Bears

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

The word “fit” flies around anytime an NFL coaching situation is discussed. Exactly what that means is rarely understood in full. But it is potentially the most important element in the Bears’ coaching search, not just another platitude, like “go in another direction.”

It has been a tipping point in recent Bears coaching hires, for better and worse. More on those cases a little later.

“Fit” in the Bears’ coaching search will apply to fit above – how the individual fits in vision and temperament with GM Ryan Pace – and below – how he and Mitch Trubisky connect. Indeed, the fit of the next Bears coach into what Pace has put in place will be critical, beginning with but not in the least limited to quarterback Trubisky.

Specifically: Will the head coach expect to bend Trubisky to his system (Lovie Smith fitting a reluctant Brian Urlacher into Smith’s Tampa-2 defensive concept), or bend his system to fit the player/Trubisky (career-4-3 coach John Fox becoming a 3-4 Denver coach realizing what he had in Von Miller)?

The incoming coach obviously won’t be “incoming” unless he establishes to the satisfaction of Pace (and Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips) that he is a mesh with Trubisky. Not necessarily himself; a defensive coach won’t work directly with Trubisky in daily practice sessions as much as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach will.

But the successful coaching candidate will be one who has a vision in phase with the capabilities of both Trubisky and his surrounding personnel. That’s been the hallmark of defense-based coaches like Bill Belichick in New England, Ron Rivera in Carolina, and John Fox and Lovie Smith; they are typically in on the game-planning strategically (“ball control, if you please”).

“Fit” is a funny thing, though. What Pace and Bears officials will want from their coaching hire is a clear sense of the offense as it will look with Trubisky. Subsets of that assessment will be run-blocking scheme and its fit for core elements Charles Leno, Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair, only less ensconced as franchise fixtures than Trubisky; and passing game, vertical-based or West Coast. The latter of those, the passing concepts, realistically will be influenced by the incoming offense, given that the Bears were going to make over the wideout group anyway, and a new offensive leader will guide that.

Better to fit scheme to player? Or mold player to scheme?

The fit of head coach/coordinator and quarterback or other player is the stuff on which franchises can turn. Conventional thought is that the successful adjusts his scheme to best utilize the skills of his players.

The Bears have seen those fits work well, and decidedly not so well.

Where it worked to fit player to scheme:

Urlacher loved the two-gap 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron/Greg Blache; a jumbo front four (Phillip Daniels/Bryan Robinson/Keith Traylor/Ted Washington) engaged whole offensive lines and allowed Urlacher to roam sideline to sideline unfettered. Urlacher went to four straight Pro Bowls (2000-03) and was initially not at all enamoured of Smith’s speed-based one-gap 4-3 that tasked him with more gap responsibilities.

Smith, however, knew what he had in Urlacher, that being a prototype middle linebacker with elite coverage skills. Urlacher was remade into the Smith model and became NFL defensive player of the year in 2005.

Fitting scheme to player can work:

Besides Fox converting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 with personnel like Von Miller in Denver, Adam Gase tweaked his offense when he took over as offensive coordinator, Gase researched and found that Jay Cutler was a poor decision-maker. Accordingly, Gase dialed back the quarterback flexibility he’d used in Denver with Peyton Manning, the consummate decision-maker.

The result was Cutler’s best full season for completion percentage, interception percentage and passer rating.

QB fits

Whether the enforced presence of Trubisky on the roster is a positive or negative with coaching candidates will likely remain between Pace and the candidates; best guess is that a candidate doesn’t get on the interview list without some up-front Trubisky-approval vetting by Pace.

But while the move by Pace to target and draft a perceived franchise quarterback was a long-overdue move by Bears personnel chiefs going back more than a decade, it remains to play out whether inheriting a quarterback is a plus for the incoming coach.

Head coaches hired with quarterbacks in place routinely work out pretty well, based on this year’s playoff participants:

Coach                                  Inherited  

Doug Marrone, Jaguars    Blake Bortles

Sean McVay, Rams            Jared Goff

Dan Quinn, Falcons          Matt Ryan

Mike Tomlin, Steelers      Ben Roethlisberger

Sean McDermott, Bills     Tyrod Taylor

But coaches involved in acquiring their own quarterbacks have had arguably greater success:

Coach                                 Brought in

Bill Belichick, Patriots       Tom Brady (inherited Drew Bledsoe)

Mike Mularkey, Titans      Marcus Mariota

Sean Payton, Saints          Drew Brees

Doug Pederson, Eagles    Carson Wentz

Andy Reid, Chiefs              Alex Smith

Ron Rivera, Panthers        Cam Newton

Mike Zimmer, Vikings       Case Keenum

The Bears’ coaching search was set in motion last week concurrent with the firing of Fox. “We’re going to get into [criteria] as we go through the interview process, which’ll be thorough and extensive,” Pace said. “I don’t want to get into the exact details. It’s a competitive market but you can bet that we have criteria in mind that’s very detailed and I’ll feel very confident when we hit that.”

