Jared Goff

'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."

Are the 2017 Los Angeles Rams a fair blueprint for the 2018 Bears?

USA Today

Are the 2017 Los Angeles Rams a fair blueprint for the 2018 Bears?

As the Bears lurch their way toward the end of a disappointing 2017 season, let’s revisit a story from three months ago: How Jared Goff’s rookie year could be a cautionary tale for Mitch Trubisky

The premise was that Goff, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick, had his confidence severely damaged by going 0-7 and throwing more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) as a rookie. The connection there is Trubisky — in the wake of Cameron Meredith’s season-ending injury — may be better off developing from the sidelines to avoid a Goff-level disaster. 

But now that we’re deep into a season in which Goff and the 8-3 Rams have so impressively turned things around — they’re No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA entering Week 13 — maybe the better question to be asked is this: Can the 2017 Rams be a blueprint for the 2018 Bears? And are the expectations that come with that comparison fair?

Take these quotes from August said by Benny Cunningham, who played with Goff in 2016, and there are some clear similarities to apply to the current situation in Chicago:

“As a quarterback, being drafted high, you take most of the criticism,” Cunningham said. “But I feel like if the guys around him can help — that’s any quarterback — if the guys around you can execute and help, it makes your job a lot easier.

“… I just felt like in general we all struggled as an offense. I wouldn’t say he struggled by himself. It’s different when you’re on the inside looking out, you can see exactly what’s going on the depth of a receiver, a missed block by a running back — you see everything. And then in the paper you read the quarterback had two interceptions, so you really don’t get to see the whole detail of it. I feel like everybody played a part in what happened last year.”

The Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher in mid-December with a 4-9 record, which was the first step toward becoming competitive. Taking a chance on Sean McVay, then the 30-year-old offensive coordinator of Washington, was the next move, pairing an offensive-minded coach with a franchise quarterback. 

Then, through free agency and the draft, Rams general manager Les Snead added a number of key pieces around Goff: center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth were signed to stabilize the offensive line, and four wideouts were acquired: Sammy Watkins (via a trade with the Buffalo Bills), Robert Woods (free agency), Cooper Kupp (second-round draft pick) and Josh Reynolds (fourth-round draft pick). The Rams also used another second-round pick on tight end Gerald Everett. 

Goff didn’t struggle having to learn a new offensive scheme. He’s thrived in the new structure, and is rated as the fifth-best quarterback in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Watkins, Woods and Kupp have all been top-25 receivers in the league, too (the highest-ranked Bears’ receiver by DVOA is Kendall Wright at No. 48). 

And the success the of the Rams’ passing game has stopped opposing defenses from selling out to suffocate running back Todd Gurley: Only 20 percent of Gurley’s rushing attempts have come with eight or more men in the box, down about five percent from 2016 (43 percent of Jordan Howard’s runs in 2017 have come with eight or more defenders in the box). 

The Bears, on paper, will have more offensive pieces in place going into the offseason than the Rams did a year ago. The offensive line won’t need a significant overhaul, for starters, and the Bears already have a second-round tight end on their roster in Adam Shaheen. Tarik Cohen has proven to be a playmaker, though he’ll be better-utilized when he’s not frequently the only playmaker on the field. 

Wide receiver is the clear position of need for the Bears, and it won’t be easy to hit on 75 percent of the receivers they do acquire like the Rams did with Watkins, Wood and Kupp. 

But the Rams’ success from 2016-2017 does set a precedent for the Bears from 2017-2018. Expectations should be high next year, even if we're still weeks and months away from knowing what the makeup of that team will look like. The most important player is Trubisky, and if he makes second-year improvements with an improved team around him, why can't the Bears do what the Rams did?

"I feel like Mitch is focused, and his preparation is going to take him very far in this league and he’s going to play in this league for a very long time," Cunningham said after Sunday's 28-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. "I like what he’s doing, I like the direction he’s headed as a player, he’s starting to develop more leadership each week with this offense and with this team. So I’m excited to see what he’ll be."

Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff and preaching patience on Mitchell Trubisky

Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff and preaching patience on Mitchell Trubisky

Mitchell Trubisky will inevitably be compared to Deshaun Watson as the 2017 season — and his career — progresses. Watson is off to an eye-catching start to his pro career, leading the Houston Texans to a 57-14 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday and looking every bit like the playmaker he was while leading Clemson to a College Football Playoff championship a year ago. 

But Watson’s strong start to his career doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be better than Trubisky, or that he’ll even have long-term success. What Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said last month about how long it takes young quarterbacks to establish themselves as being elite is relevant here:

“I think it takes a couple years,” Roethlisberger said on a conference call with Chicago media. “That’s why I’m always slow to send too much praise or anoint the next great quarterback after Year 1. I think people in the media and the ‘professionals’ in some of these big sports networks are so quick to anoint the next great one or say that they’re going to be great; this, that and the other. 

“Let’s wait and see what happens after two to three years, after defenses understand what you’re bringing (and) you’re not a surprise anymore. I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks. In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

The same line of thinking, then, goes for Trubisky: If he lights up the Minnesota Vikings in his NFL debut Monday night and plays well against the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints in October, it’ll be an encouraging beginning to his career, but not necessarily a guarantee he’ll be among the greats. 

That doesn’t mean the excitement should be muted if Trubisky immediately succeeds, especially for a franchise that hasn’t had a quarterback like him in a long time, maybe ever. But patience will be necessary in making long-term evaluations of Trubisky, even with expectations being high. 

“(Watson’s success) doesn’t put pressure on me,” Trubisky said. “Everyone has a different game and everyone has a different situation. That didn’t surprise me at all because I know what kind of player and person Deshaun is. The big stage isn’t going to faze him or myself. 

“So we’re in this new era where young quarterbacks are expected to come in and produce right away like veterans have. It’s a little different. But I think the type of players there are now coming out, they’re able to handle it.”

The Jared Goff question

Just as there should be some caution against rushing to judge a rookie quarterback as the next great one, there should be caution against labeling someone a bust after an ineffective first year. Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is a perfect example here. 

Last year’s No. 1 overall pick put up dismal numbers while losing all seven starts he had as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams. The worry was that brutal debut would irreparably mangle Goff’s confidence and make him a Jamarcus Russell or David Carr-esque bust. 

But the message inside the Rams’ locker room was that poor production wasn’t all Goff’s fault. 

“I would say that the situation with Jared Goff was kind of unfair to him because I feel like as a whole offense, we struggled,” running back Benny Cunningham, who played for the Rams last year, said in August. “As a quarterback, being drafted high, you take most of the criticism. But I feel like if the guys around him can help — that’s any quarterback — if the guys around you can execute and help, it makes your job a lot easier.”

The Rams, notably, acquired wide receivers Sammy Watkins (trade), Robert Woods (free agency) and Cooper Kupp (draft), tight end Gerald Everett (draft), center John Sullivan (free agency) and tackle Andrew Whitworth (free agency) between the end of the 2016 season and beginning of the 2017 one. And, crucially, 31-year-old first-year head coach Sean McVay was brought in to implement a fresh offensive system. 

Through four games, Goff leads the NFL in average yards per attempt (9.2), has completed two-thirds of his passes and has seven touchdowns against one interception. The Rams are 3-1 with one of the best offenses in the league a year after Goff quarterbacked one of the worst. These kinds of turnarounds can happen.

Ideally, the Bears won’t need that level of change around Trubisky in 2018 outside of adding a few pass-catching options for him. But if things don’t go as planned over these next 12 games, it’s not a given that Trubisky’s confidence — and chances of being the franchise-changing quarterback the Bears hope he can be — will be ruined.