Warranted Optimism Surrounds the New Bears Coaching Staff

Mark Potash at the Chicago Sun-Times writes a good article about the optimism surrounding new coaching staff. The piece is particularly impressive in its scope and perspective.

Amongst the quotes which stuck out was this one from left guard Matt Slauson:

“‘This is probably the most impressive staff that I’ve been a part of,’ Bears guard Matt Slauson said. ‘I haven’t looked at everybody, but I think every position coach has at least won a conference championship. That is unreal to me.’

“In actuality, nine coaches on John Fox’s staff have been to the Super Bowl, including five position coaches. But the point is, players like Matt Slauson — and he definitely is not alone — respect the fact that from Fox on down, the Bears’ newest coaching staff has credibility the Bears haven’t had since George Halas re-hired himself. And it can make a difference.

“‘I don’t know why other coaches do it differently when they get head [coaching] jobs,’ Slauson said, ‘but they feel the need to hire their buddy or their childhood friend who really has no credentials to be an NFL coach. But it happens all the time. Fox came in. [General manager Ryan] Pace came in and said, ‘We’re going to hire the best of the best.’ and they did that. As players, we notice stuff like that. That’s huge. We love it.'”

Slauson hits the nail on the head in this last paragraph. Each of the last two coaching staffs had faults that prevented them from hiring the best possible staff.

Former head coach Marc Trestman was partly limited because he’d been out of the league and probably wasn’t really in tune with who the best young coaches (like offensive coordinator Adam Gase) even were. But even given that, Trestman hired coaches from his former Canadian team, the Montreal Alouettes in Andy Bischoff and Michael Sinclair as tight ends and defensive line coaches. These were hardly the best available.

But former head coach Lovie Smith was much worse in this respect, consistently looking for coaches that he had personal experience with or coaches he had worked for previously over the best available candidates. Some of these, like former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, worked out fine. But the memorable standoff between Smith and former general manager Jerry Angelo over who would be the offensive coordinator in 2010 stands out as a good example of Smith’s closed minded attitude. Angelo forced Smith to interview a variety of candidates but Smith was set on Martz, who he’d previously worked with in St. Louis. In the end, Smith got his way and though they didn’t do badly that year, long term the organization suffered for the choice.

Even worse than Smith’s discomfort with coaches he didn’t personally know was the suspected reason for his hesitation to hire the best available candidates. Smith may well have been an adherent to the old philosophy that you should never hire your own replacement. Smith’s insecurity and fear of losing credit and power to a really good coach may have been an issue with Smith.  Recall that Smith more or less fired former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera for more or less not agreeing with Smith’s entire defensive philosophy.  Some would have said that the Bears defense was benefiting from the creative tension but Smith’s pride and the fact that Rivera got no small amount of credit for the excellent performance of the defense was undoubtedly a factor.

Regardless, Fox suffers from no such limitation. Gase and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are or should be on every team’s radar as potential head coaching candidates. This doesn’t seem to bother Fox in the least.

As Potash points out, there’s alway s a lot of optimistic talk about new coaching staffs the first year. But there may be more reason than usual to believe that this time around, the optimism is warranted. This season, we may finally see a Bears team play to their talent level and beyond.

All Triumphs Great and Small

I’m not one to put much stock in training camp reports. It’s a time of year when everything is sunshine and rainbows and unless you live in southern California, the sun doesn’t shine every day.

Having said that, I very much enjoyed Rich Campbell‘s report for the Chicago Tribune this morning. Of the “five observations” which he made on yesterday’s training camp session, three involved notable adjustments or corrections by individual players who had made previous mistakes. Right tackle Jordan Mills, who reportedly got beat like a drum by outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in one-on-one drills Sunday, stood up a lot better on Monday with what he said was better hand work. Safety Brock Vereen, who got beat previously on a gadget play, showed more awareness and stayed deep on on Monday to help break up a similar play. And finally second year cornerback Kyle Fuller made a play to break up a Martellus Bennett fade route, reportedly by keeping his eyes on the catch point. In addition, Dan Wiederer, also at the Chicago Tribune, notes that Tim Jennings, though still uncomfortable covering in the slot, is operating with noticably sharper vision and that he’s reacting much more quickly. And Dan Cahill at the Chicago Sun-Times notes that quarterback Jay Cutler is turnover free five days into camp.

These are all little things but they emphasize something that’s critically important for a young Bears defense in 2015. They may be talent poor but good football teams can make up for a lot by simply being fundamentally sound. You can’t make up for all of it. But you can make up for a lot of it. And you can reasonably expect to be competitive.

Having said that, Bears fans who think this might be a playoff team are fooling themselves. I’m not saying its impossible – anything is possible, especially in the NFL. But I think they are setting themselves up for disappointment. And that would be a shame.

Fans who believe that high expectations are necessary and that seasons without 10 wins are a failure are missing the point. Team victories on the field are nice and, of course, that’s the goal. But, no matter the talent level and no matter the expectations, the true football fan is going to have to find enjoyment in the small items this year. Bears players, like all the rest of us in our daily lives, will need to find their share of satisfaction in the little things, the day-to-day improvements as they gradually climb towards respectability and, eventually, top level competition. These wins are much more frequent than Super Bowls and if you are only going to be happy with the latter, you are going to be a pretty miserable soul.

In his classic work of fiction, The Prophet, author Kahlil Gibran wrote, “And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and the sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” This year, like every year, we will all find much more happiness if we take the time to note the small victories and enjoy them as often as possible.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. But Not Long Enough.

Groucho Marx once famously said that “Women should be obscene and not heard.” Fortunately, women have never taken his advice. At least not the second part.

The recent news that Jen Welter will join the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff for the summer follows the announcement last July that Sarah Thomas will become the NFL’s first female game official this year. Welter will help coach the team’s inside linebackers during training camp and the preseason only and her role isn’t a long-term job, as she’ll be a coaching intern during the summer.  But it’s still an NFL first and has the potential to lead to further opportunities.

Add this to the news that Beth Mowins will be the Raiders preseason game announcer and that Jacqueline Davidson will be the new director of football administration for the Jets and we have a storm of empowerment for women brewing.  I’d say the NFL is making real progress.

I’ve always said that most NFL owners don’t care who you are, what your race is or what your creed is as long as you can play football.  Gay? Who cares? As long as they can help you win.  That stance should, and generally does, apply to employees off the field as well.

Unfortunately the NFL’s attitude towards women has been slow to develop but gradually the reality of the situation is dawning and slowly taking over their thinking. They aren’t asking women to be linebackers or even kickers and, media agenda aside, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. But coaches? Television announcers? Game officials?  Scouting and front office?  These are positions which women not only can fill but which we should demand that they fill. Loudly.

As an NFL fan, I want to see the best available product on the field. I’ve no doubt that every owner and player in the league feels the same way. But that will never happen when 50% of the population is excluded from jobs to which they are perfectly suited. Here’s hoping that the “2015 NFL Year of the Woman” becomes an annual affair.

The Bears May Learn the Real Meaning of the Term “Accountability” in 2015

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.