John Mullin at csnchicago.com surprises me as he writes about where the Bears will find leadership this year. Near the end of the article, he addresses the change in the coaching staff in uncharacteristically forthright terms:
“If you don’t think coaching stands to have an enormous impact on wins and losses, then you don’t fully understand what coaches do and how players value coaches.
“One of the main reasons the previous staff failed was that players deep down did not believe that many of the [former Bears head coach Marc] Trestman assistants knew the NFL game. And they didn’t. More to the bigger point, because of that, the coaches were not able give players the schemes, applications of technique and other details that players crave, the things that give them the best chances to be successful.”
I’m as tough on the Bears as anybody. But I think Mullin might be just a bit unfair to the former staff here. It’s the kind of thing that tends to be said only after a group of coaches leaves town. The truth is that Trestman had been out of the league but he had extensive NFL experience, as did defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and most of the assistants. You can’t tell me that offensive Aaron Kromer didn’t have the respect of the offensive linemen or that those linemen didn’t believe that Kromer could make them better. He’d done it way too often with otherwise mediocre talent in New Orleans for that not to be true. The former staff certainly had their faults (see below) but I think there’s a little bit of “hindsight is 20-20” going on here.
Having said that, Mullin’s point is well taken in that there’s no doubt that the Bears have improved their coaching staff. It’s just not in the way that he’s stated it.
The one thing that the former staff did a poor job of was instilling the kind of mental toughness that’s necessary to succeed as a team in the NFL. For example, I was struck this morning by this quote from quarterback Jay Cutler on the effect that injuries had on the Bears last year. Via Jay Taft at the Rockford Register-Star:
“Even before training camp opened this week, and before the pads were slipped on for Saturday’s practice, quarterback Jay Cutler laid out what he thinks it will take to get the Chicago Bears’ offense back on track.
“‘You get injuries,’ he said, ‘you lose games.’
In Cutler’s mind, injuries at least kick-started the derailment that led to a 5-11 season and to the firings of head coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery.”
I’ll say this much for Cutler. He got the first part of that statement right. You do, indeed, “get injuries”. Everybody, every single team every single year, gets them. And if you are sitting around hoping that it doesn’t happen and implying that this is a key to your season, you’re in trouble.
Good football teams, the ones that win year after year, never let injuries stop them from winning. You plan on having them and you plan on having to get tough to overcome them. Anything less is simply failure.
Former Bears head coach Lovie Smith knew that and he never, ever, let players use injuries as an excuse for underperforming. He wouldn’t even let them talk about it. When Smith said “next man up“ after an injury, he really meant it. Last season’s Bears frequently said the same thing and I’m sure they thought that they meant it, too. The problem is that when it came time to actually back up their words, they couldn’t dig down deep enough to prove it on the field and the season fell apart.
It’s hard to say for sure but new head coach John Fox already shows signs of having the same sort of tough-minded attitude that Smith had. The way that Fox shrugged off the brief tussle between guard Kyle Long and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins on Friday and the contrast to the way Trestman handled such issues with an excess of handwringing was notable. There won’t be much sitting around the camp fire, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” at this camp. Fox shows every sign of expecting his players to be mentally and physically tough and the odds are good that, like Smith, he’s not going to allow players to make excuses.
Players always talk about “accountability” when it comes to performance. They talk about stepping up when necessary and overcoming adversity. They talk about pointing the finger at themselves when that doesn’t happen. The problem is that too often it’s just lip service. What’s even worse, too often the players themselves don’t know when it’s just lip service. Hopefully this year’s coaching staff will be able to teach the current version of the Bears the difference.