By Nate Johnson
After a disappointing 2014 season that saw the Chicago Bears bring up the rear in the NFL North with a 5-11 record and the sixth worst point differential in the league, there was an expectation that a considerable housecleaning would take place. In the end, however, the majority of the turnover was in the front office and not on the roster.
A 13-19 record over two seasons in which he often looked overmatched got Marc Trestman his pink slip, which opened the door for new general manager Ryan Pace to bring in John Fox. Fox comes in with a 119-89 career record and is two years removed from taking the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl, and he brings with him his offensive coordinator, Adam Gase. Rounding out the coaching carousel is new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, coming over after Jim Harbaugh’s departure from the San Francisco 49ers.
Fox has reached the postseason in over half of his seasons as a head coach, taking both the Broncos and the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. Gase had served as Fox’s offensive coordinator for the last two seasons in Denver. Fangio comes in as one of the most highly-regarded defensive minds in the league and will implement a 3-4 defense that had produced top 10 results each of his four years with San Francisco.
Fox and his staff inherit a team that looks quite a bit like the underperforming squad from 2014. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has left for the Jets and defensive stalwarts Lance Briggs (retirement) and Charles Tillman (Tampa) have both cut their deep-rooted ties with the Bears. Veterans Kevin Bass (LB), Jordan Mills (RT) and Dante Rosario (TE) were also end-of-camp cuts as victims of the roster crunch.
Besides the front office and coaching changes, the main newcomers are outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, coming off a solid year with the Baltimore Ravens, and wide receivers Eddie Royal (San Diego) and Kevin White (drafted from West Virginia).
Unfortunately for Fox, the team is limping into their season opener against Green Bay with a decimated receiving corps. Royal (hip) and White (possibly out for the season after surgery for a stress fracture to his shin) are joined on the injury report by top WR Alshon Jeffery (calf) and Marquess Wilson (hamstring).
While the defense comes into Sunday’s matchup much less banged up than the other side of the ball, they will be without nose tackle Jeremiah Ratliff. Ratliff will miss the first three games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Facing the Packers to open the season is a particularly daunting task given the pair the two teams played last year, in which their foes from Wisconsin outscored Chicago threefold, taking the series by a combined 93-31 margin. This will mark the 191st time the two teams have met, with the Bears holding the faintest of leads in the overall history, leading 93-91 with six draws. While the Packers offense might experience a bit of a step backwards after suffering the loss of top receiver Jordy Nelson, some of that should be buffered by the return of James Jones, who came back to Green Bay on Monday after being cut over the weekend by the New York Giants.
Following the opener (12 p.m. Sunday at Soldier Field), the schedule does not get easier. The Bears will host the Arizona Cardinals in week two before facing the Seattle Seahawks in their first road affair. Chicago will appear in prime time twice this season, once on Monday Night Football in a home game against the San Diego Chargers and in their second match of the year against the Packers on Thanksgiving night.