Bears

Bears' John Fox tough on his coaching tree; Chargers’ McCoy next

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Bears' John Fox tough on his coaching tree; Chargers’ McCoy next

Bears coach John Fox has not been especially nice to the branches of his coaching tree, his former apprentices/assistants who’ve gone on to head-coaching jobs in the NFL.

Former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (2011) went to Oakland, where his Raiders lost by an average of 17 points in their four games against Fox’s Denver Broncos. Allen was fired last year and replaced by Jack Del Rio. Del Rio had succeeded Allen as Fox’s defensive coordinator, but Fox’s first win as Bears head coach this year came at the expense of Del Rio’s Raiders a month ago. Back in 2003, after a year as Fox’s defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, Del Rio’s first game as a head coach, in Jacksonville, was against Fox’s Panthers. Fox beat him, in a year that Fox would take the Panthers to a Super Bowl.

Mike McCoy went from being Fox’s offensive coordinator in Denver to head coach of the San Diego Chargers, who faced Fox’s Broncos five times, losing four, including in the 2013 playoffs.

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work: The wise, savvy mentor imparts wisdom and ways to younger apprentices, who then go on to heights of their own.

To a point.

In the NFL, where an effective head coach produces other head coaches as his tree, with branches stretching through the league, the reality is that you will inevitably face your former student on an opposite sideline. At that point, “supportive teacher” only goes so far, and something akin to, “I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know” becomes the rule.

McCoy worked as an assistant coach under Fox in Carolina and Denver. In 2013 McCoy ascended to head coach of the San Diego Chargers, putting him head-to-head with Fox twice a season. The apprentice managed a split of the games against the teacher that first season, winning their second meeting and getting the Chargers into the playoffs.

Not so fast, son.

Fox’s Broncos ended McCoy’s magical first season with a smack-down in the divisional round, going out to a 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter before the Chargers drew to within a touchdown late. Last season, Fox’s Broncos beat McCoy’s Chargers by 14 and 12 points, something Fox would like repeat with the Bears.

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Regardless of outcome next Monday in San Diego, “ya know,” McCoy said, “he’s a great person. He’s an even better person than a coach.”

McCoy would know.

When Fox arrived as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2002, McCoy was a 30-year-old receivers coach. Fox kept him on the Carolina staff, eventually elevating McCoy to passing-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

In 2009 McCoy left to become offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach with the Denver Broncos, where he was in charge of Kyle Orton after the quarterback was dealt to Denver as part of the Jay Cutler trade. In 2011, Fox arrived there, and again thought enough of McCoy to keep the latter in place.

“It’s like you hire any staff people,” Fox said. “I think you evaluate what kind of coach they are. I thought he was a bright young coach. It turned out to be true.”

For his part, McCoy learned from his time on two Fox staffs. Fox came to Carolina after time with the New York Giants and McCoy was struck by Fox’s approach that extended into offseasons and the ways personnel were handled.

“I think the big thing [was] that the way we practice and the way we give everybody an opportunity in the offseason program, the way the reps are,” McCoy said. “Some people may say, ‘Why is this college free agent guy getting so many reps?’ But it was always about giving guys an opportunity to prove that they can do it until they couldn’t.”

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McCoy was among the candidates the Bears wanted to interview in 2012 to succeed Lovie Smith. He also was on the lists for the vacancies in Arizona, Buffalo, San Diego and Philadelphia. McCoy and the Chargers reached an agreement, as McCoy succeeded Norv Turner in San Diego (Adam Gase replaced him as Denver offensive coordinator).

“I think like with Mike or any other assistant coach that I’ve had, there’s a lot of qualified coaches out there, assistant coaches,” Fox said. “It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity. I think he had interviewed the year before with the Dolphins and [Miami] ended up going in a different direction. So he was in that conversation and I think he’s done a tremendous job in San Diego.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

Hub Arkush, Sam Panayotovich and Ben Pope join Kelly Crull on the panel.

0:00- Mitch Trubisky practices again and he got all of the first-team reps. So will his return help the Bears upset the Saints on Sunday?

8:30- KC Johnson joins Kelly to discuss Luol Deng retiring a Bull, Wendell Carter, Jr.'s thumb injury and to preview the Bulls' preseason finale.

14:00- Ben has the latest on the Blackhawks including Jeremy Colliton's goaltender plans for the week. He also tells us if we should be worried about Jonathan Toews' slow start to the season.

21:00- Will Perdue joins the panel to talk about the importance of a good start this season for the Bulls. Plus, he has his

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per SharpFootballStats.com, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better.