'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."

Bears search light on veteran coaches

Bears search light on veteran coaches

Word around the New England Patriots that Bill Belichick might somehow come available on the coaching market, based on reporting by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, didn’t create much more than a brief what-if buzz in various cities of teams in search of head coaches. It shouldn’t have.

One big reason was laid out by Paul McCartney, who is reported to have said in response to one in the constant stream of questions about a Beatles reunion, “You can’t reheat a soufflé.”

More to the Bears case in point, notably perhaps, none of the candidates targeted in the early days of the search are coming directly from head-coaching spots. The only two at this point with head-coaching experience – New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (Denver), Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (Cleveland) – flopped as head coaches, other than Shurmur going 1-0 as Eagles interim coach after Chip Kelly was fired.

Successful head coaches who suddenly become available for reasons other than via basic fired-for-losing usually sound good; they come with records of proven success. Jon Gruden in Oakland?

But the Bears just got over one of those – John Fox – and the likelihood that Bears GM Ryan Pace would entertain hiring another 60-something head coach is considerably short of zero. And Fox came nowhere near repeating the turnaround successes he’d accomplished in Carolina and Denver, probably because he couldn’t bring Peyton Manning and Von Miller with him.

Sometimes second-chance coaches do work out, quite nicely. Dick Vermeil left Philadelphia after a run of playoffs with the Eagles, then came back from 15 years in the broadcast booth to take both St. Louis and then Kansas City to the playoffs in his third seasons with each.

Bill Parcells got every team he head-coached to the playoffs – the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys – and wasn’t fired from any of his postings. Tony Dungy and Marty Schottenheimer achieved more success with teams after being fired than they did with teams that fired them.

Jim Schwartz retuned to respectability as Eagles defensive coordinator after his 29-51 five years coaching the Detroit Lions. But Schwartz does not fit any of the template that the Bears appear to have set with the majority of their other candidates.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ryan Pace interviews Vic Fangio for head coach


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ryan Pace interviews Vic Fangio for head coach

Dan McNeil, Patrick Finley and Nick Shepkowski join Kap on the panel. Ryan Pace conducts his first interview--- it’s with his defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Would a defensive coach be a better option for the Bears?

Plus is four years too much for Jake Arrieta? And is this the year the Blackhawks miss the playoffs?