By Robert Zeglinski
It’s become an annual Halas Hall tradition.
While the NFL’s final four sets in on conference championship Sunday this weekend, the Bears have already long begun their preparations for next year. An extended six-year playoff drought gives a team an early jump, but somehow yet it can still be mired in mediocrity.
A fortunate and respected step towards transforming that discouraging pattern consistently is with a spot as one of the coaching staffs on hand at the Senior Bowl on January 28th; the league’s annual premier scouting event of college football seniors entering that year’s particular draft. Every version has copious amounts of scouts and analysis on hand for the weekend in Mobile, Alabama. One would be remiss not to take extra time and care to have a look at your team and league’s potential future stars.
And why wouldn’t they? Many evaluators consider the Senior Bowl as one of the primary benchmarks in the offseason lead-up to the draft, along with the scouting combine in Indianapolis, Indiana, and general pro days players hold at their alma maters. Scouting season never sleeps.
However, only two franchises are afforded the ultimate (not to be too cliché) advanced look in Mobile to coach and spend additional time with the players. Typically, the two teams who had the worst overall records during the regular season are first offered this chance. In 2016, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers had the worst records in the NFL at 1-15 and 2-14, respectively.
But with San Francisco undergoing a full regime change – both the general manager and head were preemptively let go – they were removed from consideration. That of course left the next team in line – the Bears – with a golden set of circumstances to coach with the Browns, and they didn’t waver. An organization that’s won just nine games in two seasons needs to seize every moment possible to return on the upswing and fast. There’s pressure here for a turnaround and starting early work such as this is exactly the medicine the Bears need.
This January weekend is where you truly find the diamonds in the rough that change franchises, the studs that might not have received a fair shake if they weren’t noticed in Mobile. There are hundreds of college football athletes entering this draft process every year. It’s such an inexact science discerning any position that so many can get drowned in the shuffle. It’s about the due process to prevent that, to have done your homework.
Normally, you wouldn’t take away any positives from a 3-13 season, but if given a chance on what is the equivalent of extra credit or a make-up test professional football-wise to pick your “grades” up for the next semester, you bury yourself in the “books”.
Head coach John Fox echoed as much excitement in a prepared statement.
“We’re excited for this opportunity to get a hands-on look at some of the top draft-eligible players in the nation”, said Fox. “It’s a great opportunity to spend some extra time with these guys and see how they respond to our staff.”
Along with general stability in third year of the Ryan Pace-Fox regime, there was an underlying assumption that part of as to why the Bears stuck with a struggling coach in Fox for another season, is because hitting the reset button now would have placed them in the 49ers’ position, with the Jacksonville Jaguars (just behind the Bears with the fourth worst record in the NFL) taking their place in Alabama
Drastically clearing the table would have had Chicago lose out on a game and weekend that’s unearthed big name gems. Many quintessential first round players merely participate to solidify their status in the league. For this exercise, it’s about the guys that have been overlooked playing up to that quality.
Let’s go on down the line of recent alumni.
Last year, the Dallas Cowboys found their potential long-term answer at quarterback in the fourth round in Dak Prescott – who helped lead Dallas to the NFC’s number one overall seed, and enjoyed a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie.
Perennial All-Pro cornerbacks, Richard Sherman (2011), of the Seattle Seahawks, and Josh Norman (2012) of the Washington Redskins, were both drafted in the fifth round after their iterations, and have become two of the NFL’s premier lockdown players and personalities.
Sherman’s teammate, superstar quarterback and general elusive, dynamic machine, Russell Wilson, was also unearthed in 2012’s third round before Norman. Wilson, along with Sherman and other defensive pieces, are among the primary not-so-hidden reasons that Seattle has become an upper-echelon team in the NFL.
Two positions of primary need for Chicago secondary and quarterback: One obviously much more impactful than the other (quarterback) found in the relative depths of a draft. Chalk it up to fortune and circumstance, sure, but discounting that these were talents that helped to arise from this game, would be misguided.
There’s always a diamond to be found. You just have to dust it off properly.
For the record, Chicago hasn’t coached the Senior Bowl in over 20 years, but has made appearances as the main staff three previous times in 1976, 1992, and 1996. The Bears simply haven’t bottomed out enough to make a dent in their own embarrassing history in that light again until now.
Now, it’s about maximizing this occasion to make sure they’re not again coaching here soon with the obvious goals of winning, consistent contention, etc. And it’s evident that Pace relishes the magnifying glass he’s been given as he’s selected six participants from the Senior Bowl in his two years as general manager.
Adrian Amos and Jeremy Langford were selected in 2015, and Deiondre’ Hall, Cody Whitehair, Nick Kwiatkoski, and DeAndre Houston-Carson in 2016. Who knows how stir-crazy Pace and his scouts could get as one of the two franchises with its convoy set up in Mobile.
Of note for Pace too, it may not be with this current coaching staff either.
Staffs of the Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, and Cowboys have all coached in the Senior Bowl in the last four years. All five organizations are now either contending or trending in that direction after pending review from their talent influx in a quick turnaround. But everyone except the Cowboys made a change at head coach before their rise.
It’s simple transitive process. A potential or actual, lame duck coach is fired, and the predecessor is handed a talented roster to usher to the promised land. It’s clockwork. Whether that happens with Fox, well, only the results can speak for themselves.
Until then, at this juncture, the Bears would do well to bury their heads in the “books” i.e. auxiliary scouting, and prepare for the second chance the “teacher” has given them.