Bears

Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire

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AP

Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire

The focus on Tuesday at Halas Hall was understandably and necessarily on Matt Nagy, because this is Chicago and that’s what happens when a new Bears coach is being introduced. But some elements of the backstory are more than a little bit interesting, because they are revealing in their own right.

Call them “tells,” particularly about general manager Ryan Pace.

Because Pace stays in the background, arguably to a fault, the predominant perception is that he needs to get out more.

But Pace has now hired two head coaches, going through two radically different processes. Within each hire, though, Pace did something that said more about him than about the object of his hiring affections.

When Pace was tasked with hiring Marc Trestman’s replacement in 2015, senior Bears management had begun the search process before Pace was even in place. Ernie Accorsi was retained as a consultant on the general manager process that produced Pace, but before that had started interviewing coaching candidates, obviously without any sort of Pace involvement, and rightly or wrongly giving a bit of traction to concerns over roles of Ted Phillips and/or George McCaskey in the selection process.

It’s what happened after that that’s the point here.

Pace conducted his first interview of John Fox at Halas Hall, this shortly after Fox had parted ways with the Broncos and was still in Denver. The next step was a second interview, but Pace didn’t direct Fox to come in for one. Instead, Pace went to Denver. Small thing, one that might be construed as Pace assuming the role of supplicant.

Not so. To know Pace at all is to know how he doesn’t do “supplicant.” No, the move was Pace acting with a touch of courtesy and respect for a veteran coach to maximize chances of landing the unexpected best candidate available.

Fast forward to last Sunday, the day after the Kansas City Chiefs collapsed to a home playoff loss to the Tennessee, a collapse in which Nagy’s play calling played a self-admitted big part. Nagy was scheduled to meet Sunday morning on the Bears head-coaching job. Even knowing that the Indianapolis Colts were targeting Nagy with none other than general manager Chris Ballard, who’d worked with Nagy in Kansas City, Pace reached out to Nagy’s agent with an offer to push the interview back to later in the day if Nagy needed a little more time to collect himself after the cataclysm of the loss.

Pace’s offer in fact turned out to be part of the healing process for Nagy. That said something to Nagy, and something about Pace as well, and might have closed the deal before the sides ever sat down to visit.

“Just to show you how this organization here works, and what meant the world to me,” Nagy recounted on Tuesday, “before I even got into the interview, I got a text message from my agent saying that, 'They respect the (Chiefs') loss and they respect your feelings. If you need to move it back or you need some time to get over that, then do it.' And that meant the world to me.

“Instead we went even earlier. I wanted to go earlier because of that, that’s where it all started. That was a good feeling.”

None of that translates into wins, or even a healthy scoring drive, for that matter. But creating a culture involves more than just the head coach, and an organization takes its persona from the top. In this case, at the top of the football organization, some credit for a spot of character is warranted here.

One thing that needs to stop

Can we please eliminate “win the press conference” from any sort of critique? John Fox was the toast when the Bears landed him about this time three years ago. Phil Emery wanted his three finalist candidates to go through simulated press conferences. The “winner” was Marc Trestman.

The McCaskey-Phillips effect

It seemed apparent to this space last weekend that the Bears were fast-tracking the entire process for hiring their next head coach — that what initially looked to be a heightened level of intrusion into the process by McCaskey and Phillips was in fact an inversion of the interview sequence calculated to strengthen the hiring hand of Pace, not mess with it.

Such proved to be the case.

The point has nothing to do with how football-savvy McCaskey or Phillips are. They’re chairman and president, and until they’re not, they will at some point have to sign off on a hire that commits as much as $20 million in guaranteed salary. So they’re not at issue here.

What is the issue is the reality that their being present earlier in the process rather than at the end, once a finalist had been arrived at by Pace. McCaskey and Phillips did not sit in on the entire Nagy interview, but “having George and Ted by my side was valuable,” Pace said, “because it allowed us in that moment, when we did come to that conclusion, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ and I think we were to that point.”

If Pace’s bosses had a material objection to Nagy, it would have been expressed.

None was. The punchline in all of this was that at the end of the day, Pace and his wife, Stephanie, went out to dinner with Nagy and his wife, Stacey. That’s when the deal and the meal were consummated.

Bears management takes the appropriate vilification when their football team incites civic unrest, or at least sports indigestion. And it might be reasonable to wonder why Phillips is still president while coaches Dick Jauron (Phillips extended his contract in 2002), Lovie Smith, Trestman and Fox have all been fired for football shortcomings.

But the Bears showed imagination and aggressiveness in restructuring their interview process to compete in what they considered to be a very tight market. It’s basic supply and demand; after Nagy, Philadelphia’s John DeFilippo and Minnesota's Pat Shurmur, no one is comparing this class of options with, say, 1992’s (Bill Cowher, Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren and Bobby Ross) or 2011’s (Jim Harbaugh, Mike Munchak and Ron Rivera).

