Bears

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”

'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.”