Bears Will Give Wright the Freedom to Succeed. Or Enough Rope to Hang Himself.

Of all of the Bears signings in 2017, the one that fascinates me the most is wide receiver Kendall Wright.

Wright is an enigma.  Drafted in the first round of the 2012 annual player selection process, the 5’10” 191 lb receiver had his best year under former Titans offensive coordinators  Chris Palmer and Dowell Loggains.  And then, after a wonderful 2013 season where he recorded 94 catches for 1,079 yards in a breakout season, Wright’s role gradually diminished as the Titans went through Ken Whisenhunt, Jason Michael and Terry Robiskie as play-callers.

A high maintenance player, Wright couldn’t hold back his frustrations.  For example, after a particularly disappointing loss to the Bills in 2015, Wright cut loose.  “I’m beyond frustrated,” Wright said. “I don’t feel like I’m being able to do what I can do until late in games. I feel like I’m a good receiver and I feel like I’ve been open and I can beat the DBs or whoever is (covering) me, but I haven’t really been given the opportunity I’ve been looking for.”

“I just want to be relevant again. I don’t feel like I’m being relevant at all.”

Asked if he was the primary target on Mariota’s final throw, which was intercepted, Wright said: “I don’t know. I can’t remember the last time I was the primary option on anything. He threw it and I tried to make a play on it.”

What exactly did Wright mean when he said that he didn’t feel like he was being allowed to do what he can do?

As it turns out, Wisenhunt, Michael and Robiskie all shared one common characteristic that Wright felt restricted him.  While Wright was given a little more room to “freelance” on his routes under Loggains, the later offensive coaches all had rigid offensive systems where they insisted that Wright stay on script.  Robiskie was particularly blunt last summer as he entered his first year as Titan’s offensive coordinator when he said that neither Wright nor anyone else was going to “freelance” in his offense.

“We’ve got 11 guys that are going to be on the field,” Robiskie said. “We’ve got 11 guys that we say, `This is your job and here is your responsibility,’ and I think Kendall is like everybody else — realizing those other 10 guys are counting on Kendall to be where he’s supposed to be and do what he’s supposed to do.”

To top it off, Wright was the number 3 receiver in 2016 in a system under Robiske that ran fewer three receiver sets than any team in the league.

For what its worth, Wright himself objects to the term “freelance”.

“I would say I was put in position on choice routes to make plays on linebackers and safeties,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t call it freedom. I don’t really know a coach who will go out there and say, ‘Kendall, just get open.’ It was choice, option routes. I don’t know where freedom came from. I’m sure somebody made that up, took it and ran with it.

“They was making it sound like … the quarterback was just saying `Kendall, you go do whatever you want and I’ll find you.’ I do what I’m told. I run the route I’m told.”

Whatever you call it, Wright couldn’t wait to get out of Tennessee and into a system where he felt more comfortable.  Wright said after becoming a free agent that he finally feels “free”.

“I’ll be glad to see what I can do,” Wright said, “and make a team fall in love with me and go and do what I know I can do.”

Wright obviously believes that re-uniting with Loggains will get him more of those option routes where he’s lined up on a guy and told to just go out and beat him.  And that, he hopes, will put him back into a groove.

We shall see.

I’ve seen situations like this before where players think a change in system will improve their play.  More often than not, they are making excuses for their own failures and these changes rarely work out.

A great example is that of Mario Williams’s move from the Bills to the Dolphins last year.  Williams let it be known that his poor 2015 performance was due to a move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme that then Bills head coach Rex Ryan was running.  As it turned out, it wasn’t the scheme.  It was Williams and he had a miserable 2016 with his hand on the ground in the Dolphins 4-3 scheme.

If Wright has the same kind of season this year that he did the last three years of his career, watch out.  It won’t be great to be inside the Bears locker room but will be a fun place for fans looking in from the outside.  History tells us that Wright isn’t the kind of guy to suffer in silence.  I think we’ll be able to count on him for at least one good eruption during the year.

On the other hand, it will be fascinating to watch and see if Loggains can extract more out of Wright when other coordinators couldn’t.  He takes a lot of abuse from the local media.  If he pulls this off and makes Wright into the number 1 receiver he seems to think he is, Loggains will definitely have earned some respect.

