By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS — As their third training camp gets underway, Bears GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox say they’re not focused on the “hypotheticals” of 2017’s expectations and pressure.
There’s one adage that rings true more than any other prospect in July in the NFL: the prospects of a new year with training camp optimism never, ever fails.
As the Bears reported to training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais for the 16th consecutive year on Wednesday, “positive energy” was the focus. In their pre-camp presser, Pace and Fox had their sights set on player development and competition instead of the tidal wave of pressure that a third consecutive losing season would bring to their plates.
The longtime veteran Fox, in particular, had his eyes on the prize as a whole. For Fox, he likely needs Chicago to show more than a slight objective improvement. The Bears need to be more than a middling team to move on from the outright embarrassment that the 2016 season was.
But Fox isn’t thinking about that bar of performance even as the bulls-eye was set directly on him and his partner in Pace.
“I’m not thinking about those kinds of hypotheticals,” said Fox of what the Bears’ possible pitfalls in 2017 would do. “There’s a lot of optimism around the building right now and I’ll stick to that.”
No one understands the annual tradition of optimism more than these Bears, who have won a paltry nine games under Pace and Fox to this point. Every year a marked improvement is at least, hoped for from their perspective. Perhaps, in that light, the pressure to succeed and begin showing results in year-three are still prevalent for the coach.
“It’s really like year 28 for me,” Fox said. “It’s no different from any other year. As a coach, you always put pressure on yourself.”
Fox’s deflection is the Bears’ best way of keeping a clear and positive mindset at this point. On the first day of training camp there’s no need to dive into the fatalistic attitude yet. Any other personnel executive or coach would be lying if they said dark ominous clouds were on their mind before their players had even dressed in full pads.
What’s clear is that the time for discussion of Fox’s future, as well as the overall evaluation of Pace moving forward, will be tabled until it’s more than appropriate—well into the regular season. That won’t stop Fox from uncharacteristically divulging on what he again believes to be his best team in Chicago.
“This is the deepest, most competitive team we’ve fielded,” said Fox, setting the tone for camp.
Next to the stoic and a little out of character Fox, was a normally “fired up” Pace that was glowing at the excitement of the start of his third season. This is his finally his show to puppeteer. The difference of his maestro work is notable in differences from even last year to now.
“The culture, vibe in the locker room is really good right now,” glowed Pace at the Bears’ leaps from year two to year three.
It’s important to note that Bears are now among the youngest teams in the league, so moving forward with a quarterback situation concerning Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky is as fluid as any. For every other aspect of leadership and culture to be set in place is a boon compared to other clubs with fresh starters under center.
The questions on what the Bears will need to accomplish – and soon, regardless of where they sit in an ongoing rebuild – won’t go away anytime soon, though. And Pace of all people knows the trials ahead loom large.
When asked about confronting these challenges, in a very matter-of-fact fashion, Pace maintained: “It is very difficult to change a culture. There’s pressure in all of us to win games.”
As they’re set to kick another training camp off, the magnifying glass rests on Pace and Fox. To turn these Bears around it’s going to take more than in year’s past. A yeoman’s effort won’t be enough. The talent level on the roster has improved but Pace and Fox will know this will require a dedicated, collective group effort.
• Receiver Kevin White has had a difficult go of it in his career so far due to injuries. But he’s not going to have any restrictions to ease him in during camp according to Pace. No doubt a welcome sight for the team.
“He’s ready to go, had a great summer and off-season. He’s pretty much unleashed.”
• Injuries were a big factor in Chicago’s disappointing 3-13 season last year and Pace made sure to note dramatic changes in how they worked and conducted their players’ workloads to curb further issues.
“We’ve adjusted our camp schedule, different things in the weight room, and have focused on player tracking.”
• As far as what adjustments to expect in the camp schedule, the Bears will not practice “very hard” at any time for three straight days. There are more rest days built in, all designed to take a bit of a brunt off of the players.
Still, injuries to any degree are inevitable. It’s a perked-up roster that will help you withstand having them cave a season in, as Pace knows. Only time will tell whether the Bears are good enough to avoid last season’s disaster.
“Injuries can happen. It’s on us to stack a roster with depth.”
• Second-year outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is one of the Bears’ brightest spots on the roster. His jump in play will be crucial for the defense and according to Pace, he’s raring to go to put two concussions and durability concerns behind him.
“He’s added muscle to his frame, improved tackling technique and you see it … His pass rush repertoire, he’s got a lot to work with as far as counters, and it’ll be exciting to see.”
Meanwhile, the Bears invested a lot in former Division II tight end Adam Shaheen by spending this year’s second-round pick on him. The physical freak who stands at 6-foot-7 was a natural athlete as a receiver but adjustments will be needed for him to stand tall as a blocker and the Bears know it.
• In slight non-football news, Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton won’t report to Bourbonnais until Saturday morning – the first day the Bears are in full pads – because of the recent birth of his child.
• Of every offensive player, tailback Jordan Howard is someone the Bears will rely on heavily this year. On the heels of a season that saw Howard finish second in the NFL in rushing, he’ll be expected to take a lot of pressure off of whoever is the starting quarterback.
“If I’m an offensive lineman, I love blocking for him,” said Pace. R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.