Bears

Why the Bears finally feel like they're in striking distance of a winning team

Why the Bears finally feel like they're in striking distance of a winning team

PHOENIX – Where the relationship between Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox goes beyond 2017 remains to play out with their third season together. At this point, however, despite a combined total of nine wins over their first two, the critical bond between coach and general manager appears both clear and solid.
 
Which is no small state of affairs with the growing pressure on both and the organization, pressure that will only intensify if the on-field fortunes of their team does not begin to dramatically reverse. And both know it. Losing doesn't build character, it reveals it, and the same applies to a relationship; if there are cracks, adversity of the kind the Bears have endured the past 32 games will widen and expose them.
 
That relationship has been the subject of speculation virtually since its inception, when Pace hired Fox following the end of his tenure with the Denver Broncos. Much of it centered around who was in fact making the final decisions on personnel and who was the advisor, with some positing that Fox was in fact the final authority if only because age, seniority and experience. The primacy of Pace, however, has become clearer with each decision and traces or shadings of any fractiousness are conspicuously absent.
 
"His people skills are tremendous," Fox said Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings. "His evaluation skills are very good. I think humility is always a great quality in this business. And I've seen that. He's the same guy. He hasn't changed. Sometimes people get [elevated] positions, whatever position that may be and they change. It's just how some people react. And I haven't seen that."
 
Pace, who recently turned 40, is by his own description wanting buy-in on decisions. In the cases of free agency, which have involved the high-dollar commitments designed to have immediate payoff, he has identified pro targets and involved Fox in the decisions.
 
Looking for an immediate hit at linebacker to upgrade the entire defense about this time last year, Pace targeted Denver leading-tackler Danny Trevathan. Fox was his first consult.
 
"Just having drafted [Trevathan] and seeing him develop and get better and his work ethic and his preparation and study habits and how he is as a teammate in the locker room," Pace said of what insight Fox provided. "Those were all things that were taken into consideration."
 
This year, with the max need of improvement, the franchise-grade decision was to make a change at quarterback. Jay Cutler effectively made the decision on himself and he was out. Whether Mike Glennon is or is not an upgrade will play out this year, but Fox was involved in and endorsed the decision to go in a decidedly less-experienced direction.

[RELATED - No signs Bears are locked into drafting a QB in 2017]
 
Pace had attempted in the past to trade for Glennon, which Fox agreed with. Fox had familiarity with Glennon from his time coaching in Carolina.
 
"I was in North Carolina when [Glennon] was playing [at N.C. State], actually," Fox recalled. "I was exposed to two guys there. A good friend of mine was the head coach at NC State. Both Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon were coming through at that period in time, so I got exposed to them, watching games and kinda following them.
 
"And obviously evaluating both of them coming out, they were in different schools then. So I had a high opinion of them then. And then really [Glennon] was talked about a little bit before this year as a potential guy to get, and then this year, being free and without any kind of compensation, we dove in pretty good and feel good about it."
 
Most expectations are that the Bears will not repeat a three-win season, and that an improvement from the first two years keeps both Pace and Fox in their jobs. Key players (Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, Kyle Long, Kevin White) returning from injuries, free-agency upgrades on both sides of the ball and a draft class currently with two picks in the first 36 point to perhaps the kind of turnaround Fox has produced (in years two) at Carolina and Denver.
 
Fox did not dwell on what the roster was or wasn't when he arrived, or on how much of an overhaul Pace needed to do when he took over from Phil Emery and brought in Fox to replace Marc Trestman. But the reality was there.
 
"Going back to a lot of the changes, we've had a lot of change," Fox said. "I think we're better for it. Unfortunately, you can't walk around with your chest out about that because of our record the last two years. But I have total confidence and [Pace] has done an outstanding job and will continue to.
 
"I understand you have to win. And I finally feel like we're in striking distance." 

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”
 

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

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AP

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.”