Beginning with a thing called “fit."

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

DENVER — Expect the Bears’ starters to play deeper into the first half on Saturday in Denver than they did last week in Cincinnati, but their time on the field will still be relatively brief. The real dress rehearsal for the Bears will be next weekend, when they gameplan for and host the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 25. 

But Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium still represents sort of a checkpoint in the buildup to Sept. 9’s season-opening tilt with the Green Bay Packers. It’ll be the last game of the installation phase of the offseason, with coaches turning their focus to gameplanning for the Chiefs next week and then the Packers afterwards. 

There’s still plenty to be learned on Saturday, though. A few things to watch:

1. Will the first-team offense actually produce?

Mitch Trubisky this week bristled at the notion preseason games didn’t matter — “They don’t matter?” he said. “Then why do you guys talk about them so much?” — which fits with the attitude of a guy who was fairly frustrated with his and his teammates’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Trubisky wasn’t happy with offense’s sloppy and ineffective play during the two drives he quarterbacked, and wasn’t willing to write it off as “just” a preseason game. 

“No matter what it is, if it’s on the practice field, if I’m in the backyard by myself, if it’s a preseason game, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to move the football,” Trubisky said. “That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams do. We’re trying to get some momentum and everybody do our job and execute the offense.”

Still, because the Bears aren’t doing much in the way of gameplanning for the Broncos, any production or lack thereof won’t tell us much about the direction in which this offense is headed. More important will be how successful this group is next week against the Chiefs. 

But Trubisky’s competitiveness means he’s not going to let a poor performance slide, even if it’s only for a few series in a game that doesn’t count. He and the Bears hope that translates into some first downs and points on Saturday. 

2. Some notable debuts

Helping Trubisky’s cause will be the 2018 preseason debuts of running back Jordan Howard and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as running back Tarik Cohen — who only played one snap against Cincinnati — perhaps being used more. 

The Bears’ offense will not be at full strength, with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) and tight end Dion Sims (concussion) still out. But for Trubisky, it’ll be a good opportunity for him to see how all the work he and Robinson put in to develop a chemistry in the last few weeks translates to the field.

“We continue to create that chemistry in practice and my job is just to get the ball to the playmakers,” Trubisky said. “The more playmakers we have on the field, just continue to get them the ball and let them do what they do and we just need to roll as an offense, be on the same page, everyone continue to do their job, lock in and go out there and have fun an execute. It’ll be nice to see those guys with the ball in their hands this weekend.”

3. What about Roquan?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith in full uniform going through pregame warmups, but it would qualify as a minor surprise if he actually played on Saturday. 

The benefit to Smith playing would be working to accelerate his development with an eye on Week 1, even if it’s only for a few snaps. But does the risk of him getting injured outweigh whatever benefit playing him would provide?

It’s a question the Bears surely are debating. But coaches and trainers made sure to not push Smith too hard in this week’s joint practices against the Broncos, and it would be risky to put him in Saturday but tell him to not play at full speed. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Smith to play on Saturday, but more likely would be No. 58 making his preseason debut against the Chiefs with another week of practice under his belt. 

4. Snap decisions

James Daniels felt like he was a little sloppy last week against the Bengals, specifically with his hand placement but more broadly because the intensity of things was increased. 

“I think that’s when my technique gets sloppy is when you’re out there and playing against somebody else, you’re really playing,” Daniels said. 

This week’s joint practices, then, were beneficial for Daniels to focus on keeping his technique sound in a more intense setting. And he had the opportunity to do that all while still playing center, not left guard, where he had been working up until last week. How Bears coaches evaluate Daniels' week of practice — which certainly wasn't perfect — will be important, especially in the context of...

... Cody Whitehair going through a snapping “slump” over the last week or so, starting with that preseason game in Cincinnati. If those low/high snaps crop up again Saturday, and Daniels is able to put in a solid day of work with the second-team offensive line, it may nudge the Bears toward moving Whitehair to guard and inserting the second-round Iowa product into the starting lineup. 

The Bears haven’t considered that move yet, though, and the plan all along has been to keep Whitehair at center. A lot has to happen for that plan to change: If Whitehair can’t consistently get snaps to Trubisky, if Daniels proves he’s one of the team’s best five offensive linemen, and then if Daniels proves he’s a better option at center than Whitehair. So far, the Bears haven’t arrived at any of those conclusions, but Saturday’s game could have a significant impact on what those conclusions wind up being. 

5. Down-the-depth-chart position battles

Plenty of players fighting for a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster will get an extended opportunity to put more good — or bad — things on film on Saturday. 

Near the top of the depth chart, Adam Shaheen will have another opportunity to keep his arrow pointing up at the “Y” tight end spot with Sims still out. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris will continue their competition for the final starting spot on the defensive line, with Bullard still likely the slight favorite. Nick Kwiatkoski can help his case to hold off Smith with another solid showing in what’s been a solid preseason. 

