'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."

Can the Bears' get a spark from a worse-than-expected schedule?

USA Today

Can the Bears' get a spark from a worse-than-expected schedule?

Matt Nagy last week mentioned the upcoming stretch of the NFL season will see the league's good teams separate from the not-so-good teams. The Bears are 3-3; there’s a strong chance we’ll know for sure if this team is a viable playoff contender by the time they take off from LAX after playing the Rams in mid-November. 

Going a little further into the Bears' schedule, though, it doesn't look as difficult as it did before the season started:

The Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles are not the Super Bowl contenders many predicted they'd be two months ago. The Chargers are 2-5, while the 3-4 Eagles are dealing with a horrendous defense and a volatile locker room

Are the Detroit Lions good? They’ve been competitive, and were a few yards and a few atrocious officiating decisions away from beating legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. But they're a team trending toward separating to the bottom of the league. 

The Rams have been a mess recently, even with their blowout win over the full-fledged tire fire that is the 2019 Atlanta Falcons. The New York Giants? They’re not good, though they get Saquon Barkley back this week. And the Dallas Cowboys are less than two weeks removed from losing to the New York Jets. 

But aren’t those six teams looking at the Bears and saying “hey, they’re not as good as we thought” too?

Nagy believes one victory can be a spark, the kind of thing that could set off a 10-game winning streak — a belief based on his experience with the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs starting 1-5 before ripping off 11 wins in a row, including in the playoffs. 

But the Eagles or Rams or Chargers or Lions believe the same thing, and can reasonably view a worse-than-expected Bears team as an ideal opponent for that spark. Nagy is leaning on the culture built inside Halas Hall to make sure the Bears are the one to harness that energy, and not those other underperforming teams. 

The Bears can hope for that spark, but there’s also evidence the separation between 2019’s contenders and the Bears has already begun. 

The Bears are 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, ahead of two future opponents (the Chargers at 22, the Giants at 27) but behind the Eagles (15), Lions (13) and Rams (11). The Bears’ final four opponents are all currently ranked in the top six by DVOA: Dallas (4), Green Bay (5), Kansas City (3) and Minnesota (6). 

"There are a bunch of teams in the NFL going through struggles right now and the expectations are high because of everything we did last year," quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. "But reality is we’re in the same spot – 3-3 – we were in that spot last year." 

This is different than last year, when the Bears were in DVOA’s top 10 after a Week 7 loss to the New England Patriots dropped them to 3-3. That team had the luxury of facing teams that had already separated themselves into the non-contender pool in the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Lions. Their final four games came against a bad Giants team, a Packers team that’d just fired its coach, an even worse 49ers team and then a listless Vikings team. 

“Last year we were 3-3 and went 12-4,” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “So that's just us thinking positive, going throughout this week, being positive, grinding and even working harder, I feel like we'll be OK.”

Maybe all the Bears need is to beat the Chargers and Eagles to jump-start this season and navigate an easier-than-expected schedule through the end of November. But maybe all the Chargers and Eagles need is to beat a worse-than-expected Bears team to jump-start their seasons, too. 

Because the time for separation is near in the NFL, and that may not be a good thing for the Bears. 

“The message that we’ve had is get tighter, believe in one another, keep trusting, right, and bond together and then when you get that one win, it just sparks,” Nagy said, snapping his fingers. “It’s crazy. It’s just absolutely crazy how that works. So we gotta do that.” 

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Top Bears Moments: 30-21


Top Bears Moments: 30-21

The Chicago Bears, one of the two remaining charter franchises of the National Football League, have put together an impressive century – nine NFL championships and a league-high 28 players inducted into the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Within that history have been signature moments spanning every era.

NBC Sports Chicago has identified the 100 greatest Bears moments, the “Hallowed Hundred” which are etched in memories throughout the history of the organization that started it all.

Some of those moments have been individual games with defining overall significance. Some have been specific plays within those games. And some of those moments have occurred away from any one game.

Pivotal games rate edges over individual performances. Fair or not, games since Thanksgiving Day 1934, the date of the first Bears game broadcast nationally, on NBC radio, and since the NFL crashed into national consciousness in 1958 with “The Greatest Game Ever Played” get a touch more weight simply because the Bears have been seen and heard more with the growth of football on the air. Put simply, games that are seen or heard are going to be arguably more memorable than ones only read about in the newspapers of the time.

30. Dennis Green’s rant (Oct. 16, 2006)

The anniversary of this epic rant just passed, and while the game itself will be addressed soon in this space, Denny Green’s meltdown at the podium after his Cardinals squandered a Monday night game against the Bears will be replayed for all eternity. Classic lines like, “The Bears are who we thought they were!”, and “If you wanna crown them, then crown their @$$!” are now cemented in Bears lore, and the entire rant was the perfect capper to a miraculous night in Phoenix.

