Preseasons and training camps are about answering questions; every team comes out of offseasons with them, ranging from Super Bowl winners (will they repeat?) to bottom-feeders (can the new guys play?).
The Bears have gotten some partial answers; tight end, for example, still has the unknown of health for Zach Miller and even pickup Tony Moeaki. But with converted defensive lineman Greg Scruggs coming back from a lung injury, prospects are arguably better than they appeared prior to the outset of camp. And if the contributions of running backs Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard are still to come, that has not compromised the work of Jeremy Langford even as the Bears await the arrival of more members of the running-back “committee.”
Still, teams that lose their first two preseason games don’t always suggest that those questions are resolving. Indeed, teams that lose those first two preseason games as often as not are facing either new questions or an increasing pressure to answer the ones that hopefully were settling.
(Not that 0-2 preseason starts automatically portend darkness; the 1985 Bears opened 0-3 and the 2006 Bears began 1-2, and both of those reached Super Bowls.)
The 2016 Bears haven’t sparked comparisons with those just yet; both of those teams were coming off playoff seasons, something only one Bears team since that 2016 group has accomplished.
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More to the immediate point, the 2016 team has reached the midpoint of its preseason with three questions standing out above others, and they were not necessarily ones that were foreseen as problems before this preseason began:
1. No. 2 quarterback
When the Bears signed Brian Hoyer as Jay Cutler’s understudy, it came with a bit of an exhale. No more Jimmy Clausen. No more Caleb Hanie. Enter Josh McCown Redux.
Except it has not gone close to expectations. Hoyer, who arrived with a better winning percentage as an NFL starter (15-11) than Cutler (67-67), has been abysmal, throwing two interceptions (the Bears’ only two this preseason) and compiling a 34.4 passer rating.
Preseason stats mean nothing, but preseason performances can and often do. And backup quarterbacks are simply caddies – until starters go down, and Cutler has not played a 16-game season since his first in Chicago (2009).
If there is a cause for concern with Hoyer, it is that his struggles have come against backups, not starters. David Fales posted a 125 rating last preseason. Clausen put up a 94 in 2014. Jordan Palmer registered a 103 in 2013. So Hoyer, with a 45.8 completion percentage, is puzzling.
“I don’t know that I’d call it struggling,” coach John Fox said after Thursday’s loss at New England. “He’s a new quarterback in our system. Everything is new to him. I’ve seen him improve since he’s been here.”
2. Turning (up) a corner
One cornerstone of winning defense is “rush-and-cover” – the complimentary combination of pass rush from the front and coverage by the back-end of the defense. The Bears have a growing question in the latter.
The play of Kyle Fuller at the cornerback spot opposite Tracy Porter was a matter of concern after last season, lessened to some extent by Fuller righting himself after a poor start to the year. But now his health is also an issue after knee surgery last week.
Unfortunately for the Bears, that is not their only question at a pivotal spot in their and any defense.
Jacoby Glenn got the start against the Patriots but left with a suspected concussion. Bryce Callahan, who emerged as a nickel corner with a future last year, missed Thursday entirely with a hamstring injury. De’Vante Bausby has flashed but not enough to move significantly up the depth chart after being a late-season addition to the practice squad. Sherrick McManis has played corner but not well enough to hold onto a job beyond special teams.
The Bears drafted Deiondre’ Hall in the fourth round and DeAndre Houston-Carson in the sixth. Both have potential but at this point that is all it is – potential, as in “possible.” But Hall in particular has impressed the dean of his position group.
“Deiondre, man, he’s always been that competitor,” Porter said. “Now it’s just trying to clean up little technique issues. It’s not anything terribly wrong that he’s doing. Either staying too high when he’s playing off coverage or not being in the right position when he’s playing press coverage. Aside from the closing speed and the athletic ability, he has everything you need. You just got to clean up the little things.”
3. At WR, numbers are there, but…
The offense is clear on its starting wideouts in the persons of designer (6-3, 220-ish pounds) Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, even if White has yet to dominate.
And that is an issue, until it’s not. White was the No. 7 pick of the draft to put explosion in the offense. Through his first two partial games, White has produced two catches for a total of nine yards.
“I just told him to play physical because he's big, he's strong and he's fast,” Jeffery said. “Coach CJ [Curtis Johnson] reminds him of that all the time. So just told him to go out and have fun, just play physical and just do what he’s been doing.”
Eddie Royal was penciled in as the veteran slot receiver. But Royal was penciled in there last year and managed to stay healthy for only nine games. He has not gotten back on the field yet from a training-camp concussion. He is guaranteed $4.5 million for 2016, but Bears Chairman George McCaskey has said that money will not be the prime determinant of roster decisions. And if there is a health concern, roster space is precious enough already.
Daniel Braverman was a camp phenom as a seventh-round pick, but has yet to spark any notice beyond three targets (two catches, seven yards) in 47 snaps played. Marc Mariani is a dependable Cutler target but Cameron Meredith, Kieren Duncan and others have not grabbed opportunities to make a statement that the Bears have impact options after the hoped-for ones in Jeffery and White.