By Robert Zeglinski
Football has mercifully returned.
The 2017 season begins in earnest as the Bears report to Bourbonnais for training camp on Wednesday. This camp is but the first step of the third season of a Ryan Pace-John Fox-led regime that’s won just nine games in the first two years of their tenure.
Needless to say, even as the arrival of No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky and plenty of other young studs such as running back Jordan Howard as well as budding star pass rusher Leonard Floyd signal a turning tide of optimism concerning the Bears, there’s a lot at stake. 2017 will demand the Bears begin showing moderate increments of improvement on the field performance-wise, regardless of if they’re starting from the ground up at quarterback.
We’ve already taken a thorough look at the Bears’ offense and defense pre-camp. Now let’s dive into a not-so-special Bears special teams unit.
It’s too often overlooked, but the third phase of a football game on special teams can be as crucial to victory as any defensive or offensive play. Yes, the advent of kickoffs starting from the 35-yard line neutralizing many chances at returns, as well as NFL punters becoming incredibly adept at limiting returners with extensive hang time has changed the game. But special teams still matters.
Think about it: a team like the Bears could put together a complete performance on both primary sides of the ball and still ultimately lose a game on a bad snap, haphazard coverage on a return, or generally stymie its offense with a useless pop gun return game of its own. You can’t punt away what a good special teams unit means for an NFL team.
With all of this in mind, it’s not as if the Foxy-led Bears have been awful per say on special teams in his first two seasons in Chicago. It’s that these effectively middling units haven’t moved the needle either way – which is an issue to consider as the team works it’s way towards contention.
In 2016, the Bears were 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA – which takes every possible statistic into account in an aggregate performance formula. That’s an improvement from a 21st finish in 2015, but not much to notice any reasonable leap.
There’s a reason for this: a roster largely stripped down completely in Pace’s image has had much of the normal depth on a quality team instead performing on offense and defense. Players such as safety Adrian Amos or Harold Jones-Quartey are contributing in less-than-ample positions defensively, while their contributions don’t trickle down onto special teams.
The only way for the Bears to reasonably improve on special teams outside of coaching change away from the incumbent Jeff Rodgers (welcome home Dave Toub) is to build a more talented roster. Easier said than done, but not a completely out-of-line sentiment when you note the influx of players that Pace has already filed in.
An explosive return game does wonders for an offense and is often considered the greatest turn of momentum possible in football. Returners such as Deonte Thompson have done too little for Chicago in offering this useful dynamic.
2017 fourth-round pick Eddie Jackson figures to offer a real semblance of competence as a returner for the Bears. The rookie ran back two punts for touchdowns in his senior year at Alabama and was a threat to bring a ball back any time he had it in his hands on defensive interceptions (three pick-sixes).
It’s a difficult transition for a returner to make in going from the speed of the college game to the pros – especially as Jackson figures to have eventual defensive responsibilities weighing him down – but it doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy any success with the big boys. All it takes is one opportunity, one punt gone awry, and Jackson will have the shot to make his mark.
Competition to watch
A rough start doomed any good will for fans to believe in starting kicker Connor Barth after the release of fan-favorite Robbie Gould late last preseason. And for good reason: Barth finished 30th in the NFL in field goals made with 18 (which is also emblematic of a mediocre Bears offense) and 27th in percentage.
That kind of lackluster performance opens the door for 28-year-old undrafted rookie Andy Phillips to snatch away the starting gig from Barth. A former U.S. ski team member, Phillips was a four-time All-Pac-12 kicker at Utah as well as a four-time Lou Groza Award semifinalist – awarded to the nation’s best kicker.
If Phillips can separate himself from the veteran Barth in camp then the Bears may have found their long-term kicker, which will be will important in the context of a future improved Bears attack. Competition reigns everywhere in the NFL: especially for one of the most disregarded but pivotal positions.
By and large, what the Bears do on special teams this year will be defined by finding a successful punt and kick returner, as well as ironing out their kicking situation. Chicago’s roster eventually rounding into form will help the overall performance.
Camp is here and every step to creating a complete Bears team cannot at all be neglected. R.
Robert is headed off to Bourbonnais for Bears’ training camp. You can find his weekly reports in print and more coverage right here at RockRiverTimes.com. Find Robert on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.