Bears

'Adapt or die' is the perfect motto for Matt Nagy's coaching staff

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USA TODAY

'Adapt or die' is the perfect motto for Matt Nagy's coaching staff

Bears special teams coach Chris Tabor offered a, well, interesting assessment of his coaching philosophy while meeting the media at Halas Hall for the first time on Thursday.

“One thing that we say is adapt or die,” Tabor explained. “The dinosaurs couldn't figure it out and they became extinct.

“Coaches, they don't figure it out, they get fired. So we'll adapt, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of it.”

This wasn’t some veiled shot at John Fox — far from it, though it’s worth mentioning Fox did say last year: “I’m not an offensive coordinator, I’m not a defensive coordinator, I’m not a special teams coordinator, but I coordinate all three.” More than anything, Tabor’s comment pointed out the dinosaurs didn’t have a distinct schematic advantage over an asteroid.

But Cretaceous reference aside, Tabor’s more relevant point is one that seems to mesh well with Matt Nagy’s style: Be open to ideas, and be willing to change them if they’re not working.

And that’s exactly how a 39-year-old first-time head coach should approach things. Nagy comes across as supremely confident in what he’s doing but also secure in his own coaching talents to accept criticism or other ideas from those he trusts. In short: He doesn’t seem like a my-way-or-the-highway kind of a guy who could get caught trying to be the smartest guy in the room. This was a pitfall that, for example, Josh McDaniels encountered in his ill-fated tenure with the Denver Broncos (one of his notes after he was fired in 2011 was “listen better,” as Dan Pompei detailed in an enlightening story here).

“Each and every one of these guys has a lot of experience in that world and so for me, being a young coach coming into it for the first time, surround myself with people that have strong character and have been through those situations and know how to deal with it,” Nagy said. “Trust me, throughout this process, I'll be going to these guys for advice, and that's OK because it's only going to make me better.”

Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich doesn’t have any experience in the NFL, but Nagy didn’t view that as a problem. Instead, Nagy pointed to Helfrich’s experience running Chip Kelly’s innovative Oregon offense, which he feels can, among other factors, “help me grow not only as an offensive coach but as a head coach.”

And on the other side of that, Nagy said he and Helfrich are deep in discussions of what the Bears’ offense will look like in 2018, and the exchange of ideas has already been positive. Specifically, Nagy said Helfrich’s openness to different run- and pass-game philosophies stands out.

“That’s some of the stuff that we’re literally in right now, going through some of the things we do offensively and brainstorming,” Nagy said. “What do you like? What do you don’t like? And so, you know, for us, that’s the fun part, just trying to go through some of the offensive stuff and seeing where we’re at."

As for Nagy’s approach to the Bears’ defense, it’s simple: “Don't let teams score points,” he said. There’s obviously more to it than that, but Vic Fangio said he’s appreciated Nagy’s willingness to discuss different philosophies and ideas with him so far.

“He’s attacking it with enthusiasm, an open mind, open to finding out better ways to do things potentially,” Fangio said. “Especially since he’s been under one head coach his whole career, that’s not the only way to do things. And I think he’s open to that. So it’s been all positive.”

Saying and doing all the right things in terms of openness to new ideas doesn’t guarantee that Nagy’s reign will be a successful one in Chicago. But it does bolster the thought that Nagy — and his coaching staff — are on the right track in the nascent stages of turning around the Bears.

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“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.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.