An all-hands-on-deck competition to be the Bears’ reserve outside corner is developing, and with Prince Amukamara (groin) not practicing this week, everyone from that group will get a chance to help their case of making the Week 1 roster. Marcus Cooper needs to have a better game than he did against Cincinnati, while 2017 practice squad’er Doran Grant should get plenty of opportunities, too. For undrafted rookies Anthony Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin III, it’s a big opportunity, too, to turn a longshot bid for a roster spot into something more realistic. 

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

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USA Today Sports Images

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

Down in Bourbonnais, one of the handful of players who stuck around the longest to sign autographs for fans after training camp practices was the starting quarterback and hopeful savior of a franchise that’s been mired at the bottom of its division for years. 

Another was a fourth-string cornerback who had never played that position before May and has an extremely difficult path to make it in the NFL. 

“Most of the time I’m out here with Mitch (Trubisky), like the last person,” John Franklin III said. “I’d rather have people know me than people not know me. So that’s a good thing.”

You might know Franklin as the super-talented Florida State quarterback transfer in Season One of “Last Chance U” on Netflix. A low point of Franklin’s life played out in living rooms across the world as he played sporadically behind Wyatt Roberts at East Mississippi Community College, but the south Florida native turned that strife into a lesson in persistence. 

From East Mississippi Community College, Franklin transferred to Auburn, where he stayed as a quarterback but didn’t see the field much. He graduated from Auburn and transferred to play his final year of college ball at Florida Atlantic, where Lane Kiffin gave him a shot at playing wide receiver. He didn’t put up the kind of production as either a quarterback or a receiver to get drafted, but his excellent speed is a trait that got him into rookie minicamp. 

After failing to secure a gig with the Seattle Seahawks at their rookie minicamp, the Bears brought Franklin to Halas Hall as a defensive back for a tryout a week later. He signed shortly after, and here he is, trying to figure out how to make it in the NFL at a position he’s never played on a side of the ball he was completely unfamiliar with until May. 

“People are so quick to quit when it doesn’t work the first time,” Franklin said. “It’s like, if you really give up and it didn’t work, then you really didn’t want it. If you keep pushing, it’s going to happen. Life’s not going to be peaches and cream, but you get what you get.”

Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell couldn’t recall ever seeing a player make the switch from offense to cornerback without any prior defensive experience before, let alone for a rookie battling to make a roster. 

“It doesn’t come up that much and usually they have some kind of training in there,” Donatell said. “Nothing comes to mind. 

“But why not us? Why can’t we?”

This isn’t a story about a player who is likely to important to the Bears’ success in 2018, like Trubisky or Allen Robinson or Leonard Floyd or Kyle Fuller. The odds are massively stacked against Franklin, especially after he was picked on by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate in last week’s preseason game (he did, too, have a nice break-up of a pass intended for Ka’Raun White). The stuff Franklin is learning right now are second nature to most NFL cornerbacks who’ve played the position — or at least, played on defense — their entire football lives. 

“I definitely feel like I was in good position most of the night, I just gotta — I know one thing I’m focusing on is getting my head around,” Franklin said. “That’s one thing that I still haven’t felt 100 percent comfortable with and that’s one of the things a lot of the vets are working with me on is to make sure I get my head around because most of the time I’m in a good position. Just finding the ball is still very new to me.” 

Training camp and preseason practices, then, present a difficult dichotomy for Franklin. On one hand, he knows he has to be patient as he learns an entirely new job that he likened to “trying to write with your non-dominant hand.” On the other hand, he has to show considerable progress to even be considered for a spot on a practice squad, let alone a 53-man roster. 

While Franklin has seen himself make significant progress on tape over the last few months and weeks, he knows he’s not where he needs to be or where he thinks he can be. It’s sort of a race against time for him, because rookies who don’t make a roster or practice squad usually don’t get a second chance in the league. 

“He’s such a willing soul,” Donatell said. “He came in here, he’s taking everything in, the veterans are helping him. But he has a skillset that you can see him doing things on the other side of the football that we want to translate to defense. … It’s a race for us right now and a race through this month, and he’s willing. We see progress every day. Time will tell how much.”

What Franklin puts on tape in these final three preseason games — Saturday against the Denver Broncos, Aug. 25 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Aug. 30 against the Buffalo Bills — will be critically important to his chances of sticking in some capacity in the NFL when the regular season starts.

Taking a step back, the task seems almost impossible. This is a guy who played quarterback his whole life, then moonlighted as a receiver for a year, and now is trying to make it in the NFL playing cornerback. It would be a remarkable feat if Franklin were to make a practice squad and allow himself more weeks and months to develop. 

But there’s no doubting Franklin’s desire to make it work. He wants to make it work to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, one he’s had since he was four. He wants to make it work to repay his parents for all they did for him. He wants to make it work to be an inspiration to others to never give up on their goals. 

Will it work? We’ll see. But it’s not in Franklin’s nature to give up, no matter how much of a longshot he may be. 

“I’m accepting the challenge,” Franklin said. “Doing something different at the highest level of football ain’t easy by any means.

“But it’s also doable and possible.”