If Nagy turns out to be an inspired choice landed in the coaching equivalent of a hurry-up offense, the Bears might not be the last team to use this interviewing format of executives out front.

'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.

Bears' offense touts a new identity whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts

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USA TODAY

Bears' offense touts a new identity whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts

When the Bears hired Matt Nagy, they were getting a disciple of the West Coast offense as evolved under one of its foremost practitioners in Andy Reid. What they got when Nagy secured Mark Helfrich as his offensive coordinator was a proponent of the spread offense as practiced by the high-speed Oregon Ducks.

Now what they are developing, based on their respective ideas laid out this week, is an offense that may defy simple descriptors as it incorporates two different systems. But rather than appearing to lack a clear identity, the meshing of schemes projects to be something that is at the same time neither, and both. The result in fact projects to something new, and for a football team in need of some kind of breakthrough on offense and something to actually occasionally confound opposing defenses, that is a very, very good thing.

That was axiomatic in Helfrich’s appeal for Nagy, with both inclined to push stylistic envelopes. “As you could tell from some of the things we did in Kansas City offensively, we were trying to be a little bit out of the box and new wave type of stuff,” Nagy said.

Not that just throwing together ideas ensures anything, good or bad. But from a defensive dean who knows something about the difficulty of going against new concepts, the chances of creating a dangerous hybrid that gets a jump on and forces defensive adjustments are there.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio faced the Oregon offense while he was on the staff at Stanford. It was a problem for him. “They had an ‘X and O’ advantage but [also] a method advantage that people hadn’t caught up to yet at that point, and they had good players doing it,” Fangio said on Thursday. “Kind of like back in the ‘90s when we started the zone blitz, and we were ahead of the curve then and we had a lot of success beating teams that possibly had more talent than we did… . At that point the newness was still in their favor.”

That newness has multiple aspects, not all simple to judge at this point.

Under center or shotgun?

Young quarterback Mitch Trubisky is beginning work under his third different offensive staff in three seasons. That didn’t work to the benefit of Jay Cutler (although Cutler was in fact the reason some of those changes happened in the first place), but two things here:

One is that the Trubisky Nagy and Helfrich are inheriting is one with 12 NFL starts. The one that Dowell Loggains was handed came with 13 college starts, so Trubisky’s starting point is advanced from what it was last year.

And the other is Trubisky’s background is in the spread offense. The incoming offense won’t necessarily be that, but whatever form/forms it takes, Trubisky won’t be spending time just learning to take a direct snap.

Nagy/Helfrich also come into a quarterback imbued with the importance of ball security. Despite seeing NFL defenses for the first times, Trubisky’s INT rate of 2.1 percent was only a few ticks higher than that of his entire college career (1.7 percent). Helfrich said that one thing that jumped out about Trubisky “is his accuracy and taking care of the football.”

But Trubisky will again be tasked with learning something dramatically different from what he’d had the year before, being coached into him by three former quarterbacks. “Teaching” will involve a strategy as well as specific tactics: “You have to get in their corner at the beginning, challenge them like heck until that first snap,” Helfrich said, “and get them thinking about as little as possible at the snap.”

Personnel considerations

GM Ryan Pace didn’t plan on making a massive coaching makeover this time last year. But he could scarcely have drafted more accurately for what his team’s offense will be if he’d set out to staff it.

The West Coast and Oregon’s offense make extensive use of tight ends and running backs as receivers. Besides quarterback Trubisky, Pace’s second-round pick last draft was Adam Shaheen, a pass-catching tight end. His fifth-round pick was Tarik Cohen, whose 53 pass receptions ranked second on the Bears and tied for 11th among running backs. (Seven of the 10 ahead of him were components of playoff teams.)

Coincidentally, Pace invested a third-round pick in his first (2015) draft on Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, the starting center for Helfrich and Chip Kelly. Notably, of the 20 offensive linemen on Helfrich’s 2014 Oregon team, only one was listed at bigger than 300 pounds. Even guard Kyle Long the year before played at 300 pounds, going eventually up to 330 with the Bears.

All of which points to the Bears already having myriad pieces in place for what Nagy and Helfrich are designing. Reid himself was a tackle under LaVell Edwards at BYU, another of the crucibles where the West Coast principles were forged, and Nagy comes from the Reid school with an understanding of O-line physiology that works.

Same with Helfrich, who succeeded Chip Kelly as Oregon coach and watched with great interest what Kelly did in the NFL, what worked and what didn’t. Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles put up consecutive 10-6 seasons before he flamed out and did it running plays at a pace considerably faster than the NFL norm. Not all of his concepts worked, however, and won’t be coming to Halas Hall with Helfrich.

“The biggest difference is literally size and plays,” Helfrich said. “Size of squad and plays in a game. College football, you can run however many plays you want almost – 80 or 90. At the NFL level, that’s not going to happen. You cannot practice like you do in college in the NFL. 53-man roster. Limitations. All those things… . There are a lot of things that we learned from that. And there are a lot of good things they did as well.”