Bears

New Bears coach will have to answer the Mitch Trubisky question

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USA TODAY

New Bears coach will have to answer the Mitch Trubisky question

GM Ryan Pace demurred from providing any hard information about the parameters or perimeters of the search for a new Bears head coach. Pace did make abundantly clear that the new coach will have authority to select his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The coach won’t, however, have a lot of latitude in selecting his quarterback. And by virtue of the two-year contract extension Pace received the organization, the message is that senior management in the persons of Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips ratify Pace’s call on the staffing – Mitch Trubisky – of the most important single position in sports.

Whether Trubisky-in-place is an inducement or deterrent may lie in the eye of the beholder.

Pace and the organization envision a Goff-Wentz kind of leap for Trubisky from Year 1 to Year 2. Not entirely unreasonable; using a couple of stats for purposes of loose comparison, Trubisky’s starting points of passer rating (77.5) and interception percentage (2.1) were on par with or better than the rookie performances of Wentz (79.3/2.3) and Goff (63.6/3.4), both getting their teams from also-rans to playoff participants.

That’s the good news. On the other side of the ledger, Trubisky’s quarterback rating (QBR) of 29.1 was second-worst, ahead of only Denver’s Trevor Siemian and worse than DeShone Kizer. And it was significantly short of Wentz’s (52.8), although notches better than Goff’s (22.2). Notably perhaps, Trubisky had a better passer rating working from under center than he did from shotgun, impressive for a one-year college starter from a shotgun background.

“It’s a big jump from college football, and what you saw in training camp and we talked about starts with breaking an NFL huddle, taking snaps under center, changing things at the line of scrimmage, understanding NFL defenses, blitz packages, coverages,” Pace said. “And he just got better every step of the way. One trait he has is he rarely repeats the same mistake twice, starting with he doesn’t turn the ball over, and that’s an attractive trait.”

When Marc Trestman was hired, he took the job with the understanding from GM Phil Emery that Jay Cutler was his quarterback. That continued into the season, to the point that Trestman was overruled in wanting to stay with Josh McCown in 2013 even after Cutler had recovered from injury. The situation became toxic to the level that then-offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer vented the coaches’ frustration with Cutler to a national reporter.

Cutler was still ensconced as the quarterback when Fox came in with Adam Gase as his coordinator. Gase in fact was the voice in the room for staying the course with Cutler, based on a survey Gase did of former Cutler coaches. (Gase has gone 6-10 twice now with Cutler as his primary quarterback, in 2015 with the Bears and this year with the Miami Dolphins; not sure the pro-Cutler voice’ll be there again, but that’s another story).

What didn’t happen, and which looms as a potential question in the minds of Bears coaching candidates, could be: What if I don’t see in Trubisky what Pace does? If the shared Mitch vision isn’t there, the interview will likely be a short one.

But the quarterback question involves more than just Trubisky. It involves Pace and what the Bears GM is willing or capable of doing to give his coach the quarterback material necessary, because after Trubisky, there isn’t anything right now.

Pace erred in not stocking the quarterback pipeline in either of his first two drafts. He did trade up to ensure drafting Trubisky. But he also was unwilling to invest the draft capital to trade up from No. 7 to No. 2 for Marcus Mariota in 2015 (possibly because of Gase’s Cutler endorsement), or from 11 to 2 in 2016 for Wentz. Both moves would’ve involved a potential bidding war, which the Bears realistically weren’t in an overall personnel position to wage.

Would Trestman have been hired if he declined to give assurances that he would stay with Cutler? Probably not. Would Pace have hired Fox if the latter had not bought in on Cutler? Possibly, since McCaskey said publicly at the time of hiring that personnel decisions would not be dictated by money (i.e. Cutler’s guaranteed money).

One unknown is the degree to which Trubisky himself will be involved in the interview process. That sort of thing has veered into the bizarre in the past, as when Mike Martz made a trip to Nashville to meet with Cutler in 2010, a situation in which it’s reasonable to wonder exactly who was interviewing whom. The one making the trip came off as the supplicant there.

What if Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, for instance, was of a mind that he was all in on Pat Mahomes but not on Trubisky last draft when the Chiefs moved up to take Mahomes? ESPN AM-1000’s David Kaplan reported that "Nagy loved Trubisky in the 2017 NFL Draft and the Chiefs loved him. Nagy has stayed close to him during this season. Nagy believes you can win big with Trubisky."

Best guess that Nagy needs to convince Pace, not the Kapman. In any case, that opinion likely gets Nagy at least in the room. What he and the Bears very, very much need to agree on is what Trubisky’s future looks to be, and how a transition to yet another Bears offensive coordinator (the seventh in the last 10 years) will work.

“A lot of the things that Mitch or that any quarterbacks learns as a rookie is just life in the NFL,” Pace said. “It’s NFL defenses. It’s the pace of the game. It’s the routine of being an NFL quarterback and I think he’s embraced that. As far as changing terminology and those things, Mitch is a highly intelligent player with a very strong work ethic so I am confident that he will adapt quickly to a new situation.

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

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Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure on Monday if Adam Shaheen’s right ankle sprain would keep him from playing Week 1 in Green Bay. If it does, though, it would represent the fourth consecutive regular season game the second-year tight end would miss dating back to last year. 