I’m just not holding my breath.

Marcus Wheaton Is a Good Signing But He’s Not Alshon Jeffery

The Bears had what I would call a decent day yesterday as free agency opened at 3PM.  One of the more interesting signings was that of former Steelers wide receiver Marcus Wheaton.

Wheaton is exactly  the kind of player that general manager Ryan Pace likes to sign.  He’s a 26 year old player coming off of his rookie deal who has shown that he’s a good player but who still has upside.  Wheaton had his best season in 2015 when he had 44 receptions for 749 yards and five touchdowns.

But Wheaton shouldn’t be seen as an Alshon Jeffery replacement.  He has good speed and he played primarily on the outside but he was a number three receiver for the Steelers.  As it stands, the Bears probably hope Kevin White can stay healthy this year and replace some of Jeffery’s production (or lack there of).  They certainly are hoping he will develop into the guy they thought he’d be when they drafted him.

But Wheaton at 5’11”, though speedy, won’t be Jeffery.  If he’s a replacement for anyone, its probably Eddie Royal, who s supposed to earn a base salary of $5 million in 2017.  With Wheaton in the fold, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Royal was cut.  Its a move that’s been expected for some time and is probably only being held up by the fact that he has to pass a physical first.  Royal had surgery in December to repair a toe injury.

Mike Glennon Might Be the Future Rather Than a Bridge to a Better One

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions.  And mine:

Mike Glennon seems to be getting lost in the midst of all of the [Jimmy] Garoppolo love. What are the odds the Bears go in his direction? — @bearingthenews

“Glennon is going to be an unrestricted free agent and there will no doubt be some interest in him. Will the Bears go in his direction? I don’t know about that. But I do know the Bears cannot reach the opening of free agency without having thoroughly evaluated every single quarterback that could potentially be available. There seems to be more love for Glennon now than there ever was when he was starting for the Buccaneers. He last took a meaningful snap in the 2014 season before the Bucs acquired Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick. Glennon has started 18 games in his career so there is a lot more tape to evaluate than there is with Garoppolo. Glennon has completed 374 of 630 passes (59.4 percent) for 4,100 yards, 30 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The 27-year-old was has been sacked 56 times and at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, and he’s not particularly mobile. He’s going to have a chance to play for someone but most of the scouts I talk to are lukewarm on him. He’s a little robotic and I tend to believe the buzz surrounding Glennon is partially a result of skepticism people have for the crop of quarterbacks in this draft class. No one can say with certainty that there is a big-time franchise quarterback on the horizon.”

I wrote this question in early February and it was published on February 9.  It was motivated by the fact that for the two previous offseasons, speculation about whether the Bucs would trade Glennon was an annual rite of spring.  He was behind Winston on the depth chart and, as Biggs said, given the supply and demand for quarterbacks, he was seen as a young, viable prospect that at least some teams evidently felt could still be developed.  Since then, Biggs has reported that the Bears have interest in signing Glennon in free agency and it really came as no surprise to me.  Despite the lukewarm feeling you get from Biggs’s response to the question, there’s a lot there to like about him.

The Bears are reportedly very interested in the intangibles when it comes to determining their future at quarterback.  In this respect, Glennon is hard to judge.  He was known as a calm, collected leader who had the respect of his teammates when he came out of North Carolina.  Not a red flag but not really a strength, either.

Having said that, I went back and looked at some of the tape of Glennon with the Buccaneers in 2013.  He’s a big, tall player at 6’7” and throws the ball on a rope with a really big arm.  Furthermore, he’s accurate and, as the statistics indicate, he takes care of the ball, throwing it with anticipation but usually only where the receiver can catch it.

That last aspect of his game, the ability to protect the football, cannot be understated.  Everyone once in a while, a Bears fan will write in to express his or her love of Matt Barkley.  I can state with surety that you can forget about the Bears ever re-signing him.  Last season, Barkley threw 3 interceptions against the Packers in week 15.  Knowing that he needed to improve that aspect of his game and not let it happen again, he came back the next week and threw 5 against the Redskins.  He followed that with 2 more in just over 3 quarters of play against the Vikings in week 17.  At that point, Barkley’s future with the team was sealed and the Bears had to know that he was a hopeless case.

