With the wrap-up of the “first offseason” (strength & conditioning, OTA’s, minicamps, all manner of analyses and takeaways are in order), albeit based on a handful of tightly controlled practices that make “limited sample size” generous by comparison.
Assessing how the Bears look individually and collectively doesn’t start to assume real meaning until late in July and on into August, September and beyond. Coach Matt Nagy made that abundantly clear: “We all can agree that once the pads come on, there are some guys that aren’t showing up right now that will show up,” he said. “And there are other guys who are doing well that won’t do well. When the pads come on, that’s when we can truly evaluate and answer a lot of the questions we get asked.”
But this isn’t about how Mitch Trubisky was running RPO’s or how fast Taylor Gabriel looked. It’s really about the expectations and realities that have been in play since the day Nagy was hired, probably before that, in fact.
Look beyond the hype and hyperbole, because that’s what virtually always happens with a coaching change. The new guy starts with a wave of euphoria because he typically comes with a bunch of positives (that would be why he got hired), not the least of which being that he isn’t the guy who just left. That other guy wasn’t winning enough to suit somebody, which would happen to be why he got fired. After John Fox, anyone this side of Jim Tomsula or Ray Kotite might’ve sparked rejoicing.
Since George Halas, only two coaches have taken the Bears anywhere approaching “heights” beyond a one-season spike here or there (Jack Pardee, Dick Jauron, even Neill Armstrong). One was a defensive coach (Lovie Smith), the other a special-teams coach (Mike Ditka). As mentioned on more than one occasion in this space, side of the ball correlates not one bit to coaching success. The coaches who’ve reached the most Super Bowls all time – Bill Belichick, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Tom Landry – were all defense-based coaches. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won Super Bowls under three different head coaches: Noll, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin. All defensive guys. That Matt Nagy is from an offensive background won’t ultimately determine one bit whether or not he’s a good head coach.
A wave from that inevitable new-guy euphoria tsunami even included the exit of Ditka, who was canonized by sections of the fan base but vilified by other sectors, and certainly by the media, the prism through which the public gets its looks at football figures. Successor Dave Wannstedt was THE hot coordinator that ’93 offseason, Michael McCaskey targeted Wannstedt and got him, began something of a Bears makeover in the Dallas model, and the following six seasons saw one playoff appearance and no record better than 9-7.
The last time a change from an increasingly grumpy head coach (Smith) to an offense-based head coach (Marc Trestman), the offense did improve while the record went the other direction, from 10-6 to 8-8, built on a foundation that surrounded Jay Cutler with the ever-popular “weapons” (Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall). Trestman was greeted with a similar civic pigskin buzz if for the simple reason that segments of the media and public were suffering from Lovie fatigue.
One huge thing that differentiates the Nagy landscape from Trestman’s is the coaching staff, the former having major cred with players on both sides of the football, beginning with retaining the centerpiece (Vic Fangio) and the key elements of a strong defensive staff. Trestman’s tenure began with the highly respected Rod Marinelli leaving as soon as he learned of the it’s-Trestman decision, and a defensive staff with very shallow (CFL) roots that veteran players recognized and never achieved a modicum of respect.
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich may be without NFL pedigree, but Nagy himself, Brad Childress, Dave Ragone, Mike Furrey, Harry Hiestand and others make Helfrich a significant complimentary part of the staff mosaic, not the only one experienced in the ways of NFL offense.
Of course, John Fox brought in a staff eminently more NFL-qualified than Trestman and produced a worse combined record. So much for how many games coaches win themselves.
On a broader 2018 level, GM Ryan Pace addressed the need for new and improved wide receivers. He appears to have gotten some through free agency and the draft. Same for help on the offensive line and defensive speed via the draft. For this he’s been hailed for his forming a “plan” and going after it.
Which would be what he did in 2015, needing an impact pass rusher, a weapon for Jay Cutler and a quality stabilizing for the secondary – Pernell McPhee, Eddie Royal, Antrel Rolle. He drafted Eddie Goldman and Kevin White. All of those moves looked tremendous at the time.
And in 2016, needing defensive help, along came Leonard Floyd, Jerrell Freeman, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan. Upgrade at backup QB: Brian Hoyer. Improve at receiver: Hit on Cam Meredith. Season record: 3-13.
The 2017 plan: Score a bridge starting quarterback: Mike Glennon. And a franchise quarterback: Mitch Trubisky. And upgrade at tight end: Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
Point is, GM’s always make a plan and execute it. Always. And in April, or June, the hit rate on that plan is still months from being clear.
The Bears will be better in 2018 than they were in 2017. Even members of the outgoing coaching staff agree on that. But look beyond the hype, hyperbole and the fact that Matt Nagy isn’t John Fox.