Why Mike Zimmer's success in Minnesota is relevant to the Bears' likely-impending head coaching search

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Why Mike Zimmer's success in Minnesota is relevant to the Bears' likely-impending head coaching search

Toward the end of what may be Vic Fangio’s final meeting with the media at Halas Hall, there was this enjoyable exchange between him and Dan Jiggetts regarding Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

Jiggetts: “It took him a long time to get an opportunity. Guys with gray hair don’t seem to get those opportunities anymore.”

Fangio: “Especially if they’re not coaching offense.”

The 61-year-old Zimmer, whose Vikings have been locked into a playoff spot for weeks, is an anomaly in a sense: He’s a lifetime defensive assistant who didn’t get his first head coaching job until he was 57. But in a coaching landscape in which head coaching hires can tend to be younger and offensive-minded, Zimmer's had plenty of success, winning two NFC North titles in four years in Minneapolis. 

What the Vikings have done offensively in 2017 is outstanding, too. They’re 10th in points per game (23.9) and are 7th in offensive DVOA, and have hit those marks without their first- and second-string quarterbacks (Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater), and without their first-choice running back (Dalvin Cook), either. And that’s with, again, a so-called defensive-minded coach at the helm. 

So as the Bears all but certainly begin looking for their next head coach next week, keep Zimmer’s success in mind. The “right” coach for Mitchell Trubisky and this franchise doesn’t have to be a young offensive mind; it very well could be a veteran defensive coordinator who has good organizational skills and hires the right offensive coordinator for the job. 

“He’s done a great job,” Fangio said of Zimmer. “Mike’s been a coordinator in the league for a while. Finally got his opportunity was qualified and capable, and Minnesota recognized that and didn’t worry about where he came from or what his playoff success had been; they just knew they were getting a good football coach. Ultimately that’s what you want in your head coach – a leader and a good football coach. Mike’s been that for a long time and been able to continue that as a head coach.”

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

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Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

Chicago Bears left tackle Charle Leno, Jr. has outplayed expectations after joining the team as a seventh-round pick in 2014. General manager Ryan Pace rewarded Leno for his play with a four-year, $38 million extension last offseason, committing to the former Boise State product as the Bears' blindside protector for the immediate future.

Leno joined his teammates at the team's annual Bears Care Gala on Saturday and said new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is going to make him and his linemates better.

"We love Harry, let's just get that out of the way," Leno told 670 the Score's Mark Grote. "Harry is a great coach. I saw what he did for guys that he coached in college and the guys that were before us here in Chicago. He's getting us better."

Hiestand's efforts at Notre Dame produced four first-round picks: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. He brings a no-nonsense coaching style back to Chicago, where he last served under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. 

STANKEVITZ: In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears' coaching staff

Leno enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. His 80.4 grade from Pro Football Focus was the best of all Bears linemen and his highest overall mark over the last four years. He finished 15th among all tackles graded by PFF last season.

Regardless, Leno still has to impress his new coach just like every other offensive lineman on the roster. The Bears haven't added any competition for Leno, but his fate as the team's long-term answer at left tackle could be decided by Hiestand.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”