John Fox is a defensive head coach.  He can live with mediocre quarterback play such as that which Brain Hoyer displayed in relief of Jay Cutler last year.  But he absolutely cannot have a turnover machine at the position.  Whether its Barkley or Cutler, who is all but gone, no one will be playing quarterback for the Bears unless he can protect the football.  Glennon does that.

As Biggs points out, Glennon is a statue in the pocket and that’s probably the biggest reason why the Buccaneers felt that they had to draft Winston.  But I’m not so sure that means that Glennon should simply be classified as a “bridge quarterback” on the way to something better should the Bears sign him.  My gut tells me that there’s a lot to work with there.  The Bears probably have a better offensive line than the Bucs did, particularly up the middle, and they may do a better job of protecting a less mobile quarterback.  Furthermore, the work that Dowell Loggains did with Hoyer and particularly Connor Shaw last year before injuries derailed them seems to have convinced the Bears that he might get more out of a guy like Glennon than the Buccaneers did.

Even if the Bears sign Glennon, they still have to draft a quarterback.  They have to reverse the trend that they’ve established in recent years by starting to take swings at the position and drafting real potential starters in the first three rounds.

But based upon what I’ve seen of Glennon, if they can get him to step up, shuffle his feet and move around just a bit more inside the pocket, the Bears might surprise some media and fans locally by getting more than is generally expected from him.  I’m not at all convinced that Glennon doesn’t still have a future as a very good NFL starter and if the Bears sign him, you can bet that they probably see what I see.  That along with the potential development of Shaw and a good, solid draft pick could quickly put them in a good spot at a position that up until now has been a neglected, barren wasteland for the franchise.

Letting Go of Cutler Sooner Rather Than Later? I Still Doubt It.

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune addresses the Jay Cutler situation:

While the Bears have no contractual deadline forcing a move, adding Cutler to the league-wide supply of quarterbacks — either by trade or release — could help their search, hoping another quarterback-needy team fills its vacancy with him instead of dipping into the draft pool.

I have to confess that I didn’t consider this aspect of the situation. It would, indeed, be helpful if another team picked up Cutler before the draft. But I don’t think it will help that much.

Cutler is a veteran that might be in a position to help you win now if you are a quarterback short. But those teams probably don’t want to draft a quarterback in the first three rounds, anyway. They’re going to be focused on filling needs not planning for the future with a project at quarterback.

The Bears are obviously ready to move on from Cutler. But I’m still going to maintain that in the absence of a trade, that the Bears hang on to him until they are absolutely sure that they won’t need him.

Talent Vs. Attitude. The Debate Continues But Not for the Bears.

Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune makes some good points and some not so good points:

This is so [head coach JohnFox: dumping talented players [Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffery] because he doesn’t like something about them, no matter how productive they are, but standing fiercely behind Dowell Loggains and his oft-inexplicable play-calling.

While some reasons for letting players leave are understandable, the Bears still have lost four offensive Pro Bowlers  and replaced them with a rookie Pro Bowler in Jordan Howard and, what, Josh Bellamy and a biology graduate from Harvard.

That, see, is the issue here and now: If you’re a coach who can’t coach or won’t coach players with personality or players who aren’t all-football all the time but still produce, then you’d better produce as a coach.

But the only thing Fox has produced is the lame consolation that his players tried hard, the sure sign of someone desperate to hold a job.
The Bears had better be good in free agency, I guess. Or Fox had better be good picking the players he thinks he can coach.

But then, maybe that’s part of Ryan Pace’s plan: Let Fox have his way with these player decisions so the general manager has solid reasons to fire the head coach when the Bears go 3-13 again and then hire a coach he wants instead of someone who appears passive-aggressively forced on him by a consultant and a Bears Senior Disorganizational Figure or two.

I certainly understand the argument about coaching talented but less than ideal players. But it’s worth noting that Fox was trying to institute a culture change in Chicago when he was hired. This was a team that was starting over and to this point, the project has been one of tearing down to the core, then building back up.  Bennett and Marshall just weren’t what he was looking for as a part of that core that was supposed to show young, often less talented players who actually need to maximize what they’ve got how its done.

