Bears

Bears notebook: Expect heavy tight-end usage; hiring process gave Nagy an edge

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UDA TODAY

Bears notebook: Expect heavy tight-end usage; hiring process gave Nagy an edge

Combing through the notebook after a very busy and formative Bears week...

One constant buzz this week is the sound of opinions of the new Bears head coach, which has now expanded to include takes on the budding staff that is tasked with making over a Bears offense that has regressed disturbingly over the past couple seasons. The thinking here is that this portends to be perhaps the most interesting change to a Bears offense in quite some time, more so even than the arrival of Marc Trestman in 2013.

That makeover crashed in flames the following year but not before putting up nearly 28 points per game with Jay Cutler and Josh McCown as its quarterbacks, a hint of what some imagination can do at the NFL level even with lesser lights under center.

That imagination came, ironically, in something from the past, specifically the West Coast offense. Trestman was a devotee of the scheme concepts that, among other things, made huge and creative use of the tight end – Martellus Bennett caught 65 and 90 passes under Trestman, Greg Olsen caught 54 and 60 under Ron Turner’s version of it, before Olsen was traded because Mike Martz didn’t much use tight ends as receivers.

The point obviously isn’t Trestman; it’s the West Coast system and what its principles as incorporated by Matt Nagy project to mean for an offense-starved organization.

Best guess is that the offense which once spawned Mike Ditka and the modern tight end will see a return to that concept under Nagy: Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce has been targeted an average of 107 times over the past four seasons and caught 67-72-85-83 passes over those seasons.

Nagy comes to Chicago as a disciple of Andy Reid, whose use of variations on that theme have been successful for him for going on 20 years, a superb resume that has been built while other systems have come and gone. The reason is in large part because of its adaptability, and because of the adaptability of the man (Reid) and others among its best practitioners.

Nagy said Tuesday that he would be calling plays for his offense, plays that undoubtedly will be part of game plans with extensive input from anticipated offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Nagy doesn’t hire Helfrich - offensive coordiantor and then head coach at Oregon through 2016 - unless there is a simpatico vision for play design, execution and all the rest. Helfrich ran an offense with spread principles and which made extensive use of no-huddle, a tactic favored by former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota even now with the Tennessee Titans.

A notable specific: Over the past three years the Kansas City offense that Nagy worked in tied for fewest interceptions in 2015 with 7; tied for fifth with 8 in 2016; and tied for for second last season with 8. The fixation on ball security that was drilled into Mitch Trubisky (2.1 INT percentage) will serve him well in the Nagy/Helfrich offense.

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The advantages of Ryan Pace and Bears management figures of Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips inverting the hiring process and getting executive buy-in on prospective candidates at the outset of each candidate review likely did not end with landing Matt Nagy on the day of his first and only day of meetings with the Bears.

Nagy’s hiring immediately commenced recruiting of assistant coaches while the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants are still in the process of putting new head coaches in place. Pace was behind the hurry-up rush of head-coaching candidates because of the highly competitive climate he saw, and that extended to the coordinator and assistants openings. Nagy already has secured four key staffers – coordinators for offense and special teams plus position coaches for offensive line and running back – and was able to pursue defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, all while his potential rivals were still going through their hiring interviews.

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The Oregon thread running through the Bears offense is suddenly worth a bit of a look. Ryan Pace investigated trading up from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 with the idea of drafting Marcus Mariota out of Oregon (Tennessee wanted too much in draft capital and didn’t want Jay Cutler). Mariota’s offensive coordinator was Mark Helfrich.

Helfrich’s offensive line included Kyle Long (six starts) and Hroniss Grasu, who has been unable to get career traction in three injury-impeded Bears years under two different coordinators but who warrants watching with the arrival of his former Oregon coordinator.

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One meaningless look back: Dowell Loggains has moved on to become offensive coordinator for Adam Gase and the Miami Dolphins, and Loggains’ brief tenure as Bears OC won’t make anyone forget Mike Tice or Aaron Kromer anytime soon. But a nagging unknown is what might have been for Loggains if he’d had even half a deck to play with.

Besides starting the year with Mike Glennon at quarterback, the Bears opened the second half of their 2017 season starting exactly zero of the receivers and tight ends they opened the season with as their preferred “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) package. Opening day: wide receivers Deonte Thompson and Kevin White; tight ends Zach Miller and Dion Sims at tight end. None were active to open the second half of the 2017 season and only Sims (inactive, illness) was even still on the roster by season’s end.

Ideally Mark Helfrich has a little better roster luck.

'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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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.”