THE MORNING AFTER: ‘Tis the season for Fox and Gase

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5), lifted by Chicago Bears strong safety Ryan Mundy (21), prepares to fall into the end zone for a rushing touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

MINNEAPOLIS – Just before 3 PM on Sunday afternoon, it became official.

The news came and went without much fanfare. For most Bears fans the consequence of the result of the scoreboard at TCF Bank Stadium was a foregone conclusion. Fate was sealed with closer and more painful results a few hundred miles to the southeast the last few weeks.

But for what its worth the moment the final second ticked off the scoreboard in the Vikings’ 38-17 win Sunday meant Bears were knocked out from any playoff considerations. No scenario would save their hopes for postseason football even thought it still would have taken a minor miracle for the team to get in even if they’d won.

Standings wise, the rest of the season is meaningless. Not even a .500 season is possible at this point and the best they’ll finish in the NFC North is third.

But what happens at Raymond James Field on December 27th and then Soldier Field on January 3rd is matters a lot to the 53-players on the field. ‘Tis the season for fighting for jobs next year-whether wearing the “C” on the helmet or not.

Yet in the greater scheme of things, there are two people who have to be at their best for these final two contests against the Buccaneers and the Lions to make sure the progress in rebuilding the Bears keeps on the right path. They won’t take a snap the next two weeks but they’ll watch every snap intently because some major part of their team depend on it.

That’s head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace.

They’ve got 96 minutes of real football to watch before the make some pretty big decisions.

How about Alshon Jeffery, who is in the final year of his contract? His season was encapsulated on Sunday.

In the second quarter he made a touchdown catch look easy as he shook off defenders to get open for the score. Yet it was his only catch of the day and he was targeted five times. A nagging hamstring kept him off the field for a critical part of the contest and his return came only after the game was out of hand.

When healthy Jeffery can play as evidence by his 53 catches for 797 yards which he’s accrued in eight games this year. But that’s the thing, just eight games. Five were lost to injury in 2015 and on Sunday he nearly didn’t play when his calf flared up again during the week.

Fox and Gase will have to be diligent in evaluating him and Matt Forte, who like Jeffery enters the final year of his deal.

I wrote earlier in the season that despite the hoopla surrounding Jeremy Langford’s strong rookie season that Forte shouldn’t be forgotten. Sunday proved that true as he grabbed a team-high six passes including a touchdown while also leading the Bears with 47 yards rushing. Forte would have had 35 more in that category if a Hroniss Grasu holding penalty didn’t negate that rush on the opening play.

But do they have enough in Langford not to invest the money in a 30-year old running back? John and Ryan have the next two weeks to look at it.

Will they need Martellus Bennett in 2016? They can’t evaluate that as easy with the tight end on injured reserve with a rib injury. Can Zach Miller, who shared the team lead in catches with Forte (6) be a person who can take over should they decide to part ways with Bennett, who has a year left on his deal but would like an extension?

Of course there is Jay Cutler. Oddly enough, he ends up being the smaller of the question marks as 2015 ends. Invigorated by a new offensive scheme under Adam Gase and more conscious of ball control (Interceptions down by 10 and fumbles down by three from 2014), the man the Bears didn’t seem to want leading the team this season looks closer to a lock than ever before to return in 2016.

Still do they want a look at David Fales in something other than the preseason? They’ll have to decide. Now is their time.

“We cannot have a winning season, and we are going to have a losing season. The math is no different now than it was a month ago,” said Fox when asked about playing for pride. “We are at 16 games and our record is what it is so we have a chance to win 2 games or not win 2 games.”

That really doesn’t matter.

What does mean something are the way that he along with his general manager look at those 53 men on the field during the next 96 minutes of football with clear eyes. ‘Tis the Season for them as the franchise looks forward from a 2015 that might have been something but won’t be.

Completing the next phase of rebuilding the Bears depends on evaluation and so they only pressure now is on Fox and Gase.

What they’ll see these next two games could determine if meaningful football is played during the holiday season a year from now.




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