Bears begin planning for next year

By Nate Johnson
Columnist

With a 24-20 home loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, another Bears season has come and gone. While the game saw some haunting habits return for Jay Cutler (three interceptions, the only game this season he threw more than one), the 6-10 finish didn’t seem as deflating as last season finished on the same note.

“Today was pretty much a microcosm of our season,” said head coach John Fox.

Cutler kept the team in the game with two touchdown passes while playing without his top three targets, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Eddie Royal, and kicker Robbie Gould made both of his field goal attempts to set a new team record for successful kicks in a season despite having the roughest patch of his 11-year career.

Although bringing up the rear in the NFC North and missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season, hope for the future well outweighs futility. The new coaching staff dealt with injuries at a number of key positions, often rotating players between positions, and managed to keep a competitive team on the field that could have easily been in the playoff hunt if not for the five losses by less than four points.

“I have mixed emotions on the season,” GM Ryan Pace said at a press conference Monday. “The record is frustrating. The close losses are frustrating. Those can kind of give you some sleepless nights. But then when I think bigger picture, I’m excited about what we’ve got going here.”

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase got the most out of Cutler, who set a career high for QB rating at 92.3 and cut down his interceptions by eight over last season while dealing with an oft-injured receiving corps. Whether Gase returns this fall or takes a head coaching position with another team, it looks like he may have unlocked something in the erstwhile signal caller.

The 6-10 finish earned the Bears the 11th pick of this year’s NFL draft, but the team will technically have two first-round picks this coming season as last year’s first-rounder, receiver Kevin White, expects to be healthy for pre-camp OTAs and finally make his debut with the team in the fall. Having the second-year rookie on the field would allow the team to focus their early picks on their other areas of need, foremost being linebackers and secondary help.

“I think we just need a couple of pieces,” Fox said. “We’re not real far. I know it looks like we are record-wise. But we’re really not. I think the core of our team is going to be with that group [in the locker room], and they understand it and know how to operate it.”

Other changes to the team could be the phasing out of some familiar faces. Running back Matt Forte is at the end of his contract, and the combination of his age and the production of rookie Jeremy Langford will likely lead to him signing elsewhere. Jeffery is also a free agent, but the team could use their franchise tag to retain him if they’re confident he can come back healthy after missing seven games this year.

“I love the city of Chicago, but I’ll let my agent and Mr. Pace deal with that situation,” Jeffery said Monday. “I’ll let them deal with that. I just play football.”

That coaching staff could face a reconstruction for the second straight year, although head coach John Fox will remain atop the team. Gase has already been linked to four teams with head coach openings, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could also be a candidate for a top spot after often making magic with a patchwork squad.

“Heading into the season I thought our coaching staff was a strength and I think that proved to be true,” Pace said. “Now it’s up to us to make the right personnel decisions this offseason and we need to add talent to our roster. We need to add more playmakers to help us finish close games and we’ll do that.”

“It’s speculative. I don’t want to start replacing (Gase) while he’s still here,” Fox said. “But we have a good plan in place and finding good quality coaches has never been a problem.”

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