Bears and Dolphins Have Common Reason to Rejoice

Armando Salguero at the Miami Herald gives Miami fans an unusual reason to feel better about their team. And Bears fans should share the feeling:

“The reported departure of Dolphins linebacker coach George Edwards to Minnesota to become the Vikings defensive coordinator deserves congratulations for him. Dolphins fans should applaud that someone from the Dolphins coaching staff is moving on up, professionally and geographically. No, seriously, you should really be thrilled …

“Because in his last two seasons coaching the Dolphins linebackers — Edwards’s second stint with the team following a tenure that lasted 2005-2009 — the unit has mostly underperformed. Indeed, last season as the Miami defense fell to 24th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, the worse ranking since 2007, it was clear that linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler were at the core of the problems with the run defense.”

“But here’s the rub …

Ellerbe played quite well for Baltimore in 2012. Wheeler was outstanding in Oakland in 2012. And the two players the Dolphins jettisoned to upgrade to Wheeler and Ellerbe played better for their new teams. Karlos Dansby was a borderline Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Arizona and Kevin Burnett was a revelation in Oakland.”

“So to recap, the players the Dolphins added under Edwards played better elsewhere before arriving but took a step back in Miami. And the players who didn’t play well enough under Edwards the year before were released and had banner seasons elsewhere.

I don’t see this as a coincidence. And I see a good portion, if not the majority of the responsibility for this, falling on the position coach involved — Edwards

So congratulations to him for getting the promotion. Problem partially solved.”

Yes. Congratulations to all of the rest of us in the NFC North as well.

Reading Between the Lines

Steve Rosenbloom interprets what I thought were some fairly innocuous comments from former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher for the Chicago Tribune:

And he does hate the Bears, or at least the quarterback and general manager. We know this because he didn’t use the quarterback’s or general manager’s name when talking about Phil Emery’s decision to give Jay Cutler that seven-year, $126 million contract.

“The thinking is, if you have a franchise quarterback, you hold onto them’’ Urlacher said. “It’s hard to find them in the NFL, and I think the GM there thought he had one, so he paid him like one.’’

The only thing Urlacher missed was “Fredo, you’re nothing to me now.’’

If you’re keeping score at home, not only did Urlacher refuse to utter either person’s name, but he refused to say that Cutler is a franchise quarterback, just that the GM thought he had one.

That’s code for no, Urlacher does not believe The Quarterback Who Must Not Be Named is elite at that position.

That’s also code for no, the General Manager Who Must Not Be Named doesn’t know what he’s doing at that position.

Hard to believe that there’s someone out there reading more into these sorts of comments than I typically do. But I don’t think Rosenbloom is wrong nor am I surprised. Urlacher will likely hold a grudge against the organization for a long time even though it doesn’t appear to be justified.

Organizational Reaction to the Problems on Defense Is a Good Sign for the Future

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune urges Bear fans to give defensive coordinator Mel Tucker a chance to see what he can do with the defense:

“The Jaguars ranked sixth in the NFL on defense under Tucker in 2011 after the abbreviated offseason. Jacksonville was fifth in Football Outsiders’ ranking system and one of only two units in the top five against both the pass and the run. That was without a single Pro Bowl player.”

Much has been made of Tucker’s lack of qualifications and the miserable performance of the 2012 Jaguars, a team that had even less talent than the 2011 version. But Tucker is respected throughout the league and there’s good reason for that.

In any case, as Biggs points out, former head coach Lovie Smith‘s first reaction when the offense wasn’t performing was to change coordinators. Most Bears fans understand how well that worked. The current regime seems to be taking a different tack:

“As an organization it appears there is more ownership of problems than there was in the past, and that could be a step in the right direction. Coach Marc Trestman said “it starts with me” and general manager Phil Emery held himself responsible, citing, among other things, a lack of depth at tackle and safety.”

I don’t think firing a coordinator who wasn’t even running his own system after only one year is a good solution to the Bears problems. If nothing else, it makes potential candidates for the job wary about the situation that they might be getting themselves into. Emphasizing patience and resisting a knee jerk reaction to dump a respected coach with a history of making lemonade from lemons seems like a good move. Its time to stop using the coordinators as fall guys who take the blame for organizational failure on multiple levels.

