Bears

Rams battling 'dirty' image that may have roots in Jeff Fisher's past

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Rams battling 'dirty' image that may have roots in Jeff Fisher's past

Jeff Fisher has a perception problem. Whether it carries over into Sunday’s game against the Bears, his old team and where some of this may have started.

The St. Louis Rams coach played under Buddy Ryan with the Bears (under the cuddly moniker of “Guppy”) and coached with him in Chicago (the ’85 Super Bowl year) and Phladelphia. Ryan’s reputation included targeting opposing players for hits of debatable intent.

When Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans, his cornerback Cortland Finnegan proudly wore the label as one of the league’s dirtiest, to the point of stating that he was “aspiring” to be the No.1-ranked NFL’s dirtiest in 2010 after he finished a disappointing (for him) sixth in the dirty player rankings.

When Fisher took over coaching the Rams in 2012, he brought Finnegan with him under a $50-million contract. Fisher also hired Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, then waited for Williams to serve his one-year banishment in connection with the bounty scandal from his time as New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator.

Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told Sports Illustrated’s on Wednesday that Williams “deserves” the reputation as dirty.

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Then along came last Sunday’s Rams-Minnesota Vikings game, in which Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner hit Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the head as the latter was going into his give-up slide. Bridgewater suffered a concussion.

In the aftermath, fury was directed at Joyner, but even more at Williams, and ultimately at Fisher by former NFL safety Rodney Harrison. Fisher retorted by citing Harrison’s long history of incidents, but the cloud still hangs over Fisher because of his history.

“I think things got blown out of proportion so I responded,” Fisher said. “And then to go on the record, why I commented about Rodney, I didn't think that was appropriate. His assertion for what he implied and what he stated was absolutely incorrect.

“I'm not defending our players; I'm defending the organization. Our defense is going to play hard and fast and we're, like any other defense, we're gonna tackle, play hard, that's part of the game. By no means do we have any intent of injuring the quarterback and immediately after the game I was hoping Teddy was gong to OK and I'm happy he is.”

A fellow head coach from the defense’s side of the football has some understanding of such things.

“It’s definitely a fine line,” Bears head coach John Fox said. “You want guys playing to the whistle. Sometimes there’s mishaps. That’s part of hustle. That’s part of how you win games, too, is finishing plays, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. You just have to coach it the best you can, and sometimes emotions become part of the game.”

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Sometimes perception can become reality. Former NFL offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player,” once remarked that he liked the honor because it meant opponents were thinking about that instead of more important things.

“Some people get vasectomies,” Dobler once said. “I used to give ‘em.”

Being on an opponent’s mind for reasons of foul play can backfire, however.

“I don’t know if it’s an advantage because it might make the opposing team play that much harder,” Bears linebacker Sam Acho said. “I don’t think St. Louis is a dirty team; I’ve played against them for years and they play hard.”

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Against the Vikings, seven different Rams defensive players were hit with penalties, nine total on the St. Louis defense, with the Rams having 12 total penalties walked off against them.

"We're just an aggressive team,” said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, last year’s NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. “We've got to fix the little mistakes, sometimes try to cool it down a little bit. We fixed it and it won't happen again. That's something to learn from and that's what we did and we're going to move on.

"Everybody's always got their own opinion. The game of football is a physical game; we're a physical team, play fast, but our mindset is never go out there and injury nobody. We're just doing our job of playing fast. Like I said, everybody's got their own opinion. Can't focus on what other people think and just play your game."

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.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.