Tom Brady

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Patriots are the best thing that could be happening to the NFL right now

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USA TODAY

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Patriots are the best thing that could be happening to the NFL right now

The New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and all that comes with them are the best thing the NFL has going for it right now. The best. And the worst, which also feeds into them being the best thing for a league and its fans.

The best, on two accounts. To satisfy a couple of core cravings, football at once needs the Patriots to be great, and needs them to lose. With its ratings, concussion, disciplinings, anthem protests and other smudges on the shield, the NFL didn’t need a Jacksonville-Atlanta Super Bowl (insert conspiracy theory here). The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference, and the rising foe of the NFL is indifference.

The one obvious role that the Patriots fill is that of the Dark Side of the Force, the team that the general population likes to hate. High-concept drama demands an antagonist, a villain, a worthy adversary, a Darth Vader for an Obi-Wan — or in this case a team that arguably draws a segment of viewership comprised of folks who’ve pegged the Patriots as cheaters and harbor the fervent hope of seeing them lose and brought low.

Think old New York Yankees dynasty, without juiced (or under-inflated) baseballs. Think Oakland Raiders/Black Hole, just with a better wardrobe, nothing with spiked shoulders, and no Jack Tatum. And the more arrogant, the better: “America’s Team” Dallas Cowboys. Alabama and Nick Saban. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski.

A bunch of USA college kids winning Olympic hockey gold in ’80 over Finland was great, terrific. But it needed the defeat of the Mighty Rooskies to accord it “Miracle” status for all time.

Maybe it’s all about us as Americans. We’re a nation of underdogs (the Redcoats were 6-to-1 favorites in the Revolution, which was an upset rivaling Appalachian State over Michigan). We root for and relate to underdogs. And you can’t have a longshot underdog unless there’s a villainous heavy on the other side. Without Goliath, David is just a bratty kid good with a slingshot. The Patriots are the greatest Goliath in NFL history from the sustained angle of longevity and conquests.

Ideal for counter-rooting purposes, New England fuels the antagonism with tales of cheating. That runs against our American cultural grain. We’re OK if you whip us on the up’n’up, but cheating makes you icky. And admit it: You did feel a little bit pleased at the story of supposed antipathy among Belichick, Brady and Bob Kraft, didn’t you?

Wanted: One Snow White

But what makes the Patriots intriguing is that they also fill a void rooted in NFL parity, an NFL with plenty of dwarfs but in desperate need of a Snow White.

There lives in the sports soul a desire to know that there is greatness, not just one team or player. Put another way, there is a need for excellence, some context for what we are witnessing, some standard. The Patriots are that, just as the Green Bay Packers were in the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys through the early 1990s. You might not have liked them, but they provided a standard against which your team and others could be measured.

Flashes of "very good" aren’t good enough. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos fielded historically good defenses in their winning Super Bowls. But only one each. Outside of the ’85 Bears, one year does not earn a spot in any “greatest” discussion.

Players so often talk about wanting to go against the best. They do want to win, but it does mean more when it’s against established greatness. Intercepting Tom Brady means more than intercepting Mike Glennon.

It just does.

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

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USA TODAY

Conference championships have their own takeaways for Bears looking to get where these teams are

The next-to-last weekend of NFL football for the 2017 season (Pro Bowl doesn’t count) and a handful of notelets present themselves with varying degrees of relevance for the Bears...

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As noted here on more than one occasion, winning football isn’t contingent solely on pristine football from an elite quarterback, but it does turn so often on quarterbacks making or not making a play at a tipping point (which, come to think of it, establishes a quarterback as “elite” or not). The Bears believe they have something special in Mitch Trubisky, but they did not see enough “special” in Trubisky’s late-starting rookie year. To wit:

The New England Patriots are going to another Super Bowl because their quarterback was just a little better than the Jacksonville Jaguars’ when it mattered most. Blake Bortles, who played an otherwise thoroughly stellar game on the biggest stage of his career to date, unable to execute second-, third- and fourth-down throws on the final three Jacksonville Jaguars possessions in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ 24-20 loss to the Patriots. Tom Brady threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

GM Ryan Pace traded up for in the last draft because he sees those kinds of fourth quarters in Mitch Trubisky. It’s about an intangible on top of a baseline of ability, and it’s unclear whether Trubisky has that “It” factor. In 12 starts, with a 4-8 Bears record over those games, Trubisky directed one game-winning drive (for the winning OT field goal at Baltimore) but has zero fourth-quarter comebacks on his young and brief resume’.

