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.