Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

Bears Coaching Confidential: Steve Wilks

With the Bears' beginning their head coaching search this week, NBC Sports Chicago Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Paul Aspan will examine 10 coaching candidates who could be considered by Ryan Pace and team ownership. We've covered Josh McDaniels and John DeFilippo, but turn our attention to a candidate on the defensive side of the ball today. 

JJ: The Bears’ next head coach doesn’t *have* to be an offensive mind, as John “Moon” Mullin and I covered on the Under Center Podcast last month. Steve Wilks has an intriguing resume from the defensive side of the ball: He was Lovie Smith’s defensive backs coach from 2006-2008 and was part of that staff that made Super Bowl XLI, and while he’s only been the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator for one year, he’s been an assistant to Ron Rivera since his D-coordinator days in San Diego. He’s also held the title of assistant head coach since 2015. Paul, thoughts?

Paul: Wilks is my favorite candidate from the defensive side of the ball. That assistant head coaching experience you just touched on could be invaluable in those crucial game situations in which John do I put this…*struggled* repeatedly. He’s grown with Rivera over the last 10-plus years from that Bears team, to San Diego and now in Carolina, working his way up each step of the way. But let me ask you, JJ, do you think his previous Bears / Lovie ties potentially help him or hurt him as a candidate? Does Ryan Pace want to avoid any link to a former -- and not so far removed -- regime?

JJ: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think Pace would rule a guy out because he has ties to the Lovie Smith/Jerry Angelo era -- if he’s the right candidate, he’ll be considered for the job (and you wouldn't figure Ted Phillips or George McCaskey would get in the way of a former Bears assistant, right?). Which brings me to this tangent: Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub absolutely could (or should) be considered for the Bears; opening. Toub, of course, was the Bears’ special teams coordinator from 2004-2012 under Smith and is widely respected around the league. The Bears interviewed Toub for their head coaching job after firing Smith and instead went with Marc Trestman, and Toub interviewed for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job in 2011 (which went to Joe Philbin). 

The Chiefs finished the 2017 season ranked 4th in Football Outsiders special teams DVOA; they were No. 1 in 2016, No. 9 in 2015, No. 3 in 2014 and No. 1 in 2013. Toub is a fantastic coach, and that should out-weigh special teams coaches rarely making the leap to becoming head coaches.

For what it’s worth, Bovada’s odds on the Bears’ next head coach don’t have Wilks, but they do include Toub:
Pat Shurmur                  3/1
Josh McDaniels            9/2
John DeFilippo             9/2
Todd Haley                   6/1
Frank Reich                   6/1
Jim Bob Cooter             9/1
Matt LaFleur                  9/1
Matt Nagy                     9/1
Dave Toub                    9/1

Anyways, now that I’ve successfully hijacked this thing on Wilks, let’s get back to it. 

Paul: My other question to you that relates to Wilks and Rivera: No doubt the Jerry Richardson situation in Carolina has much more serious implications than just football, but that being said, Rivera has to have an out clause in his contract if there’s a change in ownership, right? If Ryan Pace is gonna wait out a potential Super Bowl run on one of these highly touted coordinators, shouldn’t he consider rolling the dice on Riverboat Ron? If he does a little back channel research and finds out Rivera might be interested, at least consider waiting to take a shot at Rivera until after the sale of the Panthers. Maybe he’s tired of good Cam/bad Cam and wants a fresh start with a fan base that would welcome him with open arms?

JJ: Man, that would be quite a turn if it were to become realistic. But it’s not. The Bears can’t afford to wait out a process that may not even result in Rivera considering leaving Carolina. 

We just keep getting off track for Wilks, don’t we? 

Paul: Back to Wilks, Lance Briggs and Alex Brown both were on that Bears Super Bowl team on which Wilks coached in 2006, and both vouched for him as a leader when I asked them about him. He definitely fits the style of a coach that would shape the Bears in that defense first mold that has served the franchise so well historically. Plus, Lance said he looks like Denzel Washington and could parlay that into roles on all the Chicago Fire, Med, Justice, PD, Coast Guard whatever shows. Consider me sold.

JJ: That’s an...interesting...selling point. 

I talked with AB about Wilks earlier this week and similarly received a good pitch. Carolina ranked 7th in defensive DVOA this year, and Wilks’ unit was so fearsome that a certain quarterback only threw seven passes against it in October. The Bears aren’t the only team interested in Wilks, too: The Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Detroit Lions are in on him. That speaks to him being well-regarded around the league.

I’ll finish here with this thought: Wilks runs a 4-3 defense, which would mean the Bears would likely switch schemes from Vic Fangio’s 3-4, which the team has been building the last few years with guys like Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski. But a scheme change shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent to who the next head coach and/or defensive coordinator will be -- if the right guy runs a 4-3, he’s still the right guy. 