In a coincidental connection, too, it would mark the second straight year Shaheen wouldn’t be able to immediately build off a strong showing against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last December, Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards with a touchdown in the Bears’ 33-7 win in Cincinnati; he caught all three of his targets for 53 yards against the Bengals in Aug. 9’s preseason game. 

Shaheen suffered a chest injury during that Bengals game last December and was inactive for the Bears’ final three games of the season. Coincidences aside, Shaheen’s ankle injury represents another speed bump in his developmental path, depending on the severity of it. 

But the good news, perhaps, is that Shaheen has made strides this training camp and preseason. We’ll look at one specific play against the Bengals that stands out below. 

To set it up: Earlier this month, Shaheen talked about how he’s improved at reading coverages and how that’s helped him improve as a route runner. That’s something that has come with experience as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“It’s a big part of this offense as a receiver, recognize the coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen said. “How you get there is everything.

“… There’s a little more not-so-much focus on, like, a perfect square cut. It’s more, like I said earlier, against this coverage you need to be in that hole at the right time. You might just be in that hole just pulling a defender another way to open up your teammate. That’s a big part.”

That growing savviness was on display in Cincinnati on Aug. 9. Specifically, this play:

Shaheen runs a drag over the middle on third-and-four but encounters linebacker Hardy Nickerson (red circle) standing in his way.

Instead of keeping strictly to the route and trying to run through or beneath Nickerson (yellow arrow), Shaheen faced up to the Bengals’ linebacker, did an inside-out juke move and goes to Nickerson's outside shoulder (blue arrow).

Shaheen is then able to use his strength and athleticism to gain leverage on Nickerson and work his way into the open field. 

The whole play took all of two seconds to develop, and by the time Chase Daniel releases the ball, Shaheen has a step on Nickerson. The result is not just a first down, but a 29-yard completion. 

“Some routes are locked in, and other ones we’ve got a little wiggle room to work,” Shaheen said. “Those ones are obviously very good to see a linebacker over there because you know you can really have an opportunity to get the ball and work him.”

Those little things will continue to grow Shaheen’s game with more experience. The potential is there for Shaheen to play a significant role in the Bears’ offense in 2018 — provided he’s healthy for the start of it. 

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Measuring the impact and domino effect of Leonard Floyd’s fractured right hand suffered in the weekend win over the Denver Broncos is next to impossible at this juncture simply because what Floyd’s effectiveness will be in a cast isn’t remotely clear. Coach Matt Nagy noted Monday that players have functioned with a “club” for a hand but the Bears need more than Floyd just playing.

The injury, which required surgery, affects Floyd’s fingers, and irrespective of the specific injury, those requiring casting and club-like encasement have dramatically affected effectiveness in even the game’s top pass rushers: Clay Matthews in Green Bay (2013); Jason Pierre-Paul with the Giants (2015); J.J. Watt in Houston (2016).

Nagy used the word “relief” in talking about Floyd’s situation; good word choice. Because the Bears have lost elite linebackers to season-ending thumb or wrist injuries (Bryan Cox, 1996; Brian Urlacher 2009).

But any diminishing of Floyd’s effectiveness projects to a potential catastrophe for a Bears defense wanting to start fast and help an offense that will be learning to stand fully upright through its first season under Nagy. Pass rushers, particularly speed rushers, need their hands. And fingers.

The reason is more than simply Floyd. It’s the construction of the Bears defense and its rush options. Because in the Bears’ case, numbers can obscure the true nature – and degree of vulnerability – of the Bears’ pass rush.

The defense posted 42 sacks in 2017, ranking an eminently respectable tied for seventh despite being without a single defender with more than Akiem Hicks’ 8-1/2, and better than Arizona (17th) with Chandler Jones (17 sacks), for example.

That is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that a top-10 defense was not based on one individual rush terror – a Matthews, Watt, Von Miller. Consider it a rush-by-committee, with Floyd, Hicks, Sam Acho, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young or any of more than a half-dozen threats capable of delivering one of the single most devastating defensive plays other than a takeaway.

But that is also the bad news. Because the Bears lost McPhee, Young, Lamarr Houston and the players who produced more than one-third (14-1/2) of the 42 sacks.

This is more than a simple headcount issue; it’s an integrated-whole problem. The Bears had so many potential impact rushers, their scheme was able to bring pressure from different places and players. The rush may not have had one elite pocket disruptor, but it did have quantity to the point where double-teaming any one created opportunities that non-elite rushers exploited.

Acho benefitted from Young benefitted from McPhee benefitted from Hicks benefitted from Floyd benefitted from... You get the idea.

The point is that no Bears rusher was, or now, is, capable of exerting consistent dominance by himself, as great pass rushers do. Dan Hampton benefitted from Richard Dent, but Hampton was a Pro Bowl rush threat before Dent arrived. Watt had 20 1/2 sacks in 2012, before the Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney, and 20 1/2 in 2014 when Clowney only played four games.

The Bears situation is not necessarily a crisis; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is by definition the antithesis of crisis. But the Bears lost a significant number of those parts. Liken it to the Bears having a great offensive line and losing a couple of starters: The remaining starters could the better members of the “great” group, but unless the lost players are replaced with talent equal to or greater than the losses, the chances of the group achieving anywhere near what it was when it had all its components are slim.

Hicks is coming off a career year. But the Bears did little to replace Houston, McPhee and Young, who contributed both to Floyd’s development and his production. Now the pass rusher drafted to be a linchpin of the Bears defense has a significant impairment.

So does the entire defense.