Bears

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

Perception might not always completely be reality, but too often it can come perilously close to becoming reality. And certain perceptions of the Bears in the wake of business Monday — firing coach John Fox, extending general manager Ryan Pace’s contract, senior team executives talking of interviewing head-coaching candidates — contain some very concerning elements.

Some of those lie in the structure that the coach-hiring process appears to be taking on. Some of those lie in the haunting bromide that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

In 2004, the Bears fired head coach Dick Jauron while at the same time announcing four-year contract extensions for team president Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo. The moves effectively compartmentalized the failures of 2002 (4-12 record) and 2003 (7-9) and hung them on Jauron. The juxtaposition of Jauron’s ouster and rewards for those above him felt somehow unseemly.

On Monday, the Bears fired Fox and extended Pace’s contract. When Phillips began Monday’s public session, he spoke only glowingly about Pace and never mentioned Fox until at the outset of a less formal media availability afterwards.

Fox deserved better than that. That was a 30-year NFL coaching veteran leaving. And if the organization is ecstatic about the progress of rookie franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky, someone should have acknowledged that his progress didn’t all happen all by itself.

Shadowy role for higher-ups

Pace clearly stated that the decision on the next Bears coach was his. But he also described the process that would involve Phillips and chairman George McCaskey as “collaborative,” a descriptor that Phillips also used, casting McCaskey and himself as a “support resource” and saying: “We have a real collaborative environment here, so Ryan and I have a great relationship, along with George as well. So I think just giving our input into things to look for, how to assess the results of different interviews will be helpful to him.”

OK, that sounds good, sounds reasonable. Collaboration, consensus, those are always nice.

Then again, a camel was a horse built by a committee.

The question is how and, more importantly perhaps, when that “collaboration” occurs, because it has happened before and not with entirely good effect.

The organization put something of a shadow over the coach-hiring process before either Fox or Pace was hired in 2015. Team higher-ups sought meetings with Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the days prior to Pace being brought aboard as general manager.

NFL rules do dictate an aggressive tack on interviewing assistants with teams in the postseason, limiting windows when those approaches can be made. In this situation, with consultant Ernie Accorsi involved, the first round effectively comprised screening interviews.

But any incoming general manager, particularly a first-time GM like Pace, would be expected to assign some not-insignificant weight to the first impressions and opinions of his bosses. Decisions at this senior level of any business typically will require sign-off from above. But the collaborative process is going to have a different tenor when the bosses have been injected into the process at the front end rather than as the more traditional and appropriate next-level final approval deeper in the process.

Put another way: The perception is that Pace’s thinking would inevitably be colored by what he knew his bosses thought of candidates they’d interviewed before he was in his job. This decision ultimately is Pace’s, but ... 

Ominous intrusions

“Collaborative” is too often not a good thing when it brings together two distinctly different areas. Best guess is that Pace will not be collaborating on marketing or business initiatives that don’t directly involve him, for example.

Then-president Michael McCaskey insisted on doing film review with head coach Dave Wannstedt in the days immediately following games. Sources said that during the 2001 draft, for two different reasons, Phillips vetoed trades sought by then-personnel chief Mark Hatley to land, first, LaDanian Tomlinson, and then later, Deuce McAllister. The Bears instead ended up with David Terrell and Anthony Thomas.

That the immediate future rests on the right arm of Trubisky was apparent from Pace’s remarks on Monday. No surprise there, and not unreasonable after Trubisky performed passably over his first year of 12 starts.

But former general manager Phil Emery similarly dictated that his own coaching hire, Marc Trestman, was being assigned Jay Cutler, whom Emery had become the first to dub a “franchise” and “elite” quarterback.

George McCaskey was directly asked during the Fox hiring whether the new coach would be required to stay with personnel already in place at that time, specifically Cutler, whose contract from Emery had the team on the hook for $16 million guaranteed in 2015. McCaskey said that no decisions would be dictated by their financial entanglements.

But Cutler, with reported $16 million guaranteed in 2015 and $10 million in 2016, remained the Bears quarterback while Pace did not select a quarterback in either of his first two drafts. Fox might or might not have truly had the option of moving on from Cutler, but Trubisky is the way the new guy will be going. Period.

“We had major questions at the most important position on our team — quarterback,” Pace said. “We were aggressive in our approach to address that position, and we couldn’t be happier in the direction that it’s heading.”

What if Josh McDaniels would have wanted Jimmy Garoppolo after working with the quarterback in New England? Or Matt Nagy was all in on Pat Mahomes over Trubisky, and was a factor in the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to trade up for Mahomes, not Trubisky?

Pace and the organization necessarily are all-in on Trubisky. They should be. It’s just that ...

Targeting a quarterback-based structure?

The structure of the next coaching staff will be interesting. One popular current template is for a quarterback/offense-centric hierarchy to be installed for the care and feeding of a young franchise quarterback. That’s the model for Carson Wentz in Philadelphia (Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo) and for Jared Goff in Los Angeles (Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Greg Olson).

