Emma: John Fox Must Clean Up Bears’ Game-Management Methods

By Chris Emma–

HOUSTON (CBS) — With the resignation of defeat slowly setting in to Bears coach John Fox’s voice Sunday, he spoke of his young team’s need for growth.

Fox is a renowned team builder, taking two squads — the 2003 Panthers and 2013 Broncos — to the Super Bowl. No coach in league history has taken three different teams to the Super Bowl, as goal Fox is trying to accomplish in Chicago. But as Fox spoke of the lessons from a 23-14 loss to the Texans in the season opener, he could learn something, too.

On the second play of the fourth quarter at NRG Stadium, the Texans faced a third-and-1 at the Bears’ 22-yard line. Quarterback Brock Osweiler hurried his offense to the line of scrimmage, positioning his 6-foot-7 frame for an obvious quarterback sneak. The Bears sniffed it out. Osweiler appeared to be stuffed.

Without much hesitation, the official spotted the ball at what appeared to be a yard ahead of where Osweiler was stuffed. It seemed clear on replays that the Texans would be forced to kick a field goal if it was reviewed, but Fox elected not to throw the challenge flag. Instead, the drive was extended for the game-changing touchdown, an 18-yard screen to rookie Will Fuller on third-and-7. It was one of Houston’s 12 third-down conversions on 20 attempts.

So why didn’t Fox challenge the play?

“You don’t do too well with challenges on spots,” Fox said. “If it’s not clear cut, it doesn’t get changed.”

The problem is that it was clear cut. Fox doesn’t have the luxury of replay angles on the visiting sidelines, but Bears personnel in his headset can see it. Where’s the quality control coordinator in Fox’s ear?

Football is full of what-if scenarios, but this one was cut and dry. The Texans would’ve faced a fourth down and likely attempted a field goal, which would’ve made their lead 16-14, not 20-14. As it played out when the Bears were looking to come back in the final minutes, they trailed by two scores instead of one.

Fox later used a challenge with 7:46 remaining when Fuller made a catch falling back for a 24-yard gain on yet another third-down conversion. Once more, the ruling seemed fairly certain. This would be ruled a catch, unless Fox lucked out with some NFL-catch confusion.

“That was just a long timeout,” Fox explained of his decision to challenge.

While that’s an understandable point — given the Bears defense needed to catch its breath before looking for a stop — that challenge would’ve been better served early in the quarter. Nick Novak would cap the drive with a field goal to make it 23-14.

Fox’s day in Houston also included the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 with 2:49 remaining in the first quarter and the Bears leading 7-0 with the ball at the Texans’ 31-yard line. Credit Fox for showing some guts and looking to cash in early, but drawing up a quarterback sneak with a rookie center — one with limited snaps in practice — was risky and proved to not be the right call. Cody Whitehair engaged his block too soon, and Jay Cutler couldn’t retrieve the snap. The Bears came away with no points.

“That was on me,” Whitehair said. “I just got to hike it up there a little bit higher.”

Cutler replied to that claim: “It takes two to make that work.”

That play call shouldn’t have even happened, with the Bears failing to recognize their own risk created.

During his 39 years as a coach, Fox has won a lot of games. As a head coach, he’s done great work in building teams.

The problem is that Fox has shown flaws in game management. His clock management can often be questioned, with similar situations to Sunday’s in the past. Last season in Detroit, Fox’s clock management was part of the reason for a Lions victory over the Bears. Fox defended his game management in the postgame aftermath.You can find other instances, too.

Fox is an excellent coach Monday through Saturday, but Sundays can sometimes present problems. There’s a lot happening on the sidelines, and critical decisions can slip past him.

Perhaps the season-opening loss in Houston would’ve played out differently if Fox had thrown the red flag to the field on what was clearly a third-down stop and if the first-quarter opportunity hadn’t been squandered.

Whatever the case, somebody on the Bears coaching staff has to be responsible for saving Fox from himself when the game is on the line.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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