With Jeffery, it’s probably got more to do with monetary value but I’d still claim that things would have been totally different had he trained in Chicago with the team last offseason.  The Bears were looking for him to show that kind of commitment to the team and you have to believe that they’re pretty sure there’s no PED suspension with them able to keep an eye on Jeffery in town.  As it is, there’s not nearly as much motivation to overpay a guy whose actions indicate that he may not be 100% on board no matter what hot air he blows about believing that the Bear swill win the Super Bowl next year.

In any case, the Bears situation puts Fox and Pace in a different position than the Patriots, who got a great deal out of Bennett because they have a solid locker room and a winning culture established. They didn’t need him to lead young, less talented undrafted free agents by example.  They had plenty of other guys for that and the Patriots could afford to absorb Bennett. The Bears, who have had to rebuild from scratch with a young locker room that still doesn’t know how to win, couldn’t.

I might add that, in my opinion, the odds that Bennett resigns with the Patriots are slim. Taking on his baggage for a year at a reasonable rate is one thing. Doing it now will be something else. It’s says here that the odds are good he ends up with a loser next year and plays his part, overly or covertly, in contributing to it with his attitude, just as Marshall did this year with the Jets.

The last part about Pace letting Fox fail so he can fire him after being forced to hire him in the first place is, of course, utter nonsense  based upon revisionist history. Pace interviewed Fox almost immediately after he separated with the Broncos, even following him to Denver immediately after talking to him in Chicago. Pace couldn’t wait to hire him and I’m still not convinced he wasn’t right to do so.

The Bears will have to show progress this season to convince the fans and the press that they’re doing the right things. But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve had no choice but to do what they’ve done to this point.

The Cutler Camp Is Taking a Big Risk by Floating Retirement Rumors in 2017

Chris Wesseling at comments on the rumor floated by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s camp that he may opt to retire in 2017:

“What is Jay Cutler’s football future if the Chicago Bears are unsuccessful in their quest to trade the veteran quarterback leading up to the new league year on March 9?

“If he is left without an attractive home once the offseason’s game of quarterback musical chairs comes to a close, it’s not inconceivable that Cutler will opt for early retirement.

“’He’s one of several veterans who are still considering whether they want to play, whether they want to not play, retire, walk away,’ NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport explained on Wednesday’s edition of NFL Total Access. ‘A lot of things in play here for Jay Cutler.’”

The thought among most NFL media people is that Cutler’s agent, Bus Cook, is floating the rumor to kill Cutler’s trade value and to force the Bears to release him.  If so, he may be making a serious mistake.

Cutler has slim hope of finding a new team in time to be under serious consideration as a starter unless he’s traded.  Cook obviously believes that the Bears will be unwilling to carry Cutler’s cap number deep into the offseason.  If so, he’s wrong.

The Bears are going to carry Cutler until they find another solution at the quarterback position.  There’s no possible way they do otherwise, leaving themselves with no sure options at the position.

That could mean that the Bears trade for Jimmy Garoppolo or A.J. McCarron early in the offseason.  That would be a win for Cutler and Cook.  The Bears would undoubtedly release Cutler, freeing up his salary so that the new quarterback could be easily signed long-term.  There would be little reason to carry the extra $13 million in cap space that Cutler would cost to keep around and he would, indeed, hit the market in a reasonable amount of time.

But there’s going to be a lot of competition for Garoppolo and most people believe that if the Browns really want him, they’ll get him.  They have the most draft capital to spend in a trade.  No one knows if the Bears (or anyone else) are interested enough in McCarron to make it worth the while for a contender like Cincinnati to trade away a good back up quarterback.

If the Bears miss out on Garoppolo, they may well opt to sign a cheap bridge quarterback like Brian Hoyer or a Mike Glennon.  In that case, there would be no reason to release Cutler until they are absolutely sure that they won’t need him and/or won’t be able to trade him.  That may mean waiting until after the NFL draft where they may or may not be able to find a future starter.  It may mean waiting longer than that, well beyond the time when every team has made its plans at quarterback.

