Ron Rivera

'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."

Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

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USA TODAY

Three and out: What Ron Rivera likes about Mitchell Trubisky played out this week

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw a lot of Mitchell Trubisky last year, with the North Carolina quarterback on TV quite a bit in the Charlotte area. The Panthers, set with Cam Newton, weren’t in the market for a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Trubisky nonetheless stood out to the seventh-year Carolina coach and former Super Bowl-winning Bears linebacker. 

For Rivera, more than Trubisky’s arm strength and athleticism jumped off the screen. 

“Leadership,” Rivera pointed to. “When you watch him when he was playing — I love watching guys that either get on their teammates when they’re not doing it or they take accountability when they make a mistake. And you saw that with him.

“… We think the young man has got what it takes. We like who’s he’s gonna become. We do. We think the future can be bright for him. We are big fans here.”

Trubisky took accountability for both of his turnovers against the Minnesota Vikings: The interception Harrison Smith baited him into was certainly his fault, but his sack-strip fumble was more the result of Everson Griffen jumping the snap and blowing past left tackle Charles Leno. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Trubisky also lost a fumble on a sack-strip when cornerback Lardarius Webb hit him and dislodged the ball.

Trubisky’s explanation of that fumble was that he moved off his first read too quickly, causing him to miss Webb making a beeline for him in the backfield. But according to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, that fumble wasn’t the quarterback’s fault. 

“That’s because he’s a stud,” Loggains said of Trubisky taking responsibility for it. “We screwed the protection up. We should have been sliding to the guy. The guy should not have been coming free. That’s Mitch taking a bullet that he doesn’t need to take. The reality is he saw the guy coming and tried to get over to the check down quickly but we got to do a better job up front protecting him.”

But that Trubisky was willing to say he was at fault for that fumble plays into why he quickly gained the respect of the Bears’ the locker room. That’s what a quarterback should be doing when speaking to the media after the game — accepting responsibility and deflecting off his teammates, even if he’s not at fault. That kind of stuff doesn’t go unnoticed. 

Stopping Superman

Pernell McPhee offered this goal up for his fellow defensive teammates this week: Make sure Newton stays as Clark Kent on Sunday. 

“He’s a very talented guy, but the only thing I told the defense is let's make him be Cam Newton, not Superman,” McPhee said, referring to Newton’s signature touchdown move. “We don't want him opening up the cape.”

So how does a defense stop Newton from being Superman?

“He’s a very versatile quarterback,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Obviously his running the ball, whether it be through his improvising with scrambling on called pass plays, or the called running plays they do have for him, that’s a strength for him. We can’t just focus on stopping that. We’ve gotta stop Cam Newton the passer and the runner. They’ve got good running backs they’re handing it off to and receivers and running backs he’s throwing it to, so you’ve got a total offense to stop.”

One point to note here: Newton threw three interceptions last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and had been picked off eight times this year. A Bears secondary that intercepted Joe Flacco twice last week could have some more shots at takeaways on Sunday. 

High praise

Sunday will mark Thomas Davis’ 156th game in the NFL, with the linebacker playing every one of those with the Carolina Panthers. He played for John Fox from 2005-2010. But where we’re going here is what he had to say about how the Bears run their offense with a rookie quarterback:

“I think this is probably the best running game that we’ve seen from an offense with a rookie quarterback,” Davis said. “You look at some of the other rookies that come in. Teams want to run the ball. But when you look at the physicality and the style of play that this team plays with, I think that really makes the job a lot easier for a young quarterback. So I definitely feel like that physicality in their running game is definitely going to help him out.”

The Bears ran the ball 50 times against a Baltimore Ravens defense that played a lot more Cover-2 than expected. With star linebacker Luke Kuechly out for Sunday, the Bears may try to use a similar strategy, even if Carolina loads the box more than Baltimore did (a little more than once one every three runs by Jordan Howard). 

But if the Bears’ offense is going to have success, it’s going to be behind Howard, Tarik Cohen and an improving offensive line. Maybe Davis’ comments are hyperbole, but he’s also played a lot more football than you and me.   

Bears open season against defending NFC champion Falcons, check out full 2017 schedule

Bears open season against defending NFC champion Falcons, check out full 2017 schedule

Week 1: vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, Sept. 10, 12 p.m.)

A very good team got stronger in its defensive core with addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe to help one of NFL's worst run defenses. Super Bowl losers can struggle the next year and Falcons need to get past devastating loss to the New England Patriots.

Moon's call: L

Week 2: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, Sept. 17, 12 p.m.)

The Bucs are difficult case study in what the Bears haven't been able to do over the past several seasons: get the franchise arrow pointing conclusively up. Tampa Bay was 2-14 in 2014 while the Bears were collapsing under Marc Trestman, got the quarterback thing right by selecting Jameis Winston No. 1 overall and have gone 6-10 and 9-7 the past two seasons, missing the 2016 playoffs only by a tiebreaker. The Week 10 game vs. the Bears last season was a Jay Cutler low point.

