New Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai seemed caught off guard by one line of questioning in his introductory press conference Monday.
Is Mike Pettine considered one of your assistants? Is he an overseer for the entire defense? What exactly is Mike Pettine’s role?
“Well, his title is senior defensive assistant,” Desai responded. “It sounds like you’re trying to ask for our organizational hierarchal chart.”
Are you his boss?
“No. So, I’m the defensive coordinator,” Desai said. “And if there’s a task that I need Coach Pettine to do, then he’ll do them for me, he’ll do them for (head coach Matt Nagy), just like anybody else. But he’ll be a defensive assistant with us.”
The reality is that Pettine, the former Packers defensive coordinator who did not have his contract renewed in Green Bay after the NFC Championship Game, was hired into an increasingly common position on today’s NFL coaching staffs: senior defensive assistant. In fact, it’s a position that was previously filled on the Bears’ coaching staff by Ted Monachino, who served as the senior defensive assistant and outside linebackers coach the last two seasons.
To clear up any confusion, instead of concentrating on one position group, Pettine will serve in a big-picture role for the coaching staff, using his extensive experience to help where necessary. That will include self-scouting the Bears’ defense, scouting opponents, and undertaking special projects throughout the year. As the former Packers’ defensive coordinator who battled Matt Nagy’s offense twice a year the last three seasons – with a good amount of success – Pettine can also help that side of the ball by identifying weaknesses and areas he might attack as an opposing coordinator.
“We’ve had that role in the system here for quite some time,” Desai said. “And for us I think it’s going to be a resource. I think Coach Pettine’s going to be able to help us on defense and help us on offense, from a big-picture perspective. He’s going to be able to bring in ideas, as our other coaches are going to be able to bring in ideas. This is going to be an open environment.”
Some skeptics have wondered if Pettine was brought in to babysit Desai because the 37-year-old rookie coordinator has never called a defense in his young career. That, of course, ignores the enormous respect Desai has earned as an up-and-coming coach that has spent eight years in the organization, spanning three different coaching staffs. It also ignores the hiring timeline that just occurred. If that was a major concern, such a “babysitter” likely would have been lined up when Desai was promoted from safeties coach on Jan. 22. Yet when that move was made, Pettine wasn’t even available. He was still in the playoffs preparing for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
Pettine’s availability so late in the coaching carousel left him with few options. That’s where the job of “senior defensive assistant” comes in. It is a position commonly held by former coordinators with a wealth of knowledge and experience that can still benefit a team. Pettine’s new position is far from uncommon, even within the division. The Lions recently hired Dom Capers as their senior defensive assistant. He had the same job with the Vikings in 2020 and was the Packers’ defensive coordinator before they hired Pettine. The Vikings replaced Capers with Paul Guenther, who will be Minnesota’s senior defensive assistant after serving as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator the last three seasons.
In this case, Nagy gave Pettine an opportunity to stay in the game until the 54-year-old gets another chance to be a coordinator, which will likely happen. Even in 2020, the Packers defense ranked 14th in weighted defensive DVOA, just one spot behind the Bears. The thinking wasn’t that Desai needed the extra help, but when the opportunity presented itself, it made a lot of sense.
“I think that’s a great thing for me as a first-time defensive play-caller, is to have some other perspectives,” Desai said. “I hope you guys feel that with the way the staff has been built. It’s been very thoughtful in terms of guys who are on the staff. Everyone’s had either coordinator or playing experience. Obviously, as you guys have articulated well, two of my deficiencies: I haven’t played in the NFL or coached in the NFL. We’ve been pretty intent on how we want to develop this staff and the mindset we have from all our staff members. And then the traits that I bring will add balance to that.”
Pettine not only has a lot of intel on the Packers – who own a 5-1 record against Nagy – but he also is familiar with the entire NFC North. And the reality is that there is a good amount of youth and inexperience on the Bears’ defensive coaching staff, especially after losing defensive line coach Jay Rodgers and inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone, who were both highly regarded. So why not bring in someone like Pettine, who not only has a ton of experience, but knows the division inside-and-out?
There really is no downside.