Bears

John Fox, Dowell Loggains handling of Mitch Trubisky not all it appears

John Fox, Dowell Loggains handling of Mitch Trubisky not all it appears

A double-digit win over a phoning-it-in Cincinnati Bengals team likely doesn’t change the direction of where John Fox’s future has been trending ever since the off week. But it does at least halt the slide for a few days, and for reasons far more important than the 33-7 score.

What Sunday’s game at Cincinnati spotlighted was the development of a rookie quarterback, and Mitch Trubisky’s day was what GM Ryan Pace had in mind when he made a draft gamble for someone with 13 college starts. It also was what the organization had in its fondest imaginings back at the beginning of October when the change was made from Mike Glennon to Trubisky.

This isn’t an especially easy situation to evaluate. For one thing, no single position in sports is more important than quarterback. For another, anything other than demonization of Fox invites dismissive scorn. Just a thought, though: If Fox has been criticized for stunting Trubisky’s growth, shouldn’t he get credit when Trubisky does grow? And for he and O-coordinator Dowell Loggains listening when the rookie spoke up that he was ready to open up his game up more?

Maybe the decision on Fox, Loggains and the staff after this season already has been made. That’s speculation, and three more performances like Sunday’s couldn’t be disregarded. But that’s actually not the main point of Sunday. Trubisky is.

Grading on a QB curve

Trubisky and GM Ryan Pace are destined for careers of comparisons with Deshaun Watson. But Trubisky after nine NFL starts compares favorably with some of the more celebrated young quarterbacks whose careers his will coincide with.

Just for purposes of loose perspective: Trubisky now has upped his passer rating on the season to 80.0, with a yards-per-attempt at a respectable 6.7. Jared Goff’s rookie season ended with numbers of 63.6 and 5.3. Carson Wentz, 79.3 and 6.2.

Marcus Mariota, No. 2-overall in 2015, finished at 91.5 and 7.6. So if Pace wants to second-guess himself about not paying a draft ransom to pry that pick away from Tennessee, at least he has the satisfaction of being right about his take on Mariota.

But Trubisky has impressed a veteran coach who doesn’t impress easily, particularly with rookies.

“I think he’s prepared hard since he’s gotten here,” Fox said on Monday. “Like anything in any walk of life, it takes a minute and some repetitions to get it all figured out. Developing an NFL schedule, it’s completely different than college – what to look at, how to do it, how to study, how to prepare. And then the in-game experience – there’s little tiny things… .

“You can talk about those and stress in situational practice. But until they happen to you, it’s important. You’re going to make mistakes in every game but it’s not making the same ones, and that’s what really impresses me about Mitch.”

Maybe Fox is and has been stumping for his and his coaches’ jobs. Then again, maybe the jobs being done aren’t as bad as the record, because an individual player and his development actually can be critiqued separately from the whole.

Making do

The drumbeat of scathing criticism directed at coordinator Dowell Loggains, and by extension at Fox, has to some degree missed the point. It has centered on a supposed unwillingness to expand the realm of the possible for Trubisky. Given that Loggains last year oversaw an offense that was 61 percent pass, and that with a QB musical-chairs of Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer/Matt Barkley, this has bordered on the laughable, probably born more out of antipathy toward anything connected with Fox.

Does anyone seriously believe Fox and Loggains, whose offense averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt last season – among the Bears’ highest over the last 20 years – would suddenly choose to go to just dink-and-dunk when they’ve been handed a potential sharpshooter’s rifle in Trubisky? Maybe the reason the Bears have been conservative with Trubisky lies elsewhere, as last year when the offense was late “discovering” Jordan Howard when the real story was that the young man just wasn’t in whole-game shape early on.

Airing it out is more than a little problematic when confronted with protection issues. The Bears were top-12 in sacks per pass attempt when Trubisky took over for Mike Glennon. Since then, with a transient offensive line, backs with blitz-pickup shortcomings, receivers with limited separation skills and a rookie sorting through progressions and defensive schemes, the Bears have slipped into the mid-20’s.

Trubisky was sacked twice in 34 drop-backs by the injury-riddled Bengals, compared with the one every nine drops he’d taken before Sunday.

Not surprisingly, Trubisky averaged 8.5 yards per attempt against Cincinnati. Only six of his 32 attempts went to running backs (19 percent). Against San Francisco, 40 percent of his 15 throws went toward backs. The chief reason for Trubisky’s effectiveness, and why Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen were combining for 227 rush yards, was right in front of them.

“It all starts up front,” Fox said. “Not taking anything away from any of the skill guys, but whether it’s pass protection or its run blocking, I think that all starts and finishes up front. Our front had a good day.”

'Adapt or die' is the perfect motto for Matt Nagy's coaching staff

0119_matt_nagy.jpg
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

markhelfrich.png
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.”