Moon's call: L

Week 3: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, Sept. 24, 12 p.m.)

One of two 11-win opponents (Falcons) for the 2017 Bears. The Steelers haven't been sub-500 since 2003 — when Ben Roethlisberger arrived — and reached the playoffs the past three seasons. May be toughest opponent on Bears schedule.

Moon's call: L

Week 4: at Packers (Thursday, Sept. 28, 7:25 p.m.)

Bears have produced surprises — good and bad — in Lambeau, including going up 10-6 early in the second half of their game in Green Bay last year with a defensive touchdown before losing Brian Hoyer and Kyle Long to arm injuries and collapsing defensively.

Moon's call: L

Week 5: vs. Minnesota Vikings (Monday, Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m.)

Jay Cutler's last Bears win was over the Vikings, who've shaken up their roster, signing new offensive tackles' Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and running back Latavius Murray to improve the offense, and underachieving defensive end Datone Jones from Green Bay for the defensive line.

Moon's call: W

Week 6: at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, Oct. 15, 12 p.m.)

A top-10 defense and a stable quarterback situation (Joe Flacco) make Ravens a consistent threat, and beating the Bears to sign safety Tony Jefferson upgrades their secondary. Credit Ravens for creative thinking, going by cruise ship to game in London rather than by airplane.

Moon's call: L

Week 7: vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, Oct. 22, 12 p.m.)

Another sufferer of the Super Bowl curse now looking to regain dominance, bringing back Julius Peppers and Mike Adams to defense. Head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman can't afford another underachieving year with Cam Newton in place.

Moon's call: W

Week 8: at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Oct. 29, 12 p.m.)

The Saints traded Brandin Cooks to the Patriots but Drew Brees, Bears GM Ryan Pace's template for a franchise quarterback, predicts Saints' rise despite being sub-.500 in four of the last five seasons. Coby Fleener is matchup problem for Bears, who haven't handled good pass-catching tight ends well.

Moon's call: W

Week 9: Bye

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bears tickets right here!]

Week 10: vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, Nov. 12, 12 p.m.)

The Packers underwent massive offseason changes, and new tight end Martellus Bennett adds a threat but the Bears simply need to end second-half collapses regardless of specific Packers on the field. As long as Aaron Rodgers dresses, the Bears remain underdogs.

Moon's call: L

Week 11: vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, Nov. 19, 12 p.m.)

Matthew Stafford directed eight comeback wins in 2016 but the Lions lost their final three games and were blown out at Seattle in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Bears have lost seven of last eight to Lions. Turnover on the offensive line makes the Lions offense an unknown until the parts mesh.

Moon's call: W

Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, Nov. 26, 12 p.m.)

Eagles made their big quarterback move in least year's NFL Draft (Carson Wentz) and handled Bears easily in Soldier Field. Now Bears have to deal with motivated Alshon Jeffery, presuming injury issues don't return for the talented wide receiver.

Moon's call: W

Week 13: vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, Dec. 3, 12 p.m.)

"The Brian Hoyer Bowl" is probably a touch strong for this meeting of 2016 bottom-feeders, both making wholesale changes and owning top-3 picks going into the draft. The 49ers were the Bears' only victim over final eight games last season. Kyle Shanahan becomes fourth head coach in past four years in down-spiral since Jim Harbaugh.

Moon's call: W

Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, Dec. 10, 12 p.m.) 

Bengals flop in playoffs but they get there under Marvin Lewis (6 of last 8 years). And 11 picks in the 2017 draft should add talent to a good core of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green.

Moon's call: L

Week 15: at Lions (Saturday, Dec. 16, 3:30 p.m.)

Bears have lost four straight in Ford Field, the last two by field goals, including Week 14 last season when Josh Bellamy dropped a pass for a fourth-down conversion, all this after the Bears rallied from 10 down to lead 17-13 but could not stop a 76-yard go-ahead Lions drive.

Moon’s call: L

Week 16: vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, Dec. 24, 12 p.m.)

The Browns have lost 13 straight away from their lakefront as quarterback issues fester — cutting ties with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, The Browns have had 26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. And now they have Brock Osweiler after his failed trip to Houston, plus an expected addition via the draft.

Moon's call: W

Week 17: at Vikings (Sunday, Dec. 31, 12 p.m.)

Bears haven't won in Minnesota since 2011 and their last two losses there were by 21 and 28 points, as Vikings have been on the rise and Bears on the decline both during recent seasons and as competitive franchises. Bears desperately need prove-it road win to start regaining relevance in NFC North.

Moon's call: W

Moon’s season prediction: 8-8