It’s not actually a new coaching-staff concept. Brett Favre was brought along by ex-quarterback Mike Holmgren's coaching staff that included ex-quarterback Steve Mariucci in the actual job of quarterbacks coach and ex-quarterback Jon Gruden as an offensive assistant.

While not precisely the same thing, the Bears had a form of that structure in place for Trubisky last year: Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone as quarterbacks coach and Mark Sanchez as a quarterback “assistant.”

No easy conclusions were there on Monday beyond a commitment to building a staff that can build around Trubisky.

“I don’t want to paint ourselves in a corner,” Pace said of possible search parameters. “We’re looking for the best coach; best character, best leadership. So I don’t want to paint ourselves into offense or defense. It’s going to be a broad, thorough search.”

By a committee.

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

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USA Today

Bears roster lacks veteran cut candidate

The Bears battle for the 53-man roster doesn’t have many contentious positions entering training camp.

Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy brought back largely the same roster from their breakout 2018 season, finding replacements for the few players gone in free agency.

Outside of kicker, the entire starting lineup is pretty much set for Week 1, and the main competitions to stick with the team are at the bottom of the depth chart.

It leaves the roster with no notable veterans that stand out as candidates to be cut. ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson was asked to name one for an article, and he couldn’t come up with any.

He mentioned Taquan Mizzell, who made the move from running back to wide receiver this offseason, but as Dickerson pointed out “Mizzell is hardly a well-known commodity around the league.”

Former third-round pick Jonathan Bullard hasn’t lived up to his draft status, but the Bears have seemed comfortable keeping him around in a backup role.

The Bears roster has very little fat to trim. The only other player who could potentially qualify is cornerback Sherrick McManis, since the team has so many young players at his position, but he’s been working at safety to increase his value, and he’s one of the team’s best special teams contributors.

The trim down from the 90-man roster shouldn’t have too many significant surprises, which is why so much of the attention this offseason continues to go to the kicker position.

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

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USA Today

Alex Bars is ready to take his shot with Harry Hiestand and the Bears

Alex Bars was cleared to practice last week, allowing him his first chance to put on a helmet since tearing his ACL and MCL Sept. 29 while playing for Notre Dame. The undrafted guard was able to participate in veteran minicamp, allowing him to shake off some rust before his real push for a roster spot begins in training camp next month. 

Many speculated Bars would’ve been as high as a mid-round draft pick if not for that devastating knee injury. It didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 312 pound Bars long, though, to decide where he wanted to go after not being picked in April’s draft. Call it the Harry Hiestand effect. 

Bars played under Hiestand’s tutelage at Notre Dame from 2014-2017, and said he always wanted to wind up with the Bears to work with his former coach — just as 2018 top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey hoped to as well. 

“I remember talking about that, because they both wanted to play for him,” Bars said. “They understand where he can take you and how phenomenal a coach he is, so they both wanted that. And I’m just the same way.”

While Nelson transformed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff-bound offensive line and McGlinchey showed plenty of promise with the San Francisco 49ers, the reunion of Bars and Hiestand carries some intriguing possibilities for the Bears. Bars has always had upside — he was a four-star recruit out of Nashville in 2014 — and getting to work with Hiestand may be the best way to tap into that potential. 

“He knows me very well, I understand his technique very well,” Bars said. “So having that connection, that player-coach connection all four years through college is huge.”

Hiestand called Bars after his injury last fall and offered some words of encouragement, which only furthered Bars' wish to play for his former college coach in the NFL. 

"That meant everything," Bars said. "He cares so much off the field as well as on the field. That’s who he is."  

Bars wasn’t able to participate in OTAs or rookie minicamp, but Hiestand doesn’t see that as putting him in a tough spot to make the Bears' 53-man roster. And there will very much be an opportunity for Bars to make a push during training camp, given 10-year veteran Ted Larsen only has $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year contract. 

It may not be the more eye-catching roster battle during training camp, but the Bears hope they can find interior offensive line depth through competition in Bourbonnais. And Bars, now cleared to practice, will get his shot. 

“He’ll have the chance because he’s smart, he understands the technique, he knows what to do,” Hiestand said during OTAs, when Bars hadn’t practiced yet. “He’s learning the offense even though he’s not doing it. But when we put the pads on that’s when you make or don’t make the team.” 

It’s often unfair — yet far too easy — to place high expectations on undrafted free agents. For every Cameron Meredith or Bryce Callahan who gets unearthed, there are dozens of anonymous players who struggle to stick on an NFL practice squad. 

But Bars is among the more important undrafted free agents on the Bears given his connection with Hiestand and the position he plays. While Kyle Long is healthy, he hasn’t played a full season since 2015, underscoring the Bears’ need for depth on the interior of their offensive line in the immediate future. 

And the Bears would save a little over $8 million against their 2020 cap if they were to make the difficult decision to cut Long in a year. If Bars develops into the kind of player plenty in the NFL thought he could be before his knee injury, that would make releasing Long a little easier to swallow at Halas Hall. 

For now, though, Bars is just hoping to make the Bears. Anything else is a long ways away.

“I’m excited to be here, thrilled for this opportunity and it’s all about productivity,” Bars said. “Just need to be productive and prove you belong on this team.”

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