JJ STANKEVITZ

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio took the podium at Halas Hall on Thursday after coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich fielded questions for about 30 minutes, and began his press confernece with a classic quip. 

“Alright, let’s continue this lovefest,” Fangio said. 

For a Bears team coming off a 5-11 season — the fourth consecutive double-digit loss season for the franchise — there’s been plenty of positivity pinging around Halas Hall since Nagy was hired last week. But Fangio showed up with a reality check on Thursday, at least as it relates to the defense he’ll return to coach for a fourth year. 

“There’s no doubt strides were made," Fangio said. “Not enough. I think it’s a wrong picture to paint that the defense was great and the rest of the team wasn’t. We were 5-11. 

“If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there — a lot — and we need to do that.”

The Bears opted for continuity in enticing Fangio to return to coach their defense, which ranked 10th in total defense and 9th in points last year, but was 14th in defensive DVOA. This was a good, not great defense that won the Bears a few games (most notably, the 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers) but struggled at times, too. 

A great defense? That’d be the Jacksonville Jaguars, which on the back of one of the league’s best pass rushes and secondaries has vaulted Blake Bortles into the AFC Championship game. A great defense wouldn’t have let Brett Hundley post a 110.8 passer rating against it in Week 10; a great defense wouldn’t have allowed Matthew Stafford to scythe through it on two occasions. 

And that Fangio — who’s generally honest and brings a no-B.S. attitude to his press conferences — acknowledged that eight and a half months before the 2018 season starts was refreshing to hear. It’s almost been easy to forget the Bears lost their 11th and final game of the 2017 season less than three weeks ago with a new, young, offensive-minded coach stepping into Halas Hall. 

There will be plenty of turnover on the offensive side of the ball — possibly an entirely different receiver corps than was regularly on the field in 2017 — but the defense will have some consistency, starting with Fangio and extending to his defensive coaches, who he said Thursday he expects to be back. This is a group that needs more talent at edge rusher and cornerback, but Fangio is more concerned with developing the guys who are already here — and were why this was a “good” defense last year. 

“Guys like Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Leonard (Floyd), Eddie Jackson, I know I’m going to miss some, I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. 

“So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

And that approach — more so than his lengthy experience in the NFL — is why retaining Fangio made so much sense for the Bears. Nobody knows the strengths and flaws of the Bears’ defense better than Fangio; and keeping Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan, Floyd, Jackson etc., in the same scheme with the same coordinator and same coaches gives this Bears’ defense the best chance to go from being “good” to great. 

Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

While Vic Fangio’s future didn’t gain any clarity until Friday, one thing has been abundantly clear for weeks: Fangio’s players wanted him back. 

Those players will get their wish, with the Chicago Tribune reporting Fangio is expected to return as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. ESPN reported Fangio was convinced to stay by head coach Matt Nagy and will receive a three-year deal. 

“I think players are a big part of any type of success, but coaching is huge,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “On our side of the ball, with defense, I think Vic is a huge part of why we were pretty good this year on defense. I feel like he’s a mastermind, one of the smartest DCs, most-detailed DCs I’ve been around. It’s hard to make him smile, but when he smiles you know it’s a good thing. Guys love him. We respect him. If I was here, I’d hope he stays.”

The Bears ranked 10th in total defense in 2017 and ninth in points per game, and did that without a Pro Bowler on their roster (though Akiem Hicks’ slap-in-the-face fourth alternate status is a separate diatribe; he played at a Pro Bowl level this year). This defense overcame season-ending injuries to two veteran captains in linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Quintin Demps within the first three weeks of 2017; outside linebackers Willie Young and Leonard Floyd were lost to injury later in the season. 

The point here: Fangio did a lot without much “elite” talent. But he (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) got a ton out of Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos, two players who didn’t have starting jobs when the season began. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson had a solid debut season, while Hicks and Eddie Goldman were a stout run-stuffing duo in the defensive interior. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones played well when asked, too. 

After the Bears’ season ended — with 11 losses — Fangio’s message to his team was optimistic. 

“(He told us) you guys are progressing, you guys are on the rise even though our record isn't what we wanted, you guys should still be proud of yourselves,” Amukamara said.

Another critical point here with regard to the Bears defense: Multiple players talked before the season about how a second year in Fangio’s system (specifically, for Hicks) would allow them to play faster and think less about the principles of the scheme and their assignments. Had the Bears changed coordinators — even if that coordinator still used a 3-4 — it could’ve slowed the progress this group saw in 2017. 

“I just think we could be as good as we want,” Goldman said on Jan. 1. “I can't talk too early because we don't know the situation we're going to be in. But as long as we just come in and adopt whatever system we're going to be under next and just go hard at it.”

The Bears won’t have to adopt a new defensive system. This defense still needs more talent — specifically, at outside linebacker — and needs to address the cornerback position, which starts with finding a way to keep Fuller after his breakout season (“I definitely feel like we’ve built a good relationship,” Fuller said of Fangio, who was sharply critical of him as he missed the 2016 season).

But the arrow is pointing up for the Bears’ defense. Keeping Fangio ensures that arrow will keep going in that same direction.

Why Mark Helfrich, despite no NFL experience, fits Matt Nagy’s vision for Bears’ offense

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AP

Why Mark Helfrich, despite no NFL experience, fits Matt Nagy’s vision for Bears’ offense

The Los Angeles Rams had Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Greg Olson in place to design an offense and coach up Jared Goff in 2017. The Philadelphia Eagles had Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo for Carson Wentz. 

The Bears now have two-thirds of their quarterback-centric offensive structure in place. 

According to multiple reports, Matt Nagy will hire former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. The 44-year-old Helfrich was Oregon’s head coach from 2013-2016 and previously was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly from 2009-2012. 

Helrich, like Nagy, was a former quarterback himself and held jobs as a quarterbacks coach at Boise State, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon. He broke into coaching in 1997, when former Oregon offensive coordinator and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter hired him as a graduate assistant. 

In a Bleacher Report article about Helfrich from 2014, Koetter had this to say:

"He sees the game through the quarterback's eyes. We all have ideas, but if your quarterback can't execute those ideas, they are lines on a paper. Mark is as smart a football guy as I know."

While Nagy will call plays for the Bears’ offense, Helfrich will be important in designing concepts and providing ideas for what the offense will look like. Expect Helfrich’s time running Oregon’s innovative up-tempo spread offense to blend with Nagy’s modern west coast scheme to allow more creativity for Trubisky, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and the rest of an offense that, outside of a few trick plays, felt stale and conservative under John Fox and Dowell Loggains in 2017. 

Helfrich hasn’t coached at the NFL level, but Nagy and the Bears clearly were not only sold on him, but sold him on their offensive coordinator job given this from ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg: 

Nagy said on Monday his play-calling style is “aggressive” which would seem to fit the bigger picture of Helfrich’s style, too. The best-case scenario for this pairing is that the Bears’ offense is a lot more effective — and aesthetically pleasing — than it was in 2017.