Jay Cutler

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

The word “fit” flies around anytime an NFL coaching situation is discussed. Exactly what that means is rarely understood in full. But it is potentially the most important element in the Bears’ coaching search, not just another platitude, like “go in another direction.”

It has been a tipping point in recent Bears coaching hires, for better and worse. More on those cases a little later.

“Fit” in the Bears’ coaching search will apply to fit above – how the individual fits in vision and temperament with GM Ryan Pace – and below – how he and Mitch Trubisky connect. Indeed, the fit of the next Bears coach into what Pace has put in place will be critical, beginning with but not in the least limited to quarterback Trubisky.

Specifically: Will the head coach expect to bend Trubisky to his system (Lovie Smith fitting a reluctant Brian Urlacher into Smith’s Tampa-2 defensive concept), or bend his system to fit the player/Trubisky (career-4-3 coach John Fox becoming a 3-4 Denver coach realizing what he had in Von Miller)?

The incoming coach obviously won’t be “incoming” unless he establishes to the satisfaction of Pace (and Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips) that he is a mesh with Trubisky. Not necessarily himself; a defensive coach won’t work directly with Trubisky in daily practice sessions as much as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach will.

But the successful coaching candidate will be one who has a vision in phase with the capabilities of both Trubisky and his surrounding personnel. That’s been the hallmark of defense-based coaches like Bill Belichick in New England, Ron Rivera in Carolina, and John Fox and Lovie Smith; they are typically in on the game-planning strategically (“ball control, if you please”).

“Fit” is a funny thing, though. What Pace and Bears officials will want from their coaching hire is a clear sense of the offense as it will look with Trubisky. Subsets of that assessment will be run-blocking scheme and its fit for core elements Charles Leno, Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair, only less ensconced as franchise fixtures than Trubisky; and passing game, vertical-based or West Coast. The latter of those, the passing concepts, realistically will be influenced by the incoming offense, given that the Bears were going to make over the wideout group anyway, and a new offensive leader will guide that.

Better to fit scheme to player? Or mold player to scheme?

The fit of head coach/coordinator and quarterback or other player is the stuff on which franchises can turn. Conventional thought is that the successful adjusts his scheme to best utilize the skills of his players.

The Bears have seen those fits work well, and decidedly not so well.

Where it worked to fit player to scheme:

Urlacher loved the two-gap 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron/Greg Blache; a jumbo front four (Phillip Daniels/Bryan Robinson/Keith Traylor/Ted Washington) engaged whole offensive lines and allowed Urlacher to roam sideline to sideline unfettered. Urlacher went to four straight Pro Bowls (2000-03) and was initially not at all enamoured of Smith’s speed-based one-gap 4-3 that tasked him with more gap responsibilities.

Smith, however, knew what he had in Urlacher, that being a prototype middle linebacker with elite coverage skills. Urlacher was remade into the Smith model and became NFL defensive player of the year in 2005.

Fitting scheme to player can work:

Besides Fox converting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 with personnel like Von Miller in Denver, Adam Gase tweaked his offense when he took over as offensive coordinator, Gase researched and found that Jay Cutler was a poor decision-maker. Accordingly, Gase dialed back the quarterback flexibility he’d used in Denver with Peyton Manning, the consummate decision-maker.

The result was Cutler’s best full season for completion percentage, interception percentage and passer rating.

QB fits

Whether the enforced presence of Trubisky on the roster is a positive or negative with coaching candidates will likely remain between Pace and the candidates; best guess is that a candidate doesn’t get on the interview list without some up-front Trubisky-approval vetting by Pace.

But while the move by Pace to target and draft a perceived franchise quarterback was a long-overdue move by Bears personnel chiefs going back more than a decade, it remains to play out whether inheriting a quarterback is a plus for the incoming coach.