For (very) loose comparison’s sake, and perhaps a distant foreshadowing: Brady had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives in the 15 games of his de facto rookie season of 2001 (he’d appeared in mop-up duty in one blowout Patriots loss in 2000). Bortles did have one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback in his otherwise dismal rookie season.

Brett Favre delivered seven of each in his first two Green Bay seasons. Peyton Manning had one of each his 3-13 rookie season but six fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives his 13-3 second season.

Not comparing Trubisky to Brady, Favre or Manning, but fourth quarters are where careers are made and the demarcation line lies between “good” and “great.” Fourth quarters will be perhaps the defining measure of Trubisky’s first year under his new coaching staff.

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It isn’t a right-away priority for this Bears offseason but an obvious need is for a backup quarterback, assuming that Mark Sanchez’s services as QB caddy are no longer desired. Mike Glennon’s big money is done but his 2017 revealed that he is a not-ready-for-prime-time player. GM Ryan Pace took a flyer on Glennon in a gamble for some hoped-for upside in Glennon, and with that not happening, so presumably is Glennon.

Regardless, stocking the quarterback shelf behind Mitch Trubisky is a requirement. Josh McCown is available (again) but that option got away a while ago. So are Case Keenum (maybe after Sunday), Kirk Cousins and hey, why not Jimmy Garoppolo. Seriously, though, someone will want a job and the money, but it won’t be an attractive sell, backing up a young franchise quarterback for a team coming off four straight double-digit-loss seasons.

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Get used to the “run-pass option” (RPO) phrase. Coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich speak in those terms, referring loosely to the quarterback having the option of handing off on a called run play, or reading the defensive reaction and taking the ball out and going to a pass play on the fly. Nick Foles executed it effectively, so did Blake Bortles.

Incoming Bears coaches inherit a Mitch Trubisky who has met the NFL and achieved ball security, which impressed his new coaches because of what’s needed – good decisions under pressure – to do that. “I think watching Mitchell, his decision-making, there’s a lot of good stuff there,” Helfrich said.

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Expect the Bears to go best-available at No. 8 (before Ryan Pace makes his third straight first-round trade, that is), and for Pace to address some combination of offensive line, receiver, cornerback and linebacker in free agency ahead of draft weekend. Whatever the personnel end result, an upgrade to the pass rush is an offseason must-have absolute.

The 50-yard pick-six by Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson traced to pressure from Eagles defensive end Chris Long that forced Case Keenum to jury-rig his throwing motion. A potential scoring drive was aborted by a strip-sack by Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, with Long recovering the fumble.

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

'Fit' looms as tipping point in Bears search for new head coach

The word “fit” flies around anytime an NFL coaching situation is discussed. Exactly what that means is rarely understood in full. But it is potentially the most important element in the Bears’ coaching search, not just another platitude, like “go in another direction.”

It has been a tipping point in recent Bears coaching hires, for better and worse. More on those cases a little later.

“Fit” in the Bears’ coaching search will apply to fit above – how the individual fits in vision and temperament with GM Ryan Pace – and below – how he and Mitch Trubisky connect. Indeed, the fit of the next Bears coach into what Pace has put in place will be critical, beginning with but not in the least limited to quarterback Trubisky.

Specifically: Will the head coach expect to bend Trubisky to his system (Lovie Smith fitting a reluctant Brian Urlacher into Smith’s Tampa-2 defensive concept), or bend his system to fit the player/Trubisky (career-4-3 coach John Fox becoming a 3-4 Denver coach realizing what he had in Von Miller)?

