By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) The debate this time of year is a delicate one for dead-end teams, entirely in the context of the coaching staff’s security.
Effectively eliminated from the playoffs at kickoff, it becomes about players’ effort and concentration – are they still going full-out for the coach and for themselves? Are they approaching weekly preparation with the expected professional dedication, knowing that they’re about to endure another three hours of physical damage just for its own sake?
A loss like that moribund 38-17 outcome at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon doesn’t tell us much to that end, but nothing good happened for John Fox’s regressing Bears against the Vikings.
The offensive line was at the root of the trouble again, a mess of holding penalties and missed blocks that conspired to kneecap any occasional spasm of competence. After being sacked five times, Jay Cutler was back to hurrying plays and assuming pressure, eventually throwing the kind of signature interception that marks his worst stretches. Something is wrong with Kyle Long, who was beaten repeatedly on the right edge for the second straight week, at one point earning stared daggers from a frustrated Cutler.
Even with the Vikings down three starters on defense, the Bears were too often behind the chains and quickly off the field. Receivers gained little separation all afternoon, with Eddie Royal doing nothing to justify his acquisition and Alshon Jeffrey returning from his calf injury enough to be able to pull his hamstring again.
Defenders took turns getting pantsed, too. Glaring busts in coverage and tackling allowed Teddy Bridgewater to extend drives, the former raising fair questions about communication and the latter exposing a lack of individual talent – which is to say specifically that Shea McClellin and Chris Prosinski are out of place on an NFL field.
And if anybody can begin to explain how Fox manages the clock, please advise. He seemed to alternate between the reflexive conservatism supported by a trustworthy defense and the awareness of not having one and needing points. After going into the half with three unused timeouts, he then decided to open the third quarter with an onside kick. If and when the Bears get good, it would be a shame if Fox’s struggles to approach such things consistently remain a limiting factor.
For now, his 5-9 team has to answer for the obvious erosion that has occurred since beating the Packers on Thanksgiving. The spike in penalties and missed individual assignments is a concern, but again, the specific circumstances are key.
Because this is the first year of the regime, Fox and general manager Ryan Pace should and will receive some benefit of the doubt. The roster is an amalgam of one draft class, Phil Emery’s leftovers and a collection of assorted castoffs who should soon find their way back to the street from where they came.
Injuries have stripped them of important players at multiple positions, something that becomes more glaringly evident when having less with which to start the season.
Are bad things happening because guys are packing it in or because they’re not talented enough? In most cases, it’s only guesswork, save for obvious moments of loafing or physical self-preservation not in evidence here, yet.
It’s time to shift into full audition and development mode, using remaining playing time to accelerate into 2016 with more awareness of who may fit where and who plays themselves out of town.
If there’s anything on which to focus effort and concentration, it’s next year and beyond.