Bears

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

stefon_diggs.jpg
AP

For hopeful Bears, more object lessons from NFL divisional round

So another playoff weekend and with it some takeaways of greater or lesser relevance for the Bears, not so much as any sort of measuring standard for how close the Bears are or aren’t from this level of NFL play (but if you actually are wanting to keep meaningless score, the Bears did beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by more points (6) than the Jaguars did (3), and whacked Carolina by 14, while the New Orleans Saints only outscored the Panthers by 5, so… oh, never mind… .).

But in a copycat league that looks desperately for things that are working for anyone at all, the playoffs do offer some object lessons to the also-rans. Of course, pretty much like diets, most systems for doing things in the NFL all work. You just have to do them the right way and shop right. So some from along a spectrum ranging from “Huh?” to “Wow”… .

*                          *                          *

QB acquisitions

Some playoffs make it indelibly apparent that the only route to team excellence runs through quarterbacks drafted pretty much in first rounds, not even necessarily by their playoff teams. Last year the final three (we’re not including New England here, because Tom Brady is the ultimate outlier, and he and the Patriots have been in 11 of the last 15 seasons he’s been involved) were quarterback’ed by Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, all 1’s. In 2015, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. Every year, at least two of the final four finishers are led by former No. 1’s, even going back to the Bears’ near-miss in 2010 (Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez.) Plus Brady.

This year, not so much. Brady aside, two of the other three (Minnesota, Philadelphia) come in not only not with No. 1’s, but not even with intended starters – Case Keenum and Nick Foles, respectively.

A couple takeaways here:

  •       What is put around the quarterback, including coaches, is potentially everything. Jacksonville, which is riding former No. 3-overall Blake Bortles, is in the AFC title less because of Bortles than Leonard Fournette rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns. No. 1’s are far from necessarily a winning ticket: No. 1’s Roethlisberger, Ryan and Marcus Mariota all bowed out over the weekend, along with Drew Brees (a No. 2), with only Roethlisberger losing to a quarterback drafted higher than he was (Bortles).
     
  •       The Bears are on the right track with prioritizing quarterback at No. 3/2 last draft in the form of Mitch Trubisky. And GM Ryan Pace was on another right track in making a serious play for a backup quarterback. Mike Glennon turned out not to be the right one, and coaches arguably erred in choosing him to open the season over Trubisky in an extremely close decision. But Minnesota and Philadelphia are in the NFC title game because of backup quarterbacks (Keenum, Foles), and the whole New England thing happened because Bill Belichick and the Patriots went after a quarterback in the 2000 sixth round despite having previously durable Drew Bledsoe in place.
     

Pace neglected the quarterback spot in his first two drafts before addressing it last draft with Mitch Trubisky (plus Glennon and Sanchez in free agency). For comparison purposes, Spielman drafted zero quarterbacks over his last three, but had that luxury by virtue of landing Teddy Bridgewater with his second first-rounder in 2014, and augmented that after Bridgewater’s knee injury with a trade for Sam Bradford and free-agent signing of Keenum after Bradford’s injury.

*                          *                          *

Remember when the Bears just absolutely had to, couldn’t stay in the NFL unless they did, switch to a 3-4 scheme? All four teams in the conference championships are base 4-3 teams.

*                          *                          *

Targeting the targets

Ryan Pace and new coach Matt Nagy, along with incoming offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, are expected to devote money and draft capital in the wide receiver spot, and not necessarily including a wideout with the No. 8 pick. Good idea. But Nagy comes from the West Coast cult of Andy Reid, and from the weekend’s divisional round, one template stands above all others:

Using the Patriots as the standard, New England had seven players this season haul in 30 or more passes (the Bears had two, Tarik Cohen and Kendall Wright). None of the seven were first-round New England picks, although the Patriots did trade a No. 1 (32nd overall) and a No. 3 to New Orleans for Brandon Cooks and a No. 4. Three of them were running backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White) and one was a tight end (Rob Gronkowski).

Very noteworthy: Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick and Stefon Diggs a fifth, both going to teams with histories of stocking and then stocking again and then stocking a little more at wide receiver. Diggs is one of five wide receivers taken by draft and personnel chief Rick Spielman over the past three drafts. Pace went all-in with Kevin White at No. 7 of his initial draft, but Daniel Braverman is the only other wideout drafted by Pace; over the last eight drafts, Braverman, White, Marquess Wilson and Alshon Jeffery are the extent of Bears draft capital invested at wideout.

(Brandon Marshall could be counted in there, accounting for two No. 3’s. Whether that counts as properly building through the draft, your humble and faithful narrator leaves to the reader.

*                          *                          *

Build through the draft…mostly

Speaking of building through the draft:

Everybody talks about it and it’s certainly the ideal. But Jacksonville is a game away from the Super Bowl (No. 2 in yardage and points allowed) because of a near-historic hit rate on defense in free agency: Calais Campbell, up for defensive player of the year, plus Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson on the defensive line; Paul Posluszny at linebacker; A.J. Bouye at cornerback; and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson.

Of course, the NFL’s No. 1 defense for points and yards allowed (Minnesota Vikings) can point to a starting unit that includes just two players (tackles Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph) who were significant pickup in free agency from other teams. Safety Andrew Zendejo was a Dallas castoff signed off the scrap heap back in 2011 but has been a Viking ever since.

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

fangio-112.jpg
USA TODAY

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

Pulling the camera back for a wide-angle shot:

As with so many of the actions being taken by the Bears in less than two weeks of offseason, the retaining of Vic Fangio to serve on coach Matt Nagy’s staff is worth a broader look for what it represents as part of the greater whole being attempted by GM Ryan Pace. More on that in a moment.