Head coaches hired with quarterbacks in place routinely work out pretty well, based on this year’s playoff participants:

Coach                                  Inherited  

Doug Marrone, Jaguars    Blake Bortles

Sean McVay, Rams            Jared Goff

Dan Quinn, Falcons          Matt Ryan

Mike Tomlin, Steelers      Ben Roethlisberger

Sean McDermott, Bills     Tyrod Taylor

But coaches involved in acquiring their own quarterbacks have had arguably greater success:

Coach                                 Brought in

Bill Belichick, Patriots       Tom Brady (inherited Drew Bledsoe)

Mike Mularkey, Titans      Marcus Mariota

Sean Payton, Saints          Drew Brees

Doug Pederson, Eagles    Carson Wentz

Andy Reid, Chiefs              Alex Smith

Ron Rivera, Panthers        Cam Newton

Mike Zimmer, Vikings       Case Keenum

The Bears’ coaching search was set in motion last week concurrent with the firing of Fox. “We’re going to get into [criteria] as we go through the interview process, which’ll be thorough and extensive,” Pace said. “I don’t want to get into the exact details. It’s a competitive market but you can bet that we have criteria in mind that’s very detailed and I’ll feel very confident when we hit that.”

Beginning with a thing called “fit."

New Bears coach will have to answer the Mitch Trubisky question


New Bears coach will have to answer the Mitch Trubisky question

GM Ryan Pace demurred from providing any hard information about the parameters or perimeters of the search for a new Bears head coach. Pace did make abundantly clear that the new coach will have authority to select his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The coach won’t, however, have a lot of latitude in selecting his quarterback. And by virtue of the two-year contract extension Pace received the organization, the message is that senior management in the persons of Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips ratify Pace’s call on the staffing – Mitch Trubisky – of the most important single position in sports.

Whether Trubisky-in-place is an inducement or deterrent may lie in the eye of the beholder.

Pace and the organization envision a Goff-Wentz kind of leap for Trubisky from Year 1 to Year 2. Not entirely unreasonable; using a couple of stats for purposes of loose comparison, Trubisky’s starting points of passer rating (77.5) and interception percentage (2.1) were on par with or better than the rookie performances of Wentz (79.3/2.3) and Goff (63.6/3.4), both getting their teams from also-rans to playoff participants.

That’s the good news. On the other side of the ledger, Trubisky’s quarterback rating (QBR) of 29.1 was second-worst, ahead of only Denver’s Trevor Siemian and worse than DeShone Kizer. And it was significantly short of Wentz’s (52.8), although notches better than Goff’s (22.2). Notably perhaps, Trubisky had a better passer rating working from under center than he did from shotgun, impressive for a one-year college starter from a shotgun background.

“It’s a big jump from college football, and what you saw in training camp and we talked about starts with breaking an NFL huddle, taking snaps under center, changing things at the line of scrimmage, understanding NFL defenses, blitz packages, coverages,” Pace said. “And he just got better every step of the way. One trait he has is he rarely repeats the same mistake twice, starting with he doesn’t turn the ball over, and that’s an attractive trait.”

When Marc Trestman was hired, he took the job with the understanding from GM Phil Emery that Jay Cutler was his quarterback. That continued into the season, to the point that Trestman was overruled in wanting to stay with Josh McCown in 2013 even after Cutler had recovered from injury. The situation became toxic to the level that then-offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer vented the coaches’ frustration with Cutler to a national reporter.

Cutler was still ensconced as the quarterback when Fox came in with Adam Gase as his coordinator. Gase in fact was the voice in the room for staying the course with Cutler, based on a survey Gase did of former Cutler coaches. (Gase has gone 6-10 twice now with Cutler as his primary quarterback, in 2015 with the Bears and this year with the Miami Dolphins; not sure the pro-Cutler voice’ll be there again, but that’s another story).

What didn’t happen, and which looms as a potential question in the minds of Bears coaching candidates, could be: What if I don’t see in Trubisky what Pace does? If the shared Mitch vision isn’t there, the interview will likely be a short one.

