Ryan Pace

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term (Brett Favre).

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

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USA TODAY

Vic Fangio re-signing confirms different kind of 'aggressive' in Bears organization being built under GM Ryan Pace

Pulling the camera back for a wide-angle shot:

As with so many of the actions being taken by the Bears in less than two weeks of offseason, the retaining of Vic Fangio to serve on coach Matt Nagy’s staff is worth a broader look for what it represents as part of the greater whole being attempted by GM Ryan Pace. More on that in a moment.

What Fangio immediately underscores is a mutual comfort level between a very senior elite defensive coach with a young first-time head coach. Irrespective of what Fangio’s market was or wasn’t, based on jobs opening or closing, and that his players publicly and privately were lobbying for him to be rehired, the Bears ultimately needed to convince Fangio that their organization was a fit for him, even as they were telling him that he was never going to be their head coach.

What Nagy has done in the span of four days is validate Pace’s feeling that this 39-year-old with limited experience as a coordinator had a vision for a support staff and the right stuff to pull it off. Landing all three coordinators within four days of his own hiring may not be hiring record but is head-turning impressive for a guy who’s never done this before.

Getting the Fangio deal done (exact details of the three-year pact will be coming out) makes apparent that Pace has empowered Nagy (and Bears senior management doing the same for Pace) to get major moves done. Coaches have a budget for assistants, and Fangio had been seeking a deal that would make him the NFL’s highest-paid coordinator, sources said. Whether that did happen isn’t important; Nagy didn’t convince Fangio to stay with only upbeat talk. Pace gave him the budget.

The overall is what is intriguing here. When Pace brought in John Fox, one of the presumed positives was the pairing of a proven veteran coach with a young boss (Pace) in charge of football ops. The results weren’t what either wanted, but the relationship never flagged and Pace is the better for it. Now the template is used a second time; a veteran defensive coordinator (the de facto head coach of the defense) who gives his boss a backstop and kind of a mentor.

But if Fox was much, much more than just an interim solution, Pace’s plan was for immediate franchise rescue from the Marc Trestman ennui. Fox in fact did accomplish a lot of that, certainly with a Bears defense that had reached a historic nadir under Mel Tucker. And that was under Fangio (whose relationship with Fox was never as caustic as outsiders depicted; as one source close to both said, “Vic is a crusty tough guy; so is Foxy. Foxy didn’t hire him to be some sort of drinking pal.”)

Fox for Pace in some respects did represent a bridge of sorts with an expiration date if only because he’s in his 60’s. Regardless, when Pace took the Chicago job, the ideal always was to be successful enough to hire a second coach during his GM tenure. The way this came about (three double-digit-loss seasons, firing Fox after three years) was anything but how this was supposed to go, but Fox was in fact signed for four years, not five.

So Pace, now with three years of GM seasoning himself, hires a head coach that is very much akin to the kind of action Pace took to address his quarterback position, with a less-experienced individual but with Pace views as true upside.

And “upside” is a constant target with Pace, who clearly is not averse to going all in big-time for upside (Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky, Matt Nagy, Pernell McPhee). Organizations take their character and personality from the top, and the Bears football operation is being handled with an aggressive streak, whether financially in coach contracts (Fangio) or player acquisition.

This, more than Pace’s arrival three years ago, is the real beginning.

Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire

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AP

Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire

The focus on Tuesday at Halas Hall was understandably and necessarily on Matt Nagy, because this is Chicago and that’s what happens when a new Bears coach is being introduced. But some elements of the backstory are more than a little bit interesting, because they are revealing in their own right.

Call them “tells,” particularly about general manager Ryan Pace.

Because Pace stays in the background, arguably to a fault, the predominant perception is that he needs to get out more.

But Pace has now hired two head coaches, going through two radically different processes. Within each hire, though, Pace did something that said more about him than about the object of his hiring affections.

When Pace was tasked with hiring Marc Trestman’s replacement in 2015, senior Bears management had begun the search process before Pace was even in place. Ernie Accorsi was retained as a consultant on the general manager process that produced Pace, but before that had started interviewing coaching candidates, obviously without any sort of Pace involvement, and rightly or wrongly giving a bit of traction to concerns over roles of Ted Phillips and/or George McCaskey in the selection process.