29. Urlacher vs. Arizona Cardinals (Oct. 16, 2006)

More from the 2006 escape in the desert… Brian Urlacher played perhaps the best game of his Hall of Fame career that night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The official box score gives Urlacher 19 tackles, while the Bears credited him with 25, but regardless of whose stat-keeping you believe, Urlacher was an unstoppable force against the Cardinals. Whether it was flying around to stifle Edgerrin James and the run game or forcing a key fumble that was returned for a touchdown, Urlacher made this his signature effort as his defense single-handedly dragged the team back from a massive halftime deficit. Fittingly, highlights of this game were plentiful when #54 was inducted into Canton last summer.

28. 44-0 (Nov. 17, 1985)

The statement game of the legendary 1985 team. The Bears dealt the Cowboys & Mike Ditka’s mentor Tom Landry the worst defeat in their franchise’s history, winning in Dallas 44-0. The Cowboys, who entered the game at 7-3 and tied for first in the NFC East, did not advance the ball past the Bears’ 38-yard line and turned the ball over five times while suffering six sacks. The Bears’ first two touchdowns came off interception returns, and they rang up the easy victory to move to 11-0 and clinch the NFC Central division without QB Jim McMahon, who was recovering from shoulder tendinitis.

27. Halas outruns Jim Thorpe (Nov. 4, 1923)

Legendary founder George Halas is known more as a coach and founder of the league, but he had quite a few notable moments on the field as well. In the Bears’ 4th season and just the 2nd while known by that moniker, Halas got the best of the legendary Jim Thorpe on November 4, 1923 at what was then as Cubs Park, now better known as Wrigley Field. During a rainy game against the Oorang Indians, Halas picked up a Thorpe fumble and outraced Hall of Fame running back 98 yards for the game’s final touchdown in a 26-0 Bears win. The 98-yard return set an NFL record that would stand for 49 seasons until it was broken in 1972.

26. Hiring Matt Nagy (Jan. 8, 2018)

Coming off the rough Marc Trestman/John Fox period, the Bears badly needed to hit on their next head coach, and they appear to have with Matt Nagy. The former Kansas City offensive coordinator came over from the Andy Reid coaching tree, and immediately instilled a new sense of purpose and culture within Halas Hall. His first season went about as well as could possibly be expected, with his Bears finishing 12-4 and Nagy picking up Coach of the Year honors. The only blemish was the bitter end to the season in the Wild Card round against the Eagles, and while the 2019 season has not gone according to plan thus far, there’s no doubt that hiring Nagy helped shake the franchise out of its previous doldrums and pointed them toward better days.

25. Devin Hester’s Super Bowl KOR TD (Feb. 4, 2007)

One of the most electrifying moments not only in franchise history, but league annals as well. Hester returning Adam Vinatieri’s opening kick-off of Super Bowl 41 92 yards for a touchdown was the first such play to ever open a Super Bowl, and was the quickest score in the Super Bowl history until the Seahawks recorded a safety 12 seconds into Super Bowl 48. For the entire two weeks prior, pundits wondered whether Tony Dungy’s Colts would kick to the dangerous Hester at all, and Indianapolis paid for their decision to do so immediately. Fans will always have fond memories of Hester looking at himself on the video board as he crossed the goal line, but unfortunately the rest of the game did not go nearly as well, with Peyton Manning’s Colts emerging victorious, 29-17. 

24. The Fog Bowl (Dec. 31, 1988)

One of the most memorable sights in franchise history was a game where not much could be seen at all. In a Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles on New Year’s Eve 1988, a massive fog bank rolled over Soldier Field during the 2nd quarter, cutting visibility down to mere yards. Players couldn’t see the sidelines or first-down markers, and both fans and television cameras in the stands couldn’t see anything. The Bears won, 20-12, despite Eagles QB Randall Cunningham throwing for 407 yards. In an interesting subplot, the head coaching matchup featured Mike Ditka getting the best of his former defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who left for the Eagles job after the Super Bowl 20 triumph.

23. The first NFL championship (Dec. 17, 1933).

During the back-and-forth NFL Championship game, the first such scheduled game in league history, the Bears were driving against the Giants with little time remaining. Down 21-16, Bears fullback Bronko Nagurski faked a run into the line, then threw a jump pass to Bill Hewitt, who ran before lateraling the football to Bill Karr, who scored the winning touchdown.

22. Bears keep Buddy Ryan (1982)

The architect of the ‘46’ defense was Neill Armstrong’s defensive coordinator when Armstrong was fired after the ’81 season and Mike Ditka was hired. The entire defense signed a letter to George Halas imploring him to keep Ryan on staff. Halas did, the defense reached epic heights and Ryan’s relationship with Ditka became the stuff of legend.

21. Walter Payton sets all-time rushing mark (Oct. 7, 1984)

In the weeks leading up to the 7th game of the 1984 season against the Saints, Walter Payton admitted he was feeling a lot of pressure as he approached Jim Brown’s all-time rushing yards record. That pressure dissipated in the third quarter when he finally surpassed Brown’s 12,312 yards, ending the day with an even 12,400 after his 154-yard effort against New Orleans. Payton ended his career with 16,726 rushing yards, and held the all-time record until Emmitt Smith broke it in October 2002. There are now ten men ahead of Brown on the all-time list, but Walter stands alone in 2nd, his legacy secure as one of the greatest rushers in league history.

If you’ve missed any of our previous installments, check them out below:

100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51    50-41    40-31

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