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Ryan Pace says Bears are 'exploring every avenue' to upgrade tight end

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't come across as a guy willing to go down in flames with his decision to sign tight end Trey Burton back in 2018 when he met with the media at the NFL Combine on Tuesday. Instead, he confirmed the Bears will be heavily invested in the tight end market this offseason, both in free agency and the 2020 NFL draft.

"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said of this year's available tight ends. "It’s deep in different areas. That’s an area of focus for us, I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end, so we’re exploring every avenue."

It's hard to envision a scenario where Pace would be willing to travel down the big-money free-agent path again, but Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper could be too tempting to pass up.

Atlanta confirmed on Tuesday Hooper will be allowed to test the open market, and if he ranks high enough on Pace's wish list, we could be setting up to see a $10 million per year offer. It may seem like a waste of resources to tie that much money up in the tight end position (he and Burton would cost the Bears close to $20 million in 2020), but they experienced just how limited Matt Nagy's offense is without a capable playmaker at the position. Hooper would fix that.

The cheaper alternative for Pace to upgrade at tight end would be the draft, where several quality prospects will be on the board when the Bears pick at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Players like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, FAU's Harrison Bryant and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could all be available when the Bears are on the clock, and all three of them would represent a marked uptick in talent for the depth chart.

Pace is being logical and rational when it comes to his evaluation of the tight end group. It's especially impressive considering the top two options currently on the roster -- Burton and Adam Shaheen -- were hand-picked by him and cost Chicago a top-of-the-market free-agent deal and a high draft pick (second round, 2017). 

Pace has a great opportunity to right his wrongs at tight end over the next couple of months.

How Matt Nagy's 'urgency' could foreshadow a Bears quarterback change

How Matt Nagy's 'urgency' could foreshadow a Bears quarterback change

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears don’t look likely to sign or trade for a true starter to replace Mitch Trubisky, and Ryan Pace made clear he expects the 2017 No. 2 overall pick to be his starter in 2020. 

Let’s add an addendum to that, though, based on something Matt Nagy said: Just because Trubisky begins 2020 as the Bears’ starting quarterback does not mean he’ll hold on to that gig for the whole season, or even for half a season. 

In talking about the need to find an offensive identity in 2020, Nagy offered a response that leads you to believe job security won't be close to where it was in 2019:

“We got to figure out what our identity is and that's going to be an objective for us,” Nagy said. “And then last year you heard me say, sometimes it takes five or six weeks. I feel like personally that's always the case, but there's a sense of urgency for us going into this year. It needs to happen sooner.”

It needs to happen sooner. What happens if Trubisky doesn’t show any improvement through the first three or four games of 2020, and the Bears’ offense is lacking an identity at the end of September?

If there truly is a sense of urgency to find solutions on offense, then the Bears should consider something they didn’t last year: Changing quarterbacks. 

Chase Daniel was not on the roster to push Trubisky for playing time. He was brought in for his knowledge of the offense as “a little bit of an assistant coach,” as Nagy put it. The Bears figured surrounding Trubisky with as many resources as possible would help him thrive in Nagy’s complex offense. 

What the Bears need — and have indicated they want — is more competition in their quarterback room. That does not necessarily mean, again, luring someone like Teddy Bridgewater to Chicago to start. 

But it does mean adding someone to the roster who at least has a chance to be a better option than Trubisky, if Trubisky doesn’t show any improvement. 

Case Keenum could be that guy. Marcus Mariota, too (although Mariota sharing agents Bruce Tollner and Ryan Tollner with Trubisky could complicate any interest in him the Bears might have). Maybe there’s a trade to be made for Andy Dalton after all, if the Cincinnati Bengals are willing to bend to make the money work. 

A free agent signing along those lines and/or a draft pick — it doesn’t have to be a second rounder, either — would put someone on the roster who could be viewed as a legitimate replacement for an ineffective Trubisky. 

“If you're not creating competition around your whole roster, you're not pushing your own guys,” Nagy said.

The Bears didn’t do that at quarterback the last two years. 

But all signs are pointing to that changing in 2020. And while that may not mean an immediate change at starting quarterback, it means a switch during the season could become a real possibility. 

“If we all think that that’s what we want from (Trubisky), from last year, we’re fooling ourselves,” Nagy said. “He knows that and we know that. 

“But at the same time, we need to be real. What’s around him? And that’s where we’re at. I know it’s hard sometimes for all of us to understand that, and you see what’s going on with the instant gratification now, but there is a process for us. I do know that Mitch is very hungry. 

“He understands that we want him to play better, he understands that we want to coach better. So now we cannot worry and dwell about what happened last year. If you do that, you get stuck in the mud. We can’t do it. 

“It’s a clean slate. Now we’ve gotta get better for this year.”

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