Bears

View from the Moon: Another sign of culture shift evident within emerging Bears team

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AP

View from the Moon: Another sign of culture shift evident within emerging Bears team

Just win, baby. That really is the whole point, or maybe points – the scoreboard points, not the style points. On Sunday, however, the defense in the Bears’ 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers accounted for enough of both kinds of points for the Bears (3-4) to matching their win total of last season, and in the process win two straight games for the first time since mid-2015.

How much or what it really means, though, as was the case with the Bears’ win at Baltimore a week ago, will have to play out in New Orleans next Sunday. Because the last time the Bears stacked two victories, it got them to 5-6 in John Fox’s first Bears year, whereupon Robbie Gould missed some field goals and the Bears went into a two-year death spiral, fueled by a year of quarterback turmoil. “I don’t know if [the 2016 win total] is really a benchmark for us, to be honest,” Fox deadpanned.

But that was then, this is now. And a lot is different. A lot. Because in the past handful of weeks, which have seen victories over Baltimore and Carolina after a failed final possession with a chance at a winning score over Minnesota, the Bears have seemed to be pulling up from the death spiral that followed the last time they won two straight.

“We’re definitely trying to change the culture,” said linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose first-quarter sack of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was Floyd’s fourth in the last four games. Right now, it is difficult not to sense the culture change, regardless of whether the Bears go into their off-week 4-4 or 3-5.

One of the hallmarks of success, in fields far beyond just football, is to win when you’re not performing anywhere close to your best. Everybody does well when they’re “on” and cylinders are firing. Winning when they’re not is another matter.

And the Bears won a game Sunday despite their quarterback taking as many sacks (four) as he had completed passes – this after winning a game (Baltimore) in which Mitch Trubisky threw away almost as many passes (six) as he completed (eight). Probably a pattern that neither he nor the Bears are looking to as some weird winning formula, but if they can win when they don’t play well, just maybe… .

This time at least the Bears managed to close out a game in the standard 60 minutes, which was critical since the defense was on the field more than 30 minutes as it was, while holding Newton and the Panthers to three points. This marked the first time since midway through Newton’s rookie season (2011) that Carolina has been held to that few points, a span of 94 games.

“We didn’t score [a touchdown] as an offense, and defense carried us so we kind of felt salty that we didn’t help out more,” Trubisky said. (Consider that another small culture tweak – in eight years of Jay Cutler and, before that, Kyle Fuller and Brian Griese and Rex Grossman, “salty” was never an accusation anyone would have leveled at the offense, win or lose).

Credit Trubisky with candor and accuracy. The defense did indeed carry the offense, holding Carolina out of the end zone and in the process making it nine-plus quarters and 29 straight opposing possessions that have ended short of the end zone, extending back to Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon’s TD run in the third quarter of the Minnesota game.

It wasn’t always elite on defense. In the course of the first four games this season, the Bears defense allowed nine scoring drives of 60 yards or longer; over the past three games, a total of just two. 

Pulling the camera back to look at more than just the defense:

To put this in some sort of NFL context: No Bears opponent has been below .500 at the time they faced the Bears (Atlanta and Tampa Bay hadn’t played before they faced the Bears). This was not only the Bears’ third win; it was their third win over a team with a winning record (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Carolina) at the time the Bears faced them. 

Sunday was not without its obvious concerns, big ones in fact.

For the second straight game, Trubisky was sacked four times. This time he appeared to take sacks rather than throw balls away as he did in Baltimore, but Trubisky was still unofficially the only starting NFL quarterback completing less than 50 percent of his passes, and his 4-for-7 day only managed to pull him even at 50 percent.

And an offensive line with a supposedly elite interior-three and a left tackle recently given a contract extension has been complicit in Trubisky taking nine sacks over the past 11 quarters. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, that would be nine sacks in the last 46 drop-backs, although some of those were admittedly Trubisky electives.

“We had more plays called [Sunday], I was just pulling them down, being conservative and taking sacks,” Trubisky said. “I was just trying to play smart, protect the football and get out of here with a win.”

That would be the informal football Gospel according to John Fox, so Trubisky is indeed learning; the downfield fireworks will come when they come. And the Panthers did come into Sunday ranked No. 2 for total sacks in the NFL.

In the meantime, the Bears could go into their off-week following New Orleans within a game of first place in the NFC North, if next weekend they defeat the Saints (4-2) and Minnesota (5-2) loses. The latter isn’t terribly likely given that the Vikings play Cleveland, but the game is in London and the Browns do have to beat SOMEBODY (don’t they?).

Regardless, that’s the math of it all, and the Bears have played themselves back from the abyss to this point. And they clearly are looking forward, not back.

“Guys just know we have a good chance of winning every week,” Trubisky said. Maybe that’s the biggest culture change taking place.

'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.”