistant to an assistant” in 2012 and a linebackers coach that probably didn’t have the gravitas to motivate and insist on the needed changes was likely as big a step as any Emery will take in the offseason.  It was likely only the first on the way to instilling a new attitude on the defense.  Only time will tell where the road will end but here’s betting its at a point where harder work and higher intensity of play become the norm.  The free agent signings to date will be a big part of that change.

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Tough Fans, Tough Teams

Mike Florio on the problems the Vikings will face as they play the next two seasons outside while their new stadium is being built:

“For the Vikings, the bigger problem will be playing home games outdoors for two years before returning inside.  The inevitability of wind and cold and precipitation affects the manner in which a team is built.  To be successful the next two seasons, the Vikings need to build a team that can thrive in the elements.  Then, after two years playing outside, it’ll be time to reconfigure the team to get the most out of playing indoors.”

This is going to cause a lot of issues for a lot of people, not just the Vikings team, itself.

For example, the likelihood is going to be relatively high that a reasonable percentage of teams from divisions playing the NFC North are going face some ugly weather with Chicago, Green Bay and now Minnesota playing outside.  Some would call this a major advantage for teams within the division.  That could include the Vikings if display the needed mental toughness to excel cold weather.

But one thing I’ll be interested in will be the attendance in Minnesota.  No one knows how fans in the area who are used to attending indoor games are going to react to having to deal with the cold.  Minnesota fans don’t have the reputation around the division that, for example, fans in Green Bay and Chicago have.  Fans from these cities relish their reputation for showing up to in all kinds of weather to match the hardiness of their teams who are expected to play under the same conditions.  Now fans in Minnesota are going to have their chance to prove that they can muster the same attitude.

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“Don’t Let Familiarity Rob You of Your Joy”

Dan Wieder at the Chicago Tribune on soon to be free agent quarterback Josh McCown:

“[McCown] remembers an expression [Bears head coach MarcTrestman often recites: ‘Don’t let familiarity rob you of your joy.’”

“That’s the reminder to savor every moment, no matter how routine. That helps explain why McCown carries enthusiasm into every practice, why he cherished his game-day drives up Lake Shore Drive, why he always pinches himself on the way into Halas Hall.

“‘That door handle on the back of the facility, every time I grab it, it’s this moment for me,’ McCown says. ‘I’m walking in the facility again — where once I thought I was never going to do this again. So that will never get old. Ever.’”

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Bears Offensive Line Needs to Get Better, Too

John Mullin at CSNChicago.com argues that resigning center Roberto Garza makes the Bears offensive line unit better than the sum of its parts:

“…Garza has quietly become a player who makes players around him better. He has a comfort level with quarterback Jay Cutler, developed when the Bears and Olin Kreutz were parting ways in 2011. He is one reason why Kyle Long was a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie guard; Long himself gave Garza effusive praise for his work in Long’s development.”

I don’t have a problem with this signing.  Even at age 35, Garza was probably their best option.

But having now decided to retain the entire offensive line with no changes, the Bears are leaving me with a vague sense of unease.  My mind keeps wandering back to the Bears only exposure to the best division in football last year, the NFC West, in a loss to the Rams.

Despite media attention given to the teams in this division which emphasized other areas, there’s one major reason why these teams were significantly better than the rest of the league – they dominated the line of scrimmage.  That includes the Bears game where the Rams under-rated front seven easily penetrated into the offensive backfield far too often in a 42-21 demolition.  And the Rams were 7-9 and finished in last place.

I’m not necessarily arguing that the Bears did the wrong thing.  The offensive line as it stands was reasonably solid.  Long and right tackle Jordan Mills are young and may yet significantly improve.  And they have a lot of needs on defense to fill with new personnel.  The offensive line can’t take priority right now.

But even with all of this, I’m thinking that if the Bears really want to be elite, staying with the same personnel on the offensive line might not be a long-term option.  Because good might not be good enough.

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Point Well Taken

Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune makes a good point:

“Maybe it’s me, but when Bears general manager Phil Emery says that new Bears linebacker Shea McClellin was the team’s best ‘pass disruptor’ when he played defensive end, everyone looks stupid.”

“He’s still trying to defend his first Bears draft choice, but if he’s so proud of McClellin’s pass disruptions and if pass disruptions are so important, then why is he moving McClellin to linebacker?”

Rosenbloom isn’t the only one that found some odd comments in Emery’s appearance at the combine.  Hub Arkush also did a pretty good job of pointing out some of the weird things that Emery let slip out of his mouth at the press conference there as well.

The relative degree of openness that the current Bears leadership has displayed has been a breath of fresh air when compared to the last regime and its been much appreciated.  But I’m thinking maybe its time for Emery to rein it in a little now.

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