Vic Fangio

'Adapt or die' is the perfect motto for Matt Nagy's coaching staff

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USA TODAY

'Adapt or die' is the perfect motto for Matt Nagy's coaching staff

Bears special teams coach Chris Tabor offered a, well, interesting assessment of his coaching philosophy while meeting the media at Halas Hall for the first time on Thursday.

“One thing that we say is adapt or die,” Tabor explained. “The dinosaurs couldn't figure it out and they became extinct.

“Coaches, they don't figure it out, they get fired. So we'll adapt, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of it.”

This wasn’t some veiled shot at John Fox — far from it, though it’s worth mentioning Fox did say last year: “I’m not an offensive coordinator, I’m not a defensive coordinator, I’m not a special teams coordinator, but I coordinate all three.” More than anything, Tabor’s comment pointed out the dinosaurs didn’t have a distinct schematic advantage over an asteroid.

But Cretaceous reference aside, Tabor’s more relevant point is one that seems to mesh well with Matt Nagy’s style: Be open to ideas, and be willing to change them if they’re not working.

And that’s exactly how a 39-year-old first-time head coach should approach things. Nagy comes across as supremely confident in what he’s doing but also secure in his own coaching talents to accept criticism or other ideas from those he trusts. In short: He doesn’t seem like a my-way-or-the-highway kind of a guy who could get caught trying to be the smartest guy in the room. This was a pitfall that, for example, Josh McDaniels encountered in his ill-fated tenure with the Denver Broncos (one of his notes after he was fired in 2011 was “listen better,” as Dan Pompei detailed in an enlightening story here).

“Each and every one of these guys has a lot of experience in that world and so for me, being a young coach coming into it for the first time, surround myself with people that have strong character and have been through those situations and know how to deal with it,” Nagy said. “Trust me, throughout this process, I'll be going to these guys for advice, and that's OK because it's only going to make me better.”

Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich doesn’t have any experience in the NFL, but Nagy didn’t view that as a problem. Instead, Nagy pointed to Helfrich’s experience running Chip Kelly’s innovative Oregon offense, which he feels can, among other factors, “help me grow not only as an offensive coach but as a head coach.”

And on the other side of that, Nagy said he and Helfrich are deep in discussions of what the Bears’ offense will look like in 2018, and the exchange of ideas has already been positive. Specifically, Nagy said Helfrich’s openness to different run- and pass-game philosophies stands out.

“That’s some of the stuff that we’re literally in right now, going through some of the things we do offensively and brainstorming,” Nagy said. “What do you like? What do you don’t like? And so, you know, for us, that’s the fun part, just trying to go through some of the offensive stuff and seeing where we’re at."

As for Nagy’s approach to the Bears’ defense, it’s simple: “Don't let teams score points,” he said. There’s obviously more to it than that, but Vic Fangio said he’s appreciated Nagy’s willingness to discuss different philosophies and ideas with him so far.

“He’s attacking it with enthusiasm, an open mind, open to finding out better ways to do things potentially,” Fangio said. “Especially since he’s been under one head coach his whole career, that’s not the only way to do things. And I think he’s open to that. So it’s been all positive.”

Saying and doing all the right things in terms of openness to new ideas doesn’t guarantee that Nagy’s reign will be a successful one in Chicago. But it does bolster the thought that Nagy — and his coaching staff — are on the right track in the nascent stages of turning around the Bears.

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio delivers some refreshing honesty about the state of the Bears' defense

Vic Fangio took the podium at Halas Hall on Thursday after coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich fielded questions for about 30 minutes, and began his press confernece with a classic quip. 

“Alright, let’s continue this lovefest,” Fangio said. 

For a Bears team coming off a 5-11 season — the fourth consecutive double-digit loss season for the franchise — there’s been plenty of positivity pinging around Halas Hall since Nagy was hired last week. But Fangio showed up with a reality check on Thursday, at least as it relates to the defense he’ll return to coach for a fourth year. 

“There’s no doubt strides were made," Fangio said. “Not enough. I think it’s a wrong picture to paint that the defense was great and the rest of the team wasn’t. We were 5-11. 

“If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there — a lot — and we need to do that.”

The Bears opted for continuity in enticing Fangio to return to coach their defense, which ranked 10th in total defense and 9th in points last year, but was 14th in defensive DVOA. This was a good, not great defense that won the Bears a few games (most notably, the 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers) but struggled at times, too. 

A great defense? That’d be the Jacksonville Jaguars, which on the back of one of the league’s best pass rushes and secondaries has vaulted Blake Bortles into the AFC Championship game. A great defense wouldn’t have let Brett Hundley post a 110.8 passer rating against it in Week 10; a great defense wouldn’t have allowed Matthew Stafford to scythe through it on two occasions. 

And that Fangio — who’s generally honest and brings a no-B.S. attitude to his press conferences — acknowledged that eight and a half months before the 2018 season starts was refreshing to hear. It’s almost been easy to forget the Bears lost their 11th and final game of the 2017 season less than three weeks ago with a new, young, offensive-minded coach stepping into Halas Hall. 

There will be plenty of turnover on the offensive side of the ball — possibly an entirely different receiver corps than was regularly on the field in 2017 — but the defense will have some consistency, starting with Fangio and extending to his defensive coaches, who he said Thursday he expects to be back. This is a group that needs more talent at edge rusher and cornerback, but Fangio is more concerned with developing the guys who are already here — and were why this was a “good” defense last year. 

“Guys like Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Leonard (Floyd), Eddie Jackson, I know I’m going to miss some, I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. 

“So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

And that approach — more so than his lengthy experience in the NFL — is why retaining Fangio made so much sense for the Bears. Nobody knows the strengths and flaws of the Bears’ defense better than Fangio; and keeping Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan, Floyd, Jackson etc., in the same scheme with the same coordinator and same coaches gives this Bears’ defense the best chance to go from being “good” to great. 

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

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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.