But the quarterback question involves more than just Trubisky. It involves Pace and what the Bears GM is willing or capable of doing to give his coach the quarterback material necessary, because after Trubisky, there isn’t anything right now.

Pace erred in not stocking the quarterback pipeline in either of his first two drafts. He did trade up to ensure drafting Trubisky. But he also was unwilling to invest the draft capital to trade up from No. 7 to No. 2 for Marcus Mariota in 2015 (possibly because of Gase’s Cutler endorsement), or from 11 to 2 in 2016 for Wentz. Both moves would’ve involved a potential bidding war, which the Bears realistically weren’t in an overall personnel position to wage.

Would Trestman have been hired if he declined to give assurances that he would stay with Cutler? Probably not. Would Pace have hired Fox if the latter had not bought in on Cutler? Possibly, since McCaskey said publicly at the time of hiring that personnel decisions would not be dictated by money (i.e. Cutler’s guaranteed money).

One unknown is the degree to which Trubisky himself will be involved in the interview process. That sort of thing has veered into the bizarre in the past, as when Mike Martz made a trip to Nashville to meet with Cutler in 2010, a situation in which it’s reasonable to wonder exactly who was interviewing whom. The one making the trip came off as the supplicant there.

What if Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, for instance, was of a mind that he was all in on Pat Mahomes but not on Trubisky last draft when the Chiefs moved up to take Mahomes? ESPN AM-1000’s David Kaplan reported that "Nagy loved Trubisky in the 2017 NFL Draft and the Chiefs loved him. Nagy has stayed close to him during this season. Nagy believes you can win big with Trubisky."

Best guess that Nagy needs to convince Pace, not the Kapman. In any case, that opinion likely gets Nagy at least in the room. What he and the Bears very, very much need to agree on is what Trubisky’s future looks to be, and how a transition to yet another Bears offensive coordinator (the seventh in the last 10 years) will work.

“A lot of the things that Mitch or that any quarterbacks learns as a rookie is just life in the NFL,” Pace said. “It’s NFL defenses. It’s the pace of the game. It’s the routine of being an NFL quarterback and I think he’s embraced that. As far as changing terminology and those things, Mitch is a highly intelligent player with a very strong work ethic so I am confident that he will adapt quickly to a new situation.

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

Perception might not always completely be reality, but too often it can come perilously close to becoming reality. And certain perceptions of the Bears in the wake of business Monday — firing coach John Fox, extending general manager Ryan Pace’s contract, senior team executives talking of interviewing head-coaching candidates — contain some very concerning elements.

Some of those lie in the structure that the coach-hiring process appears to be taking on. Some of those lie in the haunting bromide that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

In 2004, the Bears fired head coach Dick Jauron while at the same time announcing four-year contract extensions for team president Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo. The moves effectively compartmentalized the failures of 2002 (4-12 record) and 2003 (7-9) and hung them on Jauron. The juxtaposition of Jauron’s ouster and rewards for those above him felt somehow unseemly.

On Monday, the Bears fired Fox and extended Pace’s contract. When Phillips began Monday’s public session, he spoke only glowingly about Pace and never mentioned Fox until at the outset of a less formal media availability afterwards.

Fox deserved better than that. That was a 30-year NFL coaching veteran leaving. And if the organization is ecstatic about the progress of rookie franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky, someone should have acknowledged that his progress didn’t all happen all by itself.

Shadowy role for higher-ups

Pace clearly stated that the decision on the next Bears coach was his. But he also described the process that would involve Phillips and chairman George McCaskey as “collaborative,” a descriptor that Phillips also used, casting McCaskey and himself as a “support resource” and saying: “We have a real collaborative environment here, so Ryan and I have a great relationship, along with George as well. So I think just giving our input into things to look for, how to assess the results of different interviews will be helpful to him.”

OK, that sounds good, sounds reasonable. Collaboration, consensus, those are always nice.

Then again, a camel was a horse built by a committee.

The question is how and, more importantly perhaps, when that “collaboration” occurs, because it has happened before and not with entirely good effect.