What Fangio immediately underscores is a mutual comfort level between a very senior elite defensive coach with a young first-time head coach. Irrespective of what Fangio’s market was or wasn’t, based on jobs opening or closing, and that his players publicly and privately were lobbying for him to be rehired, the Bears ultimately needed to convince Fangio that their organization was a fit for him, even as they were telling him that he was never going to be their head coach.

What Nagy has done in the span of four days is validate Pace’s feeling that this 39-year-old with limited experience as a coordinator had a vision for a support staff and the right stuff to pull it off. Landing all three coordinators within four days of his own hiring may not be hiring record but is head-turning impressive for a guy who’s never done this before.

Getting the Fangio deal done (exact details of the three-year pact will be coming out) makes apparent that Pace has empowered Nagy (and Bears senior management doing the same for Pace) to get major moves done. Coaches have a budget for assistants, and Fangio had been seeking a deal that would make him the NFL’s highest-paid coordinator, sources said. Whether that did happen isn’t important; Nagy didn’t convince Fangio to stay with only upbeat talk. Pace gave him the budget.

The overall is what is intriguing here. When Pace brought in John Fox, one of the presumed positives was the pairing of a proven veteran coach with a young boss (Pace) in charge of football ops. The results weren’t what either wanted, but the relationship never flagged and Pace is the better for it. Now the template is used a second time; a veteran defensive coordinator (the de facto head coach of the defense) who gives his boss a backstop and kind of a mentor.

But if Fox was much, much more than just an interim solution, Pace’s plan was for immediate franchise rescue from the Marc Trestman ennui. Fox in fact did accomplish a lot of that, certainly with a Bears defense that had reached a historic nadir under Mel Tucker. And that was under Fangio (whose relationship with Fox was never as caustic as outsiders depicted; as one source close to both said, “Vic is a crusty tough guy; so is Foxy. Foxy didn’t hire him to be some sort of drinking pal.”)

Fox for Pace in some respects did represent a bridge of sorts with an expiration date if only because he’s in his 60’s. Regardless, when Pace took the Chicago job, the ideal always was to be successful enough to hire a second coach during his GM tenure. The way this came about (three double-digit-loss seasons, firing Fox after three years) was anything but how this was supposed to go, but Fox was in fact signed for four years, not five.

So Pace, now with three years of GM seasoning himself, hires a head coach that is very much akin to the kind of action Pace took to address his quarterback position, with a less-experienced individual but with Pace views as true upside.

And “upside” is a constant target with Pace, who clearly is not averse to going all in big-time for upside (Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky, Matt Nagy, Pernell McPhee). Organizations take their character and personality from the top, and the Bears football operation is being handled with an aggressive streak, whether financially in coach contracts (Fangio) or player acquisition.

This, more than Pace’s arrival three years ago, is the real beginning.

Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

Vic Fangio’s return gives the Bears’ defense the best chance to be great in 2018

While Vic Fangio’s future didn’t gain any clarity until Friday, one thing has been abundantly clear for weeks: Fangio’s players wanted him back. 

Those players will get their wish, with the Chicago Tribune reporting Fangio is expected to return as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. ESPN reported Fangio was convinced to stay by head coach Matt Nagy and will receive a three-year deal. 

“I think players are a big part of any type of success, but coaching is huge,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “On our side of the ball, with defense, I think Vic is a huge part of why we were pretty good this year on defense. I feel like he’s a mastermind, one of the smartest DCs, most-detailed DCs I’ve been around. It’s hard to make him smile, but when he smiles you know it’s a good thing. Guys love him. We respect him. If I was here, I’d hope he stays.”

The Bears ranked 10th in total defense in 2017 and ninth in points per game, and did that without a Pro Bowler on their roster (though Akiem Hicks’ slap-in-the-face fourth alternate status is a separate diatribe; he played at a Pro Bowl level this year). This defense overcame season-ending injuries to two veteran captains in linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Quintin Demps within the first three weeks of 2017; outside linebackers Willie Young and Leonard Floyd were lost to injury later in the season. 

The point here: Fangio did a lot without much “elite” talent. But he (and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell) got a ton out of Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos, two players who didn’t have starting jobs when the season began. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson had a solid debut season, while Hicks and Eddie Goldman were a stout run-stuffing duo in the defensive interior. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Christian Jones played well when asked, too. 

After the Bears’ season ended — with 11 losses — Fangio’s message to his team was optimistic. 

“(He told us) you guys are progressing, you guys are on the rise even though our record isn't what we wanted, you guys should still be proud of yourselves,” Amukamara said.

Another critical point here with regard to the Bears defense: Multiple players talked before the season about how a second year in Fangio’s system (specifically, for Hicks) would allow them to play faster and think less about the principles of the scheme and their assignments. Had the Bears changed coordinators — even if that coordinator still used a 3-4 — it could’ve slowed the progress this group saw in 2017. 

“I just think we could be as good as we want,” Goldman said on Jan. 1. “I can't talk too early because we don't know the situation we're going to be in. But as long as we just come in and adopt whatever system we're going to be under next and just go hard at it.”

The Bears won’t have to adopt a new defensive system. This defense still needs more talent — specifically, at outside linebacker — and needs to address the cornerback position, which starts with finding a way to keep Fuller after his breakout season (“I definitely feel like we’ve built a good relationship,” Fuller said of Fangio, who was sharply critical of him as he missed the 2016 season).

But the arrow is pointing up for the Bears’ defense. Keeping Fangio ensures that arrow will keep going in that same direction.