Bears Coaching Confidential: Pat Shurmur

Bears Coaching Confidential: Pat Shurmur

With the Bears' beginning their head coaching search this week, NBC Sports Chicago Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Paul Aspan will examine 10 coaching candidates who could be considered by Ryan Pace and team ownership. We've covered Josh McDanielsJohn DeFilippo and Steve Wilks already, and look at another sought-after coordinator today: Minnesota Vikings OC Pat Shurmur. 

JJ: Shurmur was Donovan McNabb’s quarterbacks coach from 2002-2008, and more recently, managed to turn Case Keenum (!!) into a division-winning quarterback in 2017 with the Vikings. He’s been a head coach before, spending two years with the Cleveland Browns, and the 52-year-old looks to be in line for another shot. Should the Bears consider him?

Paul: I’ll be honest, this one just doesn’t do much for me, even if Vegas has him as the favorite to get the Bears gig. I tip my hat for the work he’s done with Keenum, and clearly the McNabb-era Eagles had a good thing going over the same stretch that he was there. I can poke holes in my own argument by pointing out how he’s had success with two different style running backs (even after losing Dalvin Cook), something that could serve him well in Chicago, but it just doesn’t excite me. 

Part of it is probably that he clearly has a thing for Sam Bradford, whom he coached in St. Louis, Philly, and Minnesota. THE VIKINGS TRADED A FIRST AND A FOURTH ROUND PICK FOR SAM BRADFORD. Shurmur had to be instrumental in pushing for that even if he was *only* the tight ends coach and Norv Turner was the OC at the time.

I’m sure the Browns stink doesn’t help. He’s also performed a Keenum-esque one season miracle before with Nick Foles when he was OC in Philly under Chip Kelly, but that didn’t pan out in the long run either. Shurmur is another failed first time coach looking for redemption the second time around, and I’d just rather see Bears & Pace make a fresher, more exciting hire. 

The final nail in the coffin for me is that the best defensive mind in the division, Mike Zimmer, on what looks to be the most complete team in the NFC North for the near future, the Vikings, now has the book on him. Sure that can work both ways, but I’d lean advantage Zimmer if they’re lining up on opposite sidelines twice a season. Does Shurmur do anything for you, JJ?

JJ: Sometimes chasing the most “exciting” hire gets you in trouble. 

In terms of the best resumes out there, I think Shurmur’s is right up there with that of Josh McDaniels. I’m not going to try to blow smoke about his time in Cleveland, but remember: It’s Cleveland. Nobody wins there. The five-win season Shurmur had in 2012 -- after which he was fired -- is the second-best season the Browns have had in the last 10 years. I don’t think his time in Cleveland is *that* big of a drawback, and he might've learned a few things about being a head coach from it. 

Nor do I hold Sam Bradford against him. Let’s not forget that Bradford was A) a slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and B) did some good things as a rookie under Shurmur’s watch in St. Louis (he was the AP offensive rookie of the year, for what it’s worth). Shurmur left to be the Browns coach after that year, and Bradford was injured and mediocre until linking back up with Shurmur in Philadelphia in 2015 (he has a 94.2 passer rating from 2015-2017). 

Granted, I’m not trying to get you excited about the work Shurmur has done with Bradford, but there are some valid devil’s advocate points there. On the flip side, Shurmur’s offenses -- either as a head coach or offensive coordinator -- have ranked third, fourth, 10th, 13th, 23rd, 24th, 26th, 30th and 32nd in points per game, an average finish of about 18th. Meh. Keenum’s 2017 numbers (22 TDs, 7 INTs, 98.3 passer rating), though, are outlandish compared to the rest of his career (24 TDs, 20 INTs, 78.4 passer rating). 

But maybe we’re getting close to paralysis by analysis here with Shurmur. How are his organizational skills? What’s his plan for Mitchell Trubisky? Who does he have on his shortlist to be his coordinators and assistants? Those are more relevant questions here than what Bradford or Keenum’s passer ratings were under his watch. Winning gets a coach his foot in the door, but the plan that he presents to Ryan Pace is what will get him hired. 

One final thought: On all of these candidates we’ve looked at, remember that the hiring process is a two-way street. There are currently five other job openings around the NFL with pros and cons to each. The Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and New York Giants reportedly also requested to interview Shurmur, and he may have the option of going somewhere he could draft and develop a quarterback (Arizona and New York) or work with an established one (Detroit). Maybe he likes Trubisky enough to hitch himself to last year’s No. 2 pick, but maybe not. We’ll see. 

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. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.