Publicly Cutler’s been a reasonably good soldier the last few years and the Bears could opt to do him “a solid” and release him early.  But Cook is giving them little reason to want to do that by standing in the way of their efforts to maximize Cutler’s potential on the trade market.  All in all, it’s a big gamble, one that may well not pay off for Cutler.

Facts Ooze Out as Jay Cutler Appears to Be Near the End of His Time in Chicago

John Mullin at let’s this little tidbit slip out as he addresses the Bears quarterback situation:

“The Bears may find themselves in a situation not entirely dissimilar from where they stood in the 2014 offseason and were faced with a decision on Josh McCown after his career-best stretch in relief of Cutler. Then-GM Phil Emery wanted [Jay] Cutler over the feelings of the coaching staff and signed Cutler to that $126 million contract.”

The coaching staff didn’t want Cutler?  Since when?

Answer:  Since Cutler appears to have one foot out the door and reporters can safely tell the real story.

Cutler in 2014 was coming off of one of his best seasons with the Bears.  Though many still doubted whether he would be worth the money long-term, reports at the time were that everything was rainbows and roses between Cutler and the organization, that head coach Marc Trestman had turned Cutler around and and that the younger and more athletic Cutler had earned the contract extension over McCown.

It’s a funny thing about reports like this.  You never really get the whole story until the players are out of the reporter’s sphere of influence.  In this case, reporters are almost to a man positive that Cutler will not be with the organization next year.  Trestman and Emery are already gone and with all of those involved safely out of town, these are the things that eke out.

I think its safe to say that more will come to light in the near future, especially after Cutler is finally released.  It will, to say the least, be interesting reading.

Positioning the Bears for Success

John Mullin at CSN Chicago brings up a good point about the Bears search for a quarterback:

“How good is [general manager Ryan Pace] at finding a potential franchise quarterback, given that he’s never picked a quarterback in his two Bears drafts?

“Former GM Jerry Angelo admitted that he and his staff had more than their share of difficulties identifying good offensive linemen in the draft. Maybe it was because Angelo himself was a former college linebacker and defensive lineman; who knows?’

‘Pace is a former college defensive end and his personnel moves on that side of the football have generally been solid – Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, Nick Kwiatkowski, plus free agents Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Tracy Porter and Jerrell Freeman.

“But can Pace, who certainly knows things about chasing quarterbacks with malicious intent, draft success at the single most important position in perhaps all of sports?’

It’s a legitimate question and it’s not just Pace.  He’s working in an organization full of scouts and personnel men who apparently have consistently under-rated and/or failed to understand the position, as demonstrated by the fact that the Bears have so rarely taken one high in the draft and have so rarely been successful if they did.  How qualified are they to identify the qualities of a good rookie quarterback?  Would they know one if they saw one?

For years I pushed hard for the Bears to hire a head coach with a background in coaching quarterbacks.  They eventually did hire one in Marc Trestman and it didn’t work out.  But that doesn’t mean I was wrong.

I have no problem with current head coach John Fox, a defensive head coach, mostly because he’s demonstrated elsewhere that he can hire a good offensive staff.  Neither offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains nor quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone have ever coached a rookie to a successful NFL career.  Now we’re all crossing out fingers and hoping that his judgement that they can, despite the lack of evidence, is sound.

Has Pace earned the same benefit of the doubt?

There’s a lot to like about what’s happening with the Bears right now.  And it’s not like bears fans have a choice.  You have to have faith and wait and see what happens.

But the number of “ifs” that are stacking up becomes more and more mind boggling the more you think about them.  An awful lot of things are going to have to go right with an awful lot of people who have no history of success with the quarterback position if the Bears are going to be able to draft and develop a rookie quarterback along.

Bottom line, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that the Bears as an organization still haven’t set themselves up for success because they continue to under-value the most important position in sports.  And that perhaps can be demonstrated no more clearly than when seeing how they’ve set up their organizational structure all the way from the top down.

Taking a Quarterback Is Not Optional.