The incoming coach obviously won’t be “incoming” unless he establishes to the satisfaction of Pace (and Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips) that he is a mesh with Trubisky. Not necessarily himself; a defensive coach won’t work directly with Trubisky in daily practice sessions as much as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach will.

But the successful coaching candidate will be one who has a vision in phase with the capabilities of both Trubisky and his surrounding personnel. That’s been the hallmark of defense-based coaches like Bill Belichick in New England, Ron Rivera in Carolina, and John Fox and Lovie Smith; they are typically in on the game-planning strategically (“ball control, if you please”).

“Fit” is a funny thing, though. What Pace and Bears officials will want from their coaching hire is a clear sense of the offense as it will look with Trubisky. Subsets of that assessment will be run-blocking scheme and its fit for core elements Charles Leno, Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair, only less ensconced as franchise fixtures than Trubisky; and passing game, vertical-based or West Coast. The latter of those, the passing concepts, realistically will be influenced by the incoming offense, given that the Bears were going to make over the wideout group anyway, and a new offensive leader will guide that.

Better to fit scheme to player? Or mold player to scheme?

The fit of head coach/coordinator and quarterback or other player is the stuff on which franchises can turn. Conventional thought is that the successful adjusts his scheme to best utilize the skills of his players.

The Bears have seen those fits work well, and decidedly not so well.

Where it worked to fit player to scheme:

Urlacher loved the two-gap 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron/Greg Blache; a jumbo front four (Phillip Daniels/Bryan Robinson/Keith Traylor/Ted Washington) engaged whole offensive lines and allowed Urlacher to roam sideline to sideline unfettered. Urlacher went to four straight Pro Bowls (2000-03) and was initially not at all enamoured of Smith’s speed-based one-gap 4-3 that tasked him with more gap responsibilities.

Smith, however, knew what he had in Urlacher, that being a prototype middle linebacker with elite coverage skills. Urlacher was remade into the Smith model and became NFL defensive player of the year in 2005.

Fitting scheme to player can work:

Besides Fox converting from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 with personnel like Von Miller in Denver, Adam Gase tweaked his offense when he took over as offensive coordinator, Gase researched and found that Jay Cutler was a poor decision-maker. Accordingly, Gase dialed back the quarterback flexibility he’d used in Denver with Peyton Manning, the consummate decision-maker.

The result was Cutler’s best full season for completion percentage, interception percentage and passer rating.

QB fits

Whether the enforced presence of Trubisky on the roster is a positive or negative with coaching candidates will likely remain between Pace and the candidates; best guess is that a candidate doesn’t get on the interview list without some up-front Trubisky-approval vetting by Pace.

But while the move by Pace to target and draft a perceived franchise quarterback was a long-overdue move by Bears personnel chiefs going back more than a decade, it remains to play out whether inheriting a quarterback is a plus for the incoming coach.

Head coaches hired with quarterbacks in place routinely work out pretty well, based on this year’s playoff participants:

Coach                                  Inherited  

Doug Marrone, Jaguars    Blake Bortles

Sean McVay, Rams            Jared Goff

Dan Quinn, Falcons          Matt Ryan

Mike Tomlin, Steelers      Ben Roethlisberger

Sean McDermott, Bills     Tyrod Taylor

But coaches involved in acquiring their own quarterbacks have had arguably greater success:

Coach                                 Brought in

Bill Belichick, Patriots       Tom Brady (inherited Drew Bledsoe)

Mike Mularkey, Titans      Marcus Mariota

Sean Payton, Saints          Drew Brees

Doug Pederson, Eagles    Carson Wentz

Andy Reid, Chiefs              Alex Smith

Ron Rivera, Panthers        Cam Newton

Mike Zimmer, Vikings       Case Keenum

The Bears’ coaching search was set in motion last week concurrent with the firing of Fox. “We’re going to get into [criteria] as we go through the interview process, which’ll be thorough and extensive,” Pace said. “I don’t want to get into the exact details. It’s a competitive market but you can bet that we have criteria in mind that’s very detailed and I’ll feel very confident when we hit that.”

Beginning with a thing called “fit."