The Bears have instead decided to make fixing the defense a community-driven, team-oriented issue where everyone takes responsibility for the problem. Everyone, Emery, Trestman and Tucker, is now pulling in the same direction and doing their part to fix the problem. If that continues, better days may be ahead.

Trestman Needs to Take More Control of the Defense in 2014

As I noted in my previous post today the Bears have emerged from 2 weeks of meetings with a plan for 2014. We don’t know all of the details but we do know that replacing defensive coordinator Mel Tucker isn’t one of them. In the process of pointing this out, I noted this passage from the report of Adam L Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Another important factor is that Tucker, by some accounts, was able to reach some of [former head coach Lovie Smith’s] loyalists and defensive leaders, who are signed past this season. That includes linebacker Lance Briggs, whom [head coach Marc] Trestman and [general manager Phil] Emery intentionally commended earlier this month.”

Speculation is that Briggs never fully accepted the change in the coaching staff. So if Briggs got along with Tucker, what was the problem? Perhaps this cut from David Haugh’s column in the Chicago Tribune after the disastrous loss to the Philedelphia Eagles late last season provides a clue:

“Inside a stunned Bears locker room Sunday night after a disgraceful 54-11 loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, coach Marc Trestman approached Jay Cutler. Josh McCown joined them near the corner to form a quorum.

“You didn’t need to be lip reader to understand the agenda they privately set.

“Burn the tape, they said in so many words. By the time the last Bear boarded the team bus, that had become the mantra you will hear more this week than ‘Jingle Bells.’”

OK. Probably the right thing to do. But if there was a “quorum”, where was the representative from the defense? Where was Briggs or veterans James Anderson or Julius Peppers?

Trestman obviously spent most of his personal time in 2013 getting the offense on board with the plan and developing that side of the ball. And, to be honest, that’s perfectly fine. There are only 24 hours in the day and he probably chose to spend most of those working where his expertise lies in his first year as head coach. And he absolutely needed to cultivate Cutler and, to a lesser extent, McCown as the quarterbacks and de facto leaders on that side.

But the defense is now still sitting in the station and Trestman now needs to do more than leave it to Tucker to get them on board the train. The offense is up and running and more work on that side of the ball can be off-loaded to offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer , both for the good of the team and for his own development as a coordinator and, eventually, into head coaching material.

The tendency is for a head coach to want to spend time on “his” side of the ball, leaving his coordinator on the “other” side to effectively be the head coach for that half of the team. It’s fairly obvious that this is what former Bears head coach Love Smith did and it never gave good results. When Smith was fired, most of the despair emanated from personnel on the defensive side of the ball. You got the distinct impression that offensive players like Cutler were a bit more ambivalent. Trestman isn’t going to be fired any time soon. But reports about the attitude of defensive veterans towards his leadership may not be all that different from what players like Cutler were feeling just a couple years ago.

Hopefully Trestman learned something about how to fix a defense as a head coach in Canada. As noted by Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune last month, Trestman used three defensive coordinators in five years in Montreal. He likely knows by now that turning over coaching personnel isn’t the complete answer to your problems. Eventually you have to start looking closer at yourself and taking personal responsibility for the issues on both sides of the ball, not just one.

I expect to hear a lot more in the coming year about Trestman’s involvement in the defense. About conversations not just with Cutler but with veteran defensive personnel like Briggs. I expect to hear that he’s balancing his time, spending more time in defensive meetings. If not, no matter what other changes are made, Trestman will never be coaching a complete team.

How the Bears Will Fix the Defense

Last Month I constructed a post entitled “Everyone Sees the Problem. The Question Is How to Solve It.” We now know the answer to that question, at least as far as the 2014 Bears are concerned.

Adam L. Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times describes one major reason why Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was retained yesterday for at least one more season:

Another important factor is that Tucker, by some accounts, was able to reach some of [former head coach Lovie Smith’s] loyalists and defensive leaders, who are signed past this season. That includes linebacