Lovie Smith

'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."

Since Mike Ditka, Bears coaching hires both good and bad – sometimes very good, sometimes very bad

Since Mike Ditka, Bears coaching hires both good and bad – sometimes very good, sometimes very bad

As the Bears begin their search for the coaching successor to John Fox, names will be swirling. Which the Bears decide upon will likely be the most notable Chicago sports event of the year, even though that year still has 364 more days to run.

It will be a move that comes with some interesting history.

The organization has been made sport of for any number or missteps, some amply justified, others maybe not so much. Hiring Bears coaches, while marked by erratic swings, has not been by any means a complete drumbeat litany of calamity.

After Mike Ditka was dispatched in 1992, Dallas defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was arguably the most sought-after candidate for top sideline jobs. The Cowboys were coming off Super Bowl obliteration of the Buffalo Bills to cap off a resurgence in which Wannstedt was the No. 1 sidekick of coach Jimmy Johnson and had only once suffered through two straight losing seasons in a career ranging from college assistant to NFL head coach.

Then-Bears President Michael McCaskey pursued and edged out the New York Giants to land Wannstedt, who achieved some early success before his job-ending collapse from 1996-98.

McCaskey enacted a collapse of his own in the mishandled attempt to hire Dave McGinnis, a botched moment that effectively cost McCaskey his job. The Bears ultimately hired Dick Jauron, who managed as many playoff appearances as Wannstedt (one) but little else.

The move to Lovie Smith produced a division championship in year two (2005) and a Super Bowl appearance in year three, and ultimately produced a win total (81) trailing only George Halas and Ditka.

Missed playoffs then brought an end to Smith’s tenure despite a 10-6 record in 2012, whereupon Smith was fired by Phil Emery, who brought in Marc Trestman to start a two-year stint of dysfunction that got both Emery and Trestman fired.

The organization then turned to Fox, like Wannstedt once upon a time, perhaps the top candidate on the open market. His record of success included taking Carolina and Denver to (losing) Super Bowls, but had never experienced consecutive losing seasons through 27 years of NFL coaching at any level.

Fox’s time ended, as Wannstedt’s did, with three straight losing seasons for the first time in his career.

View from the Moon: The dangers of anyone-but-Fox hysteria

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AP

View from the Moon: The dangers of anyone-but-Fox hysteria

Picking through the still-smoldering embers from the Bears' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles:

Complicating any evaluation of what the Bears were, are or will be is that the zombie apocalypse that managed zero first downs, 33 yards of offense versus 36 yards lost to penalties and 24 unanswered first-half points in Philadelphia is generally the same team that stood 3-4 after seeming turnaround wins behind Mitch Trubisky over the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens, two teams making playoff pushes of their own.

The Trubisky offense topped 300 yards in four of the previous five games and did that against credible defenses. Against Philadelphia, a season-low 140 yards. That could turn out to be a blip — and the Eagles can do that — but no team had netted fewer than the Dallas Cowboys’ 225 last week and the Denver Broncos’ 226 the week before, two teams that have combined for 10 straight losses (three teams combining for 14 straight losses if you throw in the Bears).

Injuries have again riddled the defense, but something ominous has been happening on that side of the football, with opponents scoring 20, 23, 27 and 31 points since the 17-3 throttling of Carolina, a game marked by two defensive scores.

And the defense seemed to be feeling the Philly burn.

"That hurt yesterday," defensive lineman Mitch Unrein said. "We’re pissed off, to tell you the truth."

That doesn’t mean anything by itself, but if there weren’t some anger, that would be a fatal tell.

Fire Fox, then what?

The status of John Fox will be a Level 1 topic until it isn’t, whether by virtue of his dismissal or if he sees Year 4 on the strength of a reversal of fortune during the remainder of the 2017 campaign. But be careful with the anybody-but-Fox hysteria.

Drawing on perspective: The Bears once went from sliding down under Jim Dooley to free fall under Abe Gibron, and from a death spiral under Dave Wannstedt to five years at 35-45 under Dick Jauron. Offensive guru Marc Trestman was going to finally turn Jay Cutler into something, presided over an epic downturn and then forced the Bears to turn to Fox for corrective action.

No real conclusion suggested there, only that getting a new coach isn’t even a remote indicator of getting the right coach.

In the Bears' case now, the solution is far from simple, much more complicated than simply finding a coach with an offensive background to shepherd Trubisky to greatness. The templates in Los Angeles (quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay with the Rams) and Philadelphia (quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson with the Eagles) are seductive models, but only if the quarterback proves out, as they have for those teams. It is always — always — about the players, ultimately.

The Bears dumped Lovie Smith after a 10-win season, brought in quarterback whisperer Trestman, surrounded Cutler with Pro Bowl talent (Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall) and were off the rails after barely a year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jettisoned Smith in favor of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has overseen some 2017 statistical improvements by Jameis Winston but only within the context of an overall Buccaneers collapse from a 2016 season that nearly ended in a trip to the playoffs.

Josh McDaniels, another name in play by virtue of his time with the New England Patriots alongside Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, went to Denver in 2008, got shed of Cutler on the way to an 8-8 season, then was fired in early December the next season with a 3-9 mark. The Broncos then filled the vacancy with Fox the following year after elevating Eric Studesville, a former Bears assistant and Broncos running backs coach, to the post of interim head coach.

Keeping Pace?

A very good point raised by a reader via direct message to me at @moonmullinNBCS: A friend had said to him regarding general manager Ryan Pace, “It’s about the culture Ryan has created around this organization.” To which my correspondent queried, “What culture would that be?”

Reasonable issue to raise. On Pace’s list of five prime directives, talent acquisition makes up the first four. Building a football operation with the right group mindset is an integral element in the overall. In Pace’s situation, one of the first tasks confronting him, besides hiring a head coach, was to join with that coach to eradicate the negativity that had festered under Trestman. Part of doing that was to weed out certain players who were antithetical to building a team-based organization.

That meant difficult decisions (and second-guessing) on letting go of Cutler, Forte, Marshall and even Bennett, whose premium on “team” has been out’ed by this season.

Not to place too much blame on those one-time Pro Bowlers, but: Cutler has helped the Miami Dolphins go from wild-card finisher last year to the second-lowest scoring team in the AFC and just one game better than the Bears at 4-7. The New York Jets finished 5-11 with Forte last year. The Jets became Marshall’s fourth team to miss playoffs in his two years there, before he went on to the New York Giants — who went 11-5 and earned an NFC wild-card spot in 2016 before Marshall arrived — and was part of the 0-5 start this season before being injured.

The point was that while Pace was giving up production numbers in some cases, the real point was to bring in certain kinds of players. It hasn’t translated into enough wins to this point, but Pace finally addressed the quarterback situation this year, so arguably his real clock started on draft day with Trubisky.

One other Pace thought:

In the extremely unlikely event the Bears were to jettison Pace at season’s end, the replacement would make four general managers under chairman George McCaskey over the last seven years: Jerry Angelo (fired after 2011), Phil Emery (fired after 2014), Pace and the GM to be named later.

That would make them unofficially the Cleveland Browns West, with the Browns going through four in a year less time (including incumbent Sashi Brown, who was given the title of Executive Vice President of Football Operations presumably to break the GM run). The Browns win the Instability Bowl with two additional general managers: Phil Savage through 2008 and George Kokinis for just 2009.