Bears

For Ron Rivera, dumped in Chicago, living well is the best revenge

lovieriveraoldbearsslide.png

For Ron Rivera, dumped in Chicago, living well is the best revenge

A cliche perhaps, but living well is the best revenge. And it is how Ron Rivera has been going about his life’s work, as SI writer Austin Murphy chronicles nicely in his piece “Ron Rivera’s rift with Lovie Smith behind him in Super Bowl return.”

The Carolina Panthers head coach and member of the ’85 Bears has gotten far, far beyond one of his greatest career disappointments, that of being let go as defensive coordinator by Smith in the aftermath of the Bears’ Super Bowl XLI loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

Fittingly perhaps, Rivera now faces Manning in another Super Bowl, although job security is obviously not in the Rivera discussion now, win or lose on Sunday. (It might be for Manning, but certainly not for Rivera.)

[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: Cam Newton’s success traces to Ron Rivera letting him be himself]

But as Austin lays out, a big part of the feel-good surrounding Rivera and his Panthers being in the Super Bowl is how Rivera has refused to dwell on or even talk extensively about how things ended in Chicago.

A touch of perspective here: On the surface, that Rivera ever had issues as a defensive coach is puzzling. He was the Philadelphia Eagles linebackers coach under Jim Johnson, then Chicago's defensive coordinator, then on to San Diego as a linebackers coach (2007) and defensive coordinator (2007-10) and finally to Carolina as top man.

But everywhere he’s been, Rivera has been a part of very, very good defenses. In Philadelphia (1999-2003) the Eagles ranked 11th in his first year, then Top 5 in four of his last five years. In Chicago, the defenses ranked 13, 1 and 3.

The Chargers ranked 5, 15, 11 and 10 in Rivera’s four years there. And the Panthers were 2, 21 and 6 in the past three seasons.

[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: Broncos vs. Panthers - And the winner is...]

But Austin’s story looks more specifically at Chicago, and ultimately at Smith as much as Rivera.

One element that bothered Smith was Rivera’s aggressive quest for a head-coaching job, with an annual procession of interviews that didn’t get Rivera a job but it did fuel any reservations Smith might have had about Rivera.

That’s unfortunate. Few compliments of coaching compare to a member of one’s staff being successful elsewhere, which Rivera ultimately was, albeit after settling for a demotion to linebackers coach with San Diego in 2007. That quickly became defensive coordinator the next year and stayed there until the end of the 2010 season when Rivera succeeded John Fox as Panthers field boss.

There’s some sort of odd irony in the idea that loyalty, a truly prized value in people generally, can be such a liability in sports. But that’s a simple fact, if only because friendship does not automatically equate to competence.

[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: What Mike Ditka advice is former Bears LB Ron Rivera taking into Super Bowl 50?]

What Smith did was to effectively get rid of Rivera and promote Bob Babich from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. Babich was a longtime friend of Smith’s and had helped out one of Smith’s sons going through a rough stretch in college once upon a time. But Babich was a disaster as a coordinator, nicknamed “Bullet” by players who found him amusing but not a coach who inspired true respect from the likes of Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and others.

Babich went on to become Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator, a job he lost after the 2015 season following three disastrous years.

After Ron Turner was let go as offensive coordinator in 2009 following a scratchy one season with quarterback Jay Cutler, Smith turned to Mike Martz for the job. Martz had given Smith his first coordinator’s post while the two were with the St. Louis Rams.

But Martz had been out of the game for the two previous seasons after being fired in San Francisco. His force-feeding an out-of-step, deep-drop offense to Cutler worked from the standpoint of reining in Cutler’s interception tendencies, but the offense crumbled in the second half of 2011 and Martz proved unable to find anything with Caleb Hanie and then Josh McCown. Martz was gone after 2011 and hasn’t coached since.

As Austin details in his SI piece on Rivera, Smith has gone down with loyalty hires in Tampa as well.

[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]

Very notably, however, is that Smith was successful, just not to the degree that his last two general manager's wanted. Phil Emery fired Smith after a 10-6 mark in 2012. Jason Licht dumped Smith this offseason despite Smith improving the Bucs from two to six wins with Rookie of the Year quarterback Jameis Winston.

Rivera’s Panthers were a combined 4-0 against Smith’s Buccaneers over the latter’s two Tampa Bay seasons, outscoring the Bucs 114-64.

The first Bears game in 2007 after Rivera was let go by Smith was against the Chargers. The Chargers shocked the defending NFC champions 14-3.

The final game of Smith’s Tampa Bay tenure was against Rivera’s Panthers, who mauled Smith’s Buccaneers 38-10. Three days later Smith was fired.

Indeed, living well is always the best revenge.

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.