For this week’s Getting to Know segment, we turned again to former Star Tribune Vikings beat writer Dan Wiederer, who now covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune …
MC: Every team plays the “what if” card, but the Bears very well could be 7-6 with better place-kicking the past two weeks. Robbie Gould is the ninth-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, but has had two clutch misses at the end of the past two games. What is wrong with Gould and the place-kicking unit?
DW: “Of all the troublesome issues during the past two losses, Gould’s inability to be the life raft has been the most shocking. For 11 seasons, the Bears have rarely had to worry about Gould in the clutch. Now? This significant spike in anxiety – at least from fans – is notable.
“Gould missed two second-half field goals against the 49ers two weeks ago, a 40-yarder in the third quarter and a 36-yarder that would have won the game as time expired in regulation. Both of those kicks sailed wide left and Gould admitted he was just a little quick with his process, pulling both kicks.
“Last week? With a 50-yard shot that would have tied the Redskins with less than 2 minutes left, he left that kick out right. Perhaps it was an overcompensation after his first five misses this season were all wide left. Perhaps Gould didn’t get help from a crosswind as he was expecting. Or perhaps he’s still trying to get comfortable with the operation after the Bears changed long snappers in Week 13, replacing Thomas Gafford with Patrick Scales.
“To be clear, the snaps and holds on Gould’s past three misses have all been good. So it’d be unfair to Scales to hint otherwise. But certainly Gould has to find comfort and regain his confidence quickly. And it may just be a matter of seeing a couple kicks sail through the uprights to get things back on track.”
MC: The Bears made three splashes in free agency when they signed linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and receiver Eddie Royal. What kind of impact did they have this season and do you see them being a significant part of next year’s team, and what area do you see the team targeting in free agency and the draft next year?
DW: “There were high hopes for all three players. But they have now combined to miss 14 games with various injuries. Rolle is on IR with a season-ending medial collateral ligament issue and finished his first season as a Bear with only seven games played, one pass break-up and zero interceptions. That was hardly a profitable return on investment for a player who made $5 million this season. His savvy and leadership was respected when he was healthy. But he also turned 33 this week. So it’s hard to say for certain whether the Bears will bring him back in 2016.
“Through the season’s first two months, McPhee was probably the defensive MVP, an imposing and violent pass rusher whose contagious passion made him an instant leader. But he’s been dealing with soreness in his left knee for a while now, has missed two games overall and just hasn’t been able to play much or productively when he’s been active in recent weeks. The Bears are trying to squeeze all they can out of him. But for now, they understand their reality.
“And Royal’s numbers this season — 27 catches, 186 yards, six games missed – also registers as disappointing, though his contract and versatility will keep him part of the plans in 2016.
“As for draft needs, the Bears need talent upgrade everywhere. Most specifically, they need more talent at inside linebacker, more depth at receiver and greater reliability on the offensive line. Start there.”
MC: With the Bears essentially out of the playoff picture, what is the No. 1 issue/question mark facing this team over the final three weeks of the season?
DW: “The Bears were 5-8 at this point last year, the same record they have right now. But last year’s team was in total freefall, lost and rudderless as they finished the year. This year’s squad has shown great resolve for much of the year and has gained great energy from coach John Fox. After losing two home games in which they were favored, I’m interested to see if Fox can keep this group invested and upbeat to finish strong and validate the progress they’ve made this season. That’s a big deal. Can these team play hard and play sharp to finish the year? ”
MC: What is your sense on this team’s ability to win with Jay Cutler as its quarterback long-term, and why?
DW: “Truthfully, I don’t think it’s changed much. I still firmly believe that the Bears can win with Cutler at quarterback. I just don’t think they can win big consistently because he’s playing quarterback. It’s an important distinction and there’s a big enough sample size now (10 years in the league, seven in Chicago) to support that assertion.
Cutler has had a nice season. His rating is up. His turnover numbers are down. All in all, he’s shown poise and composure in the new offense of coordinator Adam Gase. He’s been steady for the most part and held it together with a whirlwind of changes both on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. For that, he deserves praise. The Bears’ coaching staff has also been thoroughly impressed with his toughness and his work ethic behind the scenes. But … And you knew the ‘but’ was coming, right? What happens if Gase leaves for a head coaching job next month? What happens if Cutler suddenly has to learn yet another new offense next season with what would be his sixth play-caller in his time as a Bear? Would his progress continue? Would he be in sync with whatever new system he was in? It’s hard to say.
“Cutler is who he is – a rocket-armed quarterback who can dazzle you with highlight reel throws and befuddle you with inexplicable mistakes. The latter have been reduced this season. And that’s progress. And it’s hard to cast a definitive vote for a change at the position until you know what the change would be. Breaking news: there isn’t a surplus store out there for legitimate franchise quarterbacks. So this is the predicament the Bears remain in.”
MC: The Bears have lost close games, been shutout and really struggled at home. Is there still confidence in John Fox as the head coach and, if so, what are some reasons to support it?
DW: “There is plenty of confidence. And a lot of it. The Bears’ September struggles were predictable. It was a young team with a new coach and major scheme changes on both sides of the ball. The growing pains against a schedule that threw the Bears into the ring with the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks right away were inevitable. Since then, they’ve been a .500 football team and competitive in every game. They’re playing with greater edge and cohesion on both sides of the ball then they showed a year ago. And Fox has drawn praise from the locker room all year long for putting his players in the best position to succeed as a team. Fox’s reputation as a confidence builder is justified. And now it’s time for him to put that to use toward a strong finish that can propel the Bears into the offseason on a high note.”