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“If the Bears do retain the third pick in the draft they will be able to choose a defensive player who is a difference maker at either the edge, 5-technique or safety depending on the first two picks. The second round should also produce an excellent player at tight end or on defense. And another starter should be found with the best available player in the third round. This is a great draft for certain positions. This is if the Bears ignore quarterback in the first three rounds. With five or six quarterbacks worthy of being drafted in the first round in 2018, why not wait till then? I am ok with Brian Hoyer next season. The Bears are not going to be a playoff or even a .500 team next season so improve the areas that can be most improved in this draft. There may well be a new coaching staff in 2018. Why not let them develop the quarterback of the future? We have waited this long after all. — Thomas H., Parts Unknown”

The idea of waiting to address the quarterback position is precisely the kind of thinking that has gotten the Bears in this predicament in the first place. I agree that there look to be some strong positions in this draft and some of them happen to match up with need areas for the Bears. But this franchise does not have a greater need than at quarterback and the longer the Bears put off the pursuit of finding the next franchise quarterback, the longer it’s going to take to actually land that guy. There’s no guarantee that quarterback is waiting for them in the 2018 draft. None. Zero. There is no guarantee that player is in this draft either. But you’ve got to swing and swing and swing and swing until you find that player. You can’t stop swinging until you get that player. The Bears’ biggest problem? They’ve been unwilling to swing for far too long. I’d also be very careful saying there will be five or six quarterbacks worthy of a first-round pick in the 2018 draft. A lot can change between now and then.”

I’m going to add one comment in my strong support of Biggs’s comment:  Not only should the Bears not wait until 2018 to take a quarterback, they should take one BOTH YEARS.  And EVERY YEAR after that until they find (at least) one.

Quarterback is a hit and miss proposition at the best of times.  You are going to miss on some, even the best in the class.  But statistically the truth is that good quarterbacks are more consistently found high in the draft, particularly in the first round.   And it’s not even close.  That means that you have to live with the occasional bust and keep taking your swings.  Over and over and over again until you get it right.

The Bears need to draft a quarterback at every opportunity every year.  It’s not an either or proposition.

Building from the Top Down

Dan Pompei , writing for The Athletic, addresses the Bears quarterback situation:

Brian Hoyer’s contract is up. He signed a one-year deal last spring. There will be many worse options to bringing him back as the No. 2 guy. Hoyer was criticized for not getting the ball in the end zone and not playing winning football, but he fills the requirements of a backup pretty well.

“Anytime you get the No. 2 in, you want the guy to not to lose the game,” an NFC North pro scout said. “He did that. He’s a better than average backup.”

There might not be another backup in the league who would give the Bears’ better return on salary.”

“Unlike Hoyer, [Connor] Shaw is an electric performer who stresses defenses by extending plays, playing with instinct and getting creative. Shaw deserves to be in the pole position for the developmental quarterback slot on the roster. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t have competition, either from a young player or from a draft pick, but he should be given a chance to stick.”

I like both Hoyer and Shaw.  But I really wonder if signing them is the right thing to do.

NFL personnel men talk about adding to the roster from the top down.  In other words, when you add a player, you add someone with the potential to start.  He and the other men at the position compete and the losers become backups.  But they become very good backups because the whole reason you signed them in the first place was because you thought they could start.  That’s how you build quality depth.

That’s particularly true of the Bears quarterback situation where they have essentially no one right now (assuming Jay Cutler is released or traded).  And the position is a particularly difficult one because, more than any other spot on the field, you are often taking a stab in the dark and hoping you get lucky.

That’s why the Bears can’t waste time signing “a better than average backup” or a guy who has been in the NFL for three years and is still considered to be “developmental”. You have to at least four guys that you think can be quality starters and let the second and third best be your back ups.

Having one of those be a solid veteran with a high floor and a ceiling high enough to make a very good starter in the right situation wouldn’t be a bad idea.  That way you have a worst case scenario if all of the younger players don’t pan out.  But if the Bears are debating whether to resign Hoyer, it should be whether he fits that profile, not if he is a guy who, at his best, is a good back up.  The same goes for Shaw.  Either he can compete to start or he can’t.

The Bears  need to be looking for players with the potential to play at the highest level.  Anything else is a waste of a roster spot at this point.