It’s what happened after that that’s the point here.

Pace conducted his first interview of John Fox at Halas Hall, this shortly after Fox had parted ways with the Broncos and was still in Denver. The next step was a second interview, but Pace didn’t direct Fox to come in for one. Instead, Pace went to Denver. Small thing, one that might be construed as Pace assuming the role of supplicant.

Not so. To know Pace at all is to know how he doesn’t do “supplicant.” No, the move was Pace acting with a touch of courtesy and respect for a veteran coach to maximize chances of landing the unexpected best candidate available.

Fast forward to last Sunday, the day after the Kansas City Chiefs collapsed to a home playoff loss to the Tennessee, a collapse in which Nagy’s play calling played a self-admitted big part. Nagy was scheduled to meet Sunday morning on the Bears head-coaching job. Even knowing that the Indianapolis Colts were targeting Nagy with none other than general manager Chris Ballard, who’d worked with Nagy in Kansas City, Pace reached out to Nagy’s agent with an offer to push the interview back to later in the day if Nagy needed a little more time to collect himself after the cataclysm of the loss.

Pace’s offer in fact turned out to be part of the healing process for Nagy. That said something to Nagy, and something about Pace as well, and might have closed the deal before the sides ever sat down to visit.

“Just to show you how this organization here works, and what meant the world to me,” Nagy recounted on Tuesday, “before I even got into the interview, I got a text message from my agent saying that, 'They respect the (Chiefs') loss and they respect your feelings. If you need to move it back or you need some time to get over that, then do it.' And that meant the world to me.

“Instead we went even earlier. I wanted to go earlier because of that, that’s where it all started. That was a good feeling.”

None of that translates into wins, or even a healthy scoring drive, for that matter. But creating a culture involves more than just the head coach, and an organization takes its persona from the top. In this case, at the top of the football organization, some credit for a spot of character is warranted here.

One thing that needs to stop

Can we please eliminate “win the press conference” from any sort of critique? John Fox was the toast when the Bears landed him about this time three years ago. Phil Emery wanted his three finalist candidates to go through simulated press conferences. The “winner” was Marc Trestman.

The McCaskey-Phillips effect

It seemed apparent to this space last weekend that the Bears were fast-tracking the entire process for hiring their next head coach — that what initially looked to be a heightened level of intrusion into the process by McCaskey and Phillips was in fact an inversion of the interview sequence calculated to strengthen the hiring hand of Pace, not mess with it.

Such proved to be the case.

The point has nothing to do with how football-savvy McCaskey or Phillips are. They’re chairman and president, and until they’re not, they will at some point have to sign off on a hire that commits as much as $20 million in guaranteed salary. So they’re not at issue here.

What is the issue is the reality that their being present earlier in the process rather than at the end, once a finalist had been arrived at by Pace. McCaskey and Phillips did not sit in on the entire Nagy interview, but “having George and Ted by my side was valuable,” Pace said, “because it allowed us in that moment, when we did come to that conclusion, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ and I think we were to that point.”

If Pace’s bosses had a material objection to Nagy, it would have been expressed.

None was. The punchline in all of this was that at the end of the day, Pace and his wife, Stephanie, went out to dinner with Nagy and his wife, Stacey. That’s when the deal and the meal were consummated.

Bears management takes the appropriate vilification when their football team incites civic unrest, or at least sports indigestion. And it might be reasonable to wonder why Phillips is still president while coaches Dick Jauron (Phillips extended his contract in 2002), Lovie Smith, Trestman and Fox have all been fired for football shortcomings.

But the Bears showed imagination and aggressiveness in restructuring their interview process to compete in what they considered to be a very tight market. It’s basic supply and demand; after Nagy, Philadelphia’s John DeFilippo and Minnesota's Pat Shurmur, no one is comparing this class of options with, say, 1992’s (Bill Cowher, Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren and Bobby Ross) or 2011’s (Jim Harbaugh, Mike Munchak and Ron Rivera).

If Nagy turns out to be an inspired choice landed in the coaching equivalent of a hurry-up offense, the Bears might not be the last team to use this interviewing format of executives out front.