Photos of the Bears' starters via team depth chart.
When John Fox arrived in Charlotte in 2002 for his first NFL head coaching gig, he inherited a Carolina Panthers team that had gone 1-15 the year before. The Panthers improved to 7-9 in Fox's first year and were in the Super Bowl by his second. The Denver Broncos team that Fox took over in 2011 had gone 4-12 the previous season; they improved to 8-8 in 2012, 13-3 the next season and were in the Super Bowl at the end of Year Three.
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Fox is now in his first season at the helm of the Chicago Bears, who went 5-11 in 2014. They're now 5-9 with two games to play, which means at best they will make a two-win improvement. Still, given his track record, there's reason to believe that Fox will have the Bears back in playoff contention before long.
Photos from the Bucs victory over the Bears in 2008 at Solider Field. The Bucs won 27-24 in overtime.
"I think every situation is unique and yet many aspects of it are the same," said Fox of taking over a struggling team. "It does take time. I think the two earlier ones are completely different even than this one. You kind of have a master picture and then it just takes a minute to get the pieces in place. I think we've made strides. Obviously we're disappointed in our record at 5-9. We've been competitive in many, many games, ones we've fell a little bit short on. We're just looking to finish strong, much like I'm sure Lovie is talking to Tampa Bay about."
The Bears' current roster under Fox includes just a few players from the 2012 team that was last guided by Lovie Smith, now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach. Smith went 10-6 with that club but was let go after nine seasons and three playoff berths; Marc Trestman took over for the next two seasons before the Bears turned to Fox. After a year off, Smith returned to the NFL as the Buccaneers' head coach in 2014. Obviously, that puts him in a similar position to Fox, trying to help reroute a franchise that had failed to meet expectations under its previous leadership.
Fox believes the Buccaneers are well into that process under Smith, who had his Bears team in the playoffs by his second season as head coach. Tampa Bay went 2-14 last year but could reach .500 with wins in their last two outings. Anything from six to eight victories will be a significant improvement over 2014, and more importantly it looks like a young core is in place to help the team compete for years to come.
"I think Lovie and his staff and the personnel side have done an outstanding job," said Fox. "What we do as coaches is look at a lot of tape, evaluate matchups and those types of things. It takes a little bit of good fortune as far as injuries or lack thereof. You change maybe the culture or just implementing what you want to be about – I think that takes a minute. You just look to make improvement, whether it's week-to-week or season-to-season. Everybody wants it now; I understand that. That's kind of the world we're in today, but I think they've done an outstanding job."
The Carolina team that Fox took over in 2002 had the second pick in the draft, only missing out on the top selection because that was given to the expansion Houston Texans. That worked out in the Panthers' favor, though, because Houston took what it hoped would be its franchise quarterback in David Carr, leaving Carolina to grab pass-rusher Julius Peppers. Peppers quickly became a superstar and Carolina found its quarterback the next year in former New Orleans Saints Jake Delhomme. Smith's Buccaneers got the first pick in the 2015 draft and made a selection that looks like it will have as much impact as the Peppers pick did in Charlotte.
"I think they've done a tremendous job," said Fox of the Bucs' development of first-overall pick Jameis Winston. "I know Jameis was a very high pick, but, regardless, I think anytime a rookie at the quarterback position in this league has performed like he has – and I'm talking about the number of touchdowns to interceptions, some of the things that are imperative that you do to win at that position – I think they've put together a fine team, one that I think is just going to get better. Obviously everybody from personnel to coaching, how they've utilized [the players], has done a tremendous job."
Neither Fox's Bears nor Smith's Buccaneers will be in the playoffs this year, in the coaches' first and second seasons in charge, respectively. However, both coaches are working to keep their teams motivated in order to affect a strong finish to the season, which would provide momentum heading into 2016. Given the track records of Fox and Smith, and the promising signs their teams have shown in 2015, there are better days ahead for both franchises.