The organization put something of a shadow over the coach-hiring process before either Fox or Pace was hired in 2015. Team higher-ups sought meetings with Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the days prior to Pace being brought aboard as general manager.

NFL rules do dictate an aggressive tack on interviewing assistants with teams in the postseason, limiting windows when those approaches can be made. In this situation, with consultant Ernie Accorsi involved, the first round effectively comprised screening interviews.

But any incoming general manager, particularly a first-time GM like Pace, would be expected to assign some not-insignificant weight to the first impressions and opinions of his bosses. Decisions at this senior level of any business typically will require sign-off from above. But the collaborative process is going to have a different tenor when the bosses have been injected into the process at the front end rather than as the more traditional and appropriate next-level final approval deeper in the process.

Put another way: The perception is that Pace’s thinking would inevitably be colored by what he knew his bosses thought of candidates they’d interviewed before he was in his job. This decision ultimately is Pace’s, but ... 

Ominous intrusions

“Collaborative” is too often not a good thing when it brings together two distinctly different areas. Best guess is that Pace will not be collaborating on marketing or business initiatives that don’t directly involve him, for example.

Then-president Michael McCaskey insisted on doing film review with head coach Dave Wannstedt in the days immediately following games. Sources said that during the 2001 draft, for two different reasons, Phillips vetoed trades sought by then-personnel chief Mark Hatley to land, first, LaDanian Tomlinson, and then later, Deuce McAllister. The Bears instead ended up with David Terrell and Anthony Thomas.

That the immediate future rests on the right arm of Trubisky was apparent from Pace’s remarks on Monday. No surprise there, and not unreasonable after Trubisky performed passably over his first year of 12 starts.

But former general manager Phil Emery similarly dictated that his own coaching hire, Marc Trestman, was being assigned Jay Cutler, whom Emery had become the first to dub a “franchise” and “elite” quarterback.

George McCaskey was directly asked during the Fox hiring whether the new coach would be required to stay with personnel already in place at that time, specifically Cutler, whose contract from Emery had the team on the hook for $16 million guaranteed in 2015. McCaskey said that no decisions would be dictated by their financial entanglements.

But Cutler, with reported $16 million guaranteed in 2015 and $10 million in 2016, remained the Bears quarterback while Pace did not select a quarterback in either of his first two drafts. Fox might or might not have truly had the option of moving on from Cutler, but Trubisky is the way the new guy will be going. Period.

“We had major questions at the most important position on our team — quarterback,” Pace said. “We were aggressive in our approach to address that position, and we couldn’t be happier in the direction that it’s heading.”

What if Josh McDaniels would have wanted Jimmy Garoppolo after working with the quarterback in New England? Or Matt Nagy was all in on Pat Mahomes over Trubisky, and was a factor in the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to trade up for Mahomes, not Trubisky?

Pace and the organization necessarily are all-in on Trubisky. They should be. It’s just that ...

Targeting a quarterback-based structure?

The structure of the next coaching staff will be interesting. One popular current template is for a quarterback/offense-centric hierarchy to be installed for the care and feeding of a young franchise quarterback. That’s the model for Carson Wentz in Philadelphia (Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo) and for Jared Goff in Los Angeles (Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Greg Olson).

It’s not actually a new coaching-staff concept. Brett Favre was brought along by ex-quarterback Mike Holmgren's coaching staff that included ex-quarterback Steve Mariucci in the actual job of quarterbacks coach and ex-quarterback Jon Gruden as an offensive assistant.

While not precisely the same thing, the Bears had a form of that structure in place for Trubisky last year: Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone as quarterbacks coach and Mark Sanchez as a quarterback “assistant.”

No easy conclusions were there on Monday beyond a commitment to building a staff that can build around Trubisky.

“I don’t want to paint ourselves in a corner,” Pace said of possible search parameters. “We’re looking for the best coach; best character, best leadership. So I don’t want to paint ourselves into offense or defense. It’s going to be a broad, thorough search.”

By a committee.