Bears

Takeaways one week into Bears' coach quest: Search committee in a hurry, and side doesn’t matter

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USA TODAY/AP

Takeaways one week into Bears' coach quest: Search committee in a hurry, and side doesn’t matter

From the first week of Bears coaching interviews, some breadcrumbs point to some interesting directions.

The Bears want to strike fast – very fast in making their hire. A couple of indicators there:

One is the presence of Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips joining GM Ryan Pace for the first round of interviews for the next Bears head coach – John DeFilippo, George Edwards, Vic Fangio, Josh McDaniels, Matt Nagy, Pat Shurmur. This was rightly a cause for concern. Bosses involved from the outset of a hiring process necessarily influence that process by their simple being there. The more customary business-hiring model has the final candidate going up through the levels at the end, not the beginning.

Unless the reason for this departure from custom is to keep the throttle as wide open as possible in a search that Pace correctly views as highly competitive. And unless the customary structure has miserably failed the Bears, which it has.

The traditional senior-management-last interview structure has not served the Bears particularly well. Michael McCaskey had Mark Hatley do a search, develop five finalists, and then McCaskey entered the process and decided on Dave McGinnis…make that Dick Jauron. Phil Emery was tasked with assembling and winnowing a list, then senior management became involved, ending with Marc Trestman.

Positive or not, McCaskey and Phillips involved early allows them to tinker, but it also gets their yay-or-nay early as well, meaning that Pace likely won’t have a wave of second interviews. In fact, more than one source has said that they doubt Pace and the Bears will have a second interview with more than one finalist.

If that is the thinking, and any coach would need to go through McCaskey and Phillips at some point anyway, getting their say-so’s could save Pace time in a process he hopes will let him make a substantive offer for his candidate-of-choice ahead of the Cardinals-Colts-Giants-Lions pack.

A second hurry-up indicator is the Bears declining permission for defensive coordinator Fangio to interview for the Cincinnati Bengals vacant D-coordinator job. Fangio interviewed for the Bears top job, isn’t expected to be a finalist in management’s opinion, but is very much wanted as a holdover in his role.

Fangio doesn’t have any restrictions as of mid-Tuesday, but the Bears holding onto him to the last possible moment suggests that they genuinely want Fangio as an option available to their new head coach if at all possible. A day or two wouldn’t seem like much time to have Fangio wait, unless there was a chance a decision could come down very soon. It may not happen, but not for the Bears lack of pushing the Pace (pun intended).

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Word from a couple of non-Chicago sources say that Ryan Pace has been making very, very positive impressions in those interviews, based on what interviewees are telling others. This is significant.

The Bears desperately need a strong front man and an image upgrade. The standard line may be that this is a desirable, charter NFL franchise but free agents have turned the Bears down for less money elsewhere, and that cannot help but be a real concern for a head-coaching candidate. Pace as the face of the franchise for that candidate matters.

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Stop “…side of the football” thinking

Few things are more meaningless than what side of the football the Bears absolutely “must” go to for their next head coach, as in, “gotta go offense to develop Mitch Trubisky.” Best guess is that it will be someone from an offensive background, but as for correlation with success? Oh, please.

Of the 12 playoff teams, exactly six are coached by “offensive” coaches and six by coaches from the defensive side of things.

Offense Defense
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Bill Belichick, New England
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Sean McDermott, Buffalo
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Dan Quinn, Atlanta
Sean Payton, New Orleans Ron Rivera, Carolina
Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
Andy Reid, Kansas City Mike Zimmer, Minnesota

All of that would be meaningless or irrelevant if not for the fact that Case Keenum has had a career year under Zimmer; that Cam Newton has reached MVP heights and a Super Bowl with Rivera; and the Buffalo Bills got to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years behind Tyrod Taylor and McDermott – all coaches from defensive backgrounds.

Matt Ryan built an impressive body of work under Mike Smith, a career defensive coach. Smith couldn’t get Ryan or the Atlanta Falcons over the playoff hump and was succeeded by defensive-guy Quinn, who took the Falcons and Ryan to the Super Bowl last year.

The overarching point, however, isn’t that defense-based coaches come with some sort of QB pixie dust. It’s that the full staff is most critical, and the reason why head-coaching interviews involve such intense scrutiny of the candidates’ lists of staff assistants, beginning particularly with the coordinator on the other side of the football from the head coach’s background.

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.