Bill Belichick as the Bears’ next head coach? No way, but Patriots’ drama could impact coaching search

Bill Belichick as the Bears’ next head coach? No way, but Patriots’ drama could impact coaching search

ESPN’s Seth Wickersham dropped a bombshell of a story on Friday detailing the rising tensions between the New England Patriots’ three most important figures: Owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The title of the article is “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?”

There are plenty of juicy details in Wickersham’s story, including what appears to be some real friction between Brady and Belichick largely stemming from Brady’s trainer and business partner, Alex Guerrero. 

And as for Belichick’s relationship with Kraft, there’s this: Kraft insisted Belichick trade Jimmy Garoppolo, which was against Belichick’s wishes. From Wickersham:

“Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it's time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.”

While the Patriots put out a joint statement Friday morning, it didn’t do much to put out the fire created by Wickersham’s story. Is that fire great enough to cause Belichick to leave New England after the playoffs?


Would it be realistic for Belichick to be coaching the Bears, and not the Patriots, when the two teams meet in 2018?


A few points here. No. 1, Belichick would want full control of the roster, and the Bears just signed general manager Ryan Pace to a two-year contract extension. 

“Control over the final 53 will fall on my shoulders,” Pace said on Monday.

Could the Bears conceivably move Pace into a different role without control of the roster, or even let him go at a great expense, to get Belichick? Sure, it’s a free country. But it would be a bad look around the league — even worse than “bad” — when it would come time for the Bears to hire their next coach/general manager in a few years, given Belichick is 65. 

Also, if Belichick didn’t want to trade Jimmy Garoppolo for, potentially, a top-three pick in 2017 — which could’ve been used on Mitchell Trubisky — why would he want to hitch the twilight of his career to a quarterback he may not like? And why would a 65-year-old 49 wins away from being the second-winningest head coach in NFL history come to a team that's lost 10 or more games in each of the last four years?

Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio believes the only way for Belichick to leave New England for another head coaching job would be via a trade, and the team that he could be the most interested in is the New York Giants -- who could offer the Patriots the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft for him. 

And Belichick doesn’t have any direct connections to Chicago. The only even tangential one is through former assistant Al Groh, whose son, Mike, was the Bears’ wide receivers coach from 2013-2015. That’s not much. 

There’s really not a precedent for Belichick to leave New England for another job, either. Curly Lambeau left the Green Bay Packers after 28 years for the Chicago Cardinals in 1950, but that was before Belichick was even born. Otherwise, among the most successful coaches in NFL history, there isn’t a lot of movement. History says Belichick probably would just retire having left an untouchable legacy in New England. 

But even beyond all these reasons, just think about it for a second: What, exactly, would be a good reason for Belichick to come to the Bears? 

And to pour some more cold water on this, NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom Curran believes Belichick will still be the Patriots' head coach next year

The real impact on the Bears' coaching search

A nugget from Wickersham’s story:

“Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near. Both (Josh) McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are expected to become head coaches; other assistant coaches might leave to join their staffs or for college jobs, or even retire.”

If that’s true, it means the 41-year-old McDaniels wouldn’t consider staying in New England and being the coach-in-waiting for when Belichick leaves. (Check out our coaching confidential profile of McDaniels here.)

And that’s good news for the Bears, potentially, because McDaniels wouldn’t necessarily have the bargaining chip of “well, I’ll stay with the Patriots and wait for Belichick to retire.” That could’ve been a point McDaniels made in trying to gain more control of the 53-man roster from Pace (or, for example, Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard), but may not be a good one following Wickersham’s story. 

The wrinkle to this is the Bears aren’t the only team interested in the Patriots' offensive coordinator. The Colts and New York Giants also requested to interview McDaniels this week, and those arguably could be better destinations for him. 

Could the Bears have got Garoppolo?

Wickerham’s article included this line, which further confirms a suspicion from the spring: The Patriots were never particularly interested in trading Jimmy Garoppolo. 

“He had passed on dealing him last spring, when Garoppolo was in high demand.”

Could the Bears have floated their No. 3 pick to deal for Garoppolo? Maybe not. If Belichick thought he had the franchise quarterback of the future waiting in the wings behind a wrong-side-of-40 Brady, he wasn’t going to trade him and start over with a rookie like Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes or DeShaun Watson. After all, Wickersham reported that Belichick was “furious and demoralized” with Kraft’s mandate that he trade Garoppolo and then draft a quarterback to groom in 2018. 

And for what it’s worth, Garoppolo certainly has proved Belichick’s faith in him right with how well he played in San Francisco last month — starting with that 15-14 win over the Bears. 

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.