Bears give McDonald a fresh start
After Ray McDonald's second arrest in a matter of months last season, the San Francisco 49ers parted ways in December with the standout defensive lineman, citing a "pattern of poor decision-making."
But he's getting a second chance with the Bears, partly based on the recommendation of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who held the same position with the 49ers the last four years.
On Aug. 31, McDonald was arrested on charges of suspicion of felony domestic violence but later cleared. When he was investigated in December for a possible sexual assault, the Niners severed their eight-year relationship.
The 6-foot-3, 291-pound McDonald has not been charged in the December case, but the woman involved has filed a civil suit alleging sexual battery.
After initially passing on the opportunity to sign McDonald, the Bears reconsidered after he made a trip to Halas Hall to present his side of the story to team chairman George McCaskey.
"It was very taxing," McDonald said of the negative publicity. "It was a very hard time to go through. I learned a lot from it. The only thing I did, I was honest with them. I told (McCaskey) what happened and you see that I'm here now, so that should say it all."
McDonald's one-year deal means there is little risk for the Bears if he doesn't take measures to eliminate off-the-field problems. But the team also got input from Fangio.
"I'd been around him for four years, so I knew what kind of guy he was on a daily basis," Fangio said of McDonald. "Nobody gets to know players more than when you're in football because we're with those guys eight, nine hours a day, and in training camp more. I know who he is."
When the Bears initially decided against signing McDonald, Fangio vouched for him with other teams.
"(When) … we weren't going to pursue it, at that point I called two other teams in the league to recommend that they sign Ray," Fangio said. "And I called Ray's agent to tell him, 'Hey, if you need any character reference, anybody wants to talk to me about Ray, (if) they might be interested in signing him, have them feel free to call me.' I think that tells you what I feel about him."
But Fangio doesn't completely exonerate McDonald for the pattern of behavior that led to his release.
"It's unsettling," Fangio said. "He put himself in some situations that he didn't need to be in. But the fact of the matter is, he was never charged with anything.
"The headlines, I think, looked worse than what actually happened. But they happened. He made a mistake putting himself in those positions for that to happen. But ultimately he was not charged with anything. So we felt good about it here."
McDonald will be 31 in the first month of the regular season, and he had missed just four games in seven seasons before being released with two games remaining last season. He is an ideal left end/tackle in the 3-4 defense that the Bears are transitioning to, with the ability to set the edge against the run and provide some pass rush.
"He brings toughness; he brings good play," Fangio said. "He's an equally good player against the run and pass. He's a guy that can play every down in there. He's not just a run specialist or a pass specialist."
Fangio and head coach John Fox did not inherit many players from the Bears' 2014 defense that are ideal fits in a 3-4. So adding unrestricted free agents such as McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins and drafting 6-4, 336-pound nose tackle Eddie Goldman were critical moves.
"The three down linemen, to me, are the heart and soul of the defense," Fangio said. "If they're getting pushed around, it doesn't matter what (scheme) you're in, we're in trouble."
If McDonald can avoid the trouble that's plagued him recently, he will be a huge help to the Bears as they transition to a new defense and try to rebuild a unit that has been one of the NFL's worst the last two years. He contends he has taken measures to insulate himself from situations that can lead to trouble.
"I just surround myself with people who care about me and have my best interest at heart," McDonald said. "When you do that, it's hard for you to go wrong."
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