'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."

Why the Bears won't, and shouldn't, make a bold move at quarterback

USA Today

Why the Bears won't, and shouldn't, make a bold move at quarterback

As the Bears enter Year 4 of the Mitch Trubisky era, they do so with a team constructed to maximize the inexpensive nature of their quarterback. 2020 is the Bears’ final shot at having a roster maxed out thanks to possessing the NFL's most valuable resource. 

And yet a month before free agency here we are, wondering which quarterback — or quarterbacks — the Bears could add to at least compete with, if not start over, Trubisky. 

This was not the plan. Ryan Pace — rightly — didn’t give the Bears much salary cap wiggle room after a 2018 spending spree, banking on Trubisky becoming the kind of guy who could compete for Super Bowls in Years 2-4, then earning a rich extension because of his ability to cover for the roster imperfections that contract would create. A lack of salary cap space during a quarterback’s rookie contract shouldn’t be a problem, seeing as there should be few holes and a signal-caller who can make up for them. 

The Bears currently have about $14.6 million in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public report, far less than the amount needed to acquire a starting-caliber quarterback. That number is fluid, of course, as the Bears have plenty of avenues to create more cap space (cuts, extensions, restructured contracts). 

And 2020’s offseason could see a dramatic re-shuffling of the league’s quarterbacks. New jerseys will likely be worn by eight or nine members of this group: Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Dak Prescott, Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.  

It’d be a shock if the Bears landed one of the bigger names on that list, like Brady or Rivers or Newton. Dalton could be a possibility if the Cincinnati Bengals accept a late-round draft pick in exchange for him. Otherwise, the money doesn’t make much sense for those on that list (and still might not for Dalton — more on that in a bit). 

But if the Bears are going to spend upward of $17 million on a new quarterback — which they’d have to do for all 11 of those previously listed quarterbacks — it would limit Pace’s ability to address other holes on the roster. And seeing as Pace and Matt Nagy have been adamant the team’s issues in 2019 weren’t solely on Trubisky, why would they go all-out to acquire a quarterback when that would also mean limply addressing other holes on the roster?

The Bears, though, can free up a decent amount of cap space by making five moves: 1) Restructuring Khalil Mack’s contract, 2) signing Allen Robinson to an extension, 3) cutting Prince Amukamara, 4) cutting Taylor Gabriel, and 5) cutting Adam Shaheen. Those moves could add at least $30 million to the Bears’ available salary cap, bringing the total to about $43 million. 

But now the Bears need to find a new starting cornerback in addition to a right guard, inside linebacker and safety, while also addressing critical depth needs at tight end, outside linebacker and (still) inside linebacker. If the Bears were to, say, trade for Dalton — who carries a cap hit of $17.7 million — they’d have about $26 million in cap space and two second-round picks to fill those holes, while potentially subtracting their next highest pick (a potential fourth round comp pick or a fifth rounder). 

Could the Bears find the versatile in-line tight end and brawling right guard they lack while not draining their defense of talent? Without some good fortune, probably not. 

This is one reason why the Bears are much more likely to target cheaper options in Marcus Mariota or Case Keenum in free agency than make a big splash at quarterback (Dalton, to be fair, could join this list if the Joe Burrow-infatuated Bengals can’t find a trade partner and cut him). Also, too, is the team’s persistent belief in Trubisky. The Bears, in all likelihood, have neither the money nor desire to acquire a quarterback who’d supplant Trubisky as their starting quarterback from the day he walked into Halas Hall. 

And, in reality, nor should they. The Bears’ roster is not as close to contending for a Super Bowl as it appeared a year ago. Shelling out $17 million, or $22 million, or $30 million for one of the starting quarterbacks on the market carries a high risk of backfiring. For instance: Since Trubisky entered the league, Dalton has a worse passer rating (84.2) than the 2017 No. 2 overall pick (85.8). Newton’s, in that same span, is 85.9. 

So the Bears’ best option is to spend $5-8 million to sign Mariota or Keenum as competition for Trubisky, and hope either of those guys becomes the 2020 version of Tannehill while plugging other holes on the roster. It’s not exactly an exciting bet. 

But it’s the only bet the Bears should, and can, make. 

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Bears' 2020 offseason dates you need to know

Bears' 2020 offseason dates you need to know

The Bears 2020 offseason feels like it's been underway for a while, but the reality is it's just getting started. The fun gets underway in March when unrestricted free agency kicks off, followed by the 2020 NFL Draft – when GM Ryan Pace will try to flip Chicago's two second-round picks into potential starters for a team that isn't that far away from contending for a Super Bowl.

Here are the key dates to bookmark in your calendar for the Bears' offseason:

February 2020

  • Feb. 24-March 1 – NFL Scouting Combine
  • Feb. 25 – Ryan Pace/Matt Nagy meet with media at NFL Combine

March 2020

  • Feb. 24 – March 1 – NFL Scouting Combine
  • March 18 – Free agency and new league year begins

April 2020

  • April 7 – Ed Block Courage Award presentation
  • April 20 – Bears may begin offseason workout programs
  • April 21 – Brian Piccolo Awards presented to rookie and veteran
  • April 21 – Ryan Pace will speak with the media ahead of NFL Draft
  • April 23-25 – 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas

May 2020

  • May 8-10 – Bears rookie minicamp at Halas Hall
  • May 16 – Bears Care Gala at Soldier Field
  • May 27 – May 29 – OTA practices

JUNE 2020

  • June 2-4 – OTA practices
  • June 8 – 11 – OTA practices
  • June 16-18 – Mandatory full-squad minicamp