By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — A line of cars moved through the Bears’ quiet home along the north shore, each packed with players.
Thursday brought summer time for the Bears after coach John Fox surprised his team for a second straight year with a shortened final day of mandatory mini-camp. Naturally, spirits were high around Halas Hall as the team prepared to break from football.
“The players deserved it,” Fox said. “We had great participation for (the offseason program). We had great participation, great effort. That was their reward today.”
So, the cars moved through from the Walter Payton Center toward the locker room, where the Bears packed up for six weeks away from football.
Fox was all smiles, too, as he looked ahead to some time away. The Bears have gone 9-23 in his first two seasons as head coach, but Fox feels a different vibe around this team. After all three days of mini-camp, he had praise for where his Bears are headed.
“This is the most encouraged I’ve been, at least in my tenure,” Fox said Thursday.
The Bears’ offseason program began in April, with the team reconvening after a disappointing 3-13 campaign. The hunger within Halas Hall was clear, something built from the ugliness of 2016.
During the voluntary portion of the program, the Bears didn’t have any players skipping out. They believe they’ve gained a new leader in quarterback Mike Glennon, who took charge of the offense in his first months. Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky settled in to the NFL, beginning to build a connection with roommate and rookie tight end Adam Shaheen.
The defense has appeared to be ahead of the offense during practices, something Fox explained is common this time of year. While the offense is working through its adjustments, the team believes the defense has made strides. Newly signed Jaye Howard brings a new element to the defensive line, while linebackers Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee are healthy and in shape. The secondary that has much to prove has added several new members with a history of creating turnovers.
“I feel like we can be great,” Howard said of his new defense.
Fox’s optimism signals that the Bears are in a better place with their roster compared to the last two mini-camps. General manager Ryan Pace has steadily rid pieces left over from his predecessor, Phil Emery, and overhauled the depth chart with his own personnel.
Fox has constantly referred to the competition that will abound. He’s pointing to the clear improvements in roster depth.
Last season, the Bears were 3-13 because a roster with little room for error was overmatched and decimated by injuries. There were 19 players placed on injured reserve and replacement-level players thrust into action.
It would seem there’s nowhere but up for the Bears to go. That starts with the new personnel in place.
“I feel more comfortable with the type of guys we have, the type of locker room we’ve created,” Fox said.
In the season ahead, the focus will be on the quarterback position — whether the Bears are contending or losing. Pace made the bold move up for Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. That came barely a month removed from signing Glennon to a three-year, $45-million deal, of which just $18.5 million was guaranteed.
Ideally, the Bears would like to see Glennon take ownership of his role as the starter and for Trubisky to develop off to the side. But Trubisky will be waiting in the wings all year long, and a spotlight will certainly follow his development through training camp and beyond.
“It’s football,” Trubisky said. “It’s what I was born to do. I just got to come out here, keep learning, keep getting better every day. I would say it’s pretty natural, but there’s still so much more I can learn, so much more I can study and so much more I can improve.
“I’m here to help the team win. It’s an exciting time. I’m very blessed to be in the situation I’m in. Now, it’s my job to go to work and do whatever I can for the team.”
This Bears season will be about taking steps forward. Contending for the postseason would be welcomed, although that’d be a pleasant surprise for a team still putting the pieces together. The Bears have important development needed, especially with so many young players preparing for their roles. Veterans like Glennon are here to give this team a chance in 2017.
There are now 41 days remaining until the Bears report to training camp in Bourbonnais. Kickoff for the season comes in 87 days, with the defending NFC champion Falcons coming to Soldier Field.
Great work remains, but the Bears stand in a comfortable place with their offseason program complete.