GREEN BAY — Another 10-loss season wasn’t entirely what John Fox had in mind for the Chicago Bears during his second year as the head coach.
Yet, the Bears have kept fighting. Since third-string quarterback Matt Barkley took over three weeks ago, Chicago has notched a 26-6 win over San Francisco and suffered narrow losses to Tennessee and Detroit by a combined margin of nine points.
Fox, who had only one season with more than 10 losses in his first 14 years as a head coach, is disappointed his second year in the Windy City hasn’t led to more wins but that doesn’t mean 2016 has been a lost season.
Anticipating a rebuild when he arrived in 2014, Fox believes the Bears are moving in the right direction.
“Obviously it’s no fun, especially when you’re used to winning, being 3-10,” Fox said. “We’re definitely not pleased with our record. We’ve had some misfortune or whatever you want to call it as far as injury-wise. I think culturally, our guys compete. Now, we’ve just got to do the things necessary to win.
“I think we’re making progress in areas as a football team in building some depth. I think we’re getting close to striking distance now both cap-wise and talent level-wise moving forward.”
There have been signs of life for the Bears despite a rash of injuries and suspensions for Pro Bowl receiver Alshon Jeffery and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. It starts with first-round pick Leonard Floyd and fifth-round running back Jordan Howard, who have provided immediate contributions as rookies.
Floyd missed one game after sustaining a scary neck injury against the New York Giants on Nov. 20, but he missed only one game. He’s one of three Bears with at least seven sacks this year.
Vic Fangio, a pupil of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, has Chicago sitting in seventh in total defense (326.5 yards per game) and tied for fifth in sacks with Green Bay (33).
Meanwhile, Howard has been perhaps the most consistent weapon on Chicago’s offense this season. Both Fox and Barkley compared the rookie to Packers running back Eddie Lacy in terms of his power running style and ability to make the first tackler miss.
Howard took over as the Bears’ starting running back in Week 3 due to injuries and hasn’t looked back, with his 969 rushing yards good for ninth in the NFL. While Chicago is 3-10, the Bears remain undefeated this season when Howard carries the ball at least 20 times.
“I think we saw early in camp that he had really good vision and good feet,” Fox said. “When we had the Jeremy Langford injury, we plugged him in as the starter and he’s handled it really well. He’s a big guy – he’s 235. Kind of more of a Lacy-style of a back as far as real thick lower (body), a little bit hard to take down on first contact.
“I think for a young guy having some success, I think he’s mature beyond his years as far as handling it.”
Howard has been Barkley’s best friend since the fourth-year quarterback assumed the starting job three weeks ago against Tennessee. A 2013 fourth-round pick out of USC, Barkley had stops in Philadelphia and Arizona before catching on with the Bears.
Barkley saw his first action of the season against the Packers on Oct. 20 after Brian Hoyer suffered a broken arm. He completed 6-of-15 passes for 81 yards and two interceptions in the 26-10 loss.
Barkley has played better since stepping in for an injured Jay Cutler on Nov. 28. He’s completed 59-of-104 passes for 720 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions (83.0 passer rating) over his three starts.
He’s helped keep Chicago in games over the past month, though it serves as little consolation.
“It’s been close but it hasn’t been good enough,” Barkley said. “Given our situation with the injuries we’ve had and the lack of depth at some positions, I’m definitely proud of how our guys have fought.
“When it comes to the little details that separate good teams from great teams, we haven’t been great. That starts with me up top and trickles on down to the little details whether it’s the run game or the pass game.”
Barkley should have former Packers guard Josh Sitton protecting him on Sunday. Sitton returned to the starting lineup during Chicago’s 20-17 loss to the Lions on Sunday after missing three games this season due to an ankle injury.
The three-time Pro Bowler sat out against the Packers in his return to Lambeau Field in October.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job,” Fox said. “He’s been a good addition. He’s good in our locker room. We’re young but he’s a veteran guy. There’s not a lot of veterans for our guys to look to so he’s been a good teammate and a good performer.
“I know he was not very happy about missing the game there in Lambeau but he’s looking pretty good for Sunday.”