Bears

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.

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

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USA TODAY

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

NBC Sports Chicago’s John "Moon" Mullin talked with The MMQB's Albert Breer, who shared his thoughts on where the Bears stand — and if they’ll be able to compete — in a highly competitive NFC North.

Moon: The Bears have made upgrades, but they’re in the NFC North and not many divisions are tougher, given the strength at quarterbacks.

Breer: Yes. You look at the other three teams, and they all very much believe they’re in a window for winning a championship. The Packers are going through some changes, but they’ve gotten Mike Pettine in there as defensive coordinator and a new general manager who was aggressive on draft day. I know that internally they feel that’s going to give them a boost, and bringing Aaron Rodgers back obviously is the biggest thing of all.

Minnesota, all the things they did this offseason, signing (quarterback) Kirk Cousins, (defensive lineman) Sheldon Richardson, and they were knocking on the door last year.

The Lions have been building for two years under (general manager) Bob Quinn and (new coach) Matt Patricia, who lines right up with the general manager — the two of them worked together in New England. They really believe that Matthew Stafford is ready to take the sort of jump that Matt Ryan made in Atlanta a few years ago, where you see that mid-career breakthrough from a quarterback that we see sometimes now.

It’s one of the toughest divisions in football, and every team in the division believes that it’s in the position to contend right now.

Moon: We didn’t see a lot of Mitch Trubisky — 12 games — so it sounds possible that the Bears could improve and still lose ground.

Breer: The Lions were pretty good last year. The Vikings were in the NFC Championship game. And who knows where the Packers would’ve been if Rodgers hadn’t broken his collarbone. The biggest change is that Aaron Rodgers will be back, and that’s the best player in the league. It was a really good division last year, and you’re adding back in a Hall of Fame quarterback.

As far as the Bears, there’s going to be questions where the organization is going. It’s been seven years since they were in the playoffs. I think they certainly got the coach hire right. This is a guy who I know other organizations liked quite a bit and was going to be a head coach sooner or later.

And I think he matches up well with Mitch. I think the Bears are in a good spot, but as you said, they’re competing in a difficult environment, so it may not show up in their record.

Moon: A lot of love for the Vikings after they get to the NFC Championship and then add Kirk Cousins.

Breer: A lot of people look at Minnesota and think Kirk Cousins’ll be a huge improvement. And maybe he will be. I think he’s a very good quarterback, top dozen in the league. But Case Keenum played really, really well last year, so it wasn’t like they weren’t getting anything out of that position last year.

The NFC right now is clearly the strength of the league. If you picked the top 10 teams in the league, you could make a case that seven or eight of them are in the NFC. I think there will be NFC teams that miss the playoffs who could be in the Super Bowl coming out of the AFC. There’s a little bit of an imbalance there.

Moon: Trubisky projects as part of a wave of new quarterbacks league-wide, a sea change in the NFL.

Breer: The interesting thing is that this is probably as stable as the league has been at quarterback in a long time. There’ve been questions where the next great quarterbacks will come from, but I don’t know that there’s a team right now in the NFL like you looked at the Jets or Browns last year, where you say that team is definitely drafting a quarterback in 2019.

Everyone either has a big-money veteran or former first-round pick on their roster. One team that doesn’t is the Cowboys, but they’ve got Dak Prescott who’s played really well. Every team in the league has some stability at the position. I think the position is as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and you’ve got a lot of good young prospects.

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

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USA TODAY

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It’s a major Bears story until it isn’t, and in Friday's first practice of training camp ’18, the story was that Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long and Allen Robinson weren’t the story. 

Not even the weather was a story, as coach Matt Nagy continued the two-hour practice without interruption despite repeated torrential downpours. Whether this represented a soggy, wet chapter of Nagy’s campaign of physical practices and getting his team “calloused” is a question, but “It's just a part of what we wanted to do,” Nagy said, with a bit of a smile. “We weren't going inside. We were coming outside unless that (lightning/tornado) horn went off. So it was a good day. The guys fought through it.”

Getting through it was of franchise-grade import for three linchpins coming off significant injuries that cost them all or part of their 2017 seasons. All had been largely held out of minicamps and training camps, making Friday a de facto shakedown cruise for three players the Bears need at the elite levels projected for them.

Floyd practiced without the large brace he’d worn during minicamp work and which he admitted was an impediment to performance. Bears medical and training staff and Floyd have been pointing to this moment as the first step toward full health for the regular season.

“I basically, this whole offseason, I've been working on getting my leg right,” Floyd said on Friday. “I’m not really looking into who's playing where. I've been looking to get back healthy. ... Yeah, I'm able to go full force.”

Floyd’s pursuit speed was noteworthy as he ran down several offensive players with the football.

Players were not in pads, but Robinson similarly flashed, at one point making a difficult catch of a ball slightly behind him as he was tumbling to the ground. If he was holding anything back, it was not apparent in his cuts, routes and runs after catches.

“I feel great,” Robinson said. “It's been a process that we've taken a little bit slower, but I think that was for the best. It just was all about getting me ready for this time right here, so I feel great. I feel 100 percent.”

Long has been buffeted by injuries requiring surgeries over the past two years. The setbacks have taken him down from the Pro Bowl level at which he played his first three seasons.

But he turns 30 in December and is entering his sixth NFL season having missed 14 games the past two years after just one the first three.

“I’m feeling great,” Long said. “It’s really a lot of fun to get out here with my teammates and start camp without any limitations and be able to contribute from Day 1. It feels good. I spent a lot of time with our training staff. I got to know Andre Tucker really well, our new head trainer. He has done a tremendous job.

“You know, it’s Day 1 and I was out there at practice, and I got to hit other guys, and that was fun. I don’t look much into psychological hurdles. But a physical hurdle? Yes, it was. I had a lot going on this offseason. I’m just really happy to be out here.”

All was not good news physically for the Bears as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback/special teamer Sherrick McManis were held out of practice after hamstring issues surfaced in their pre-camp physicals. Nagy said neither was considered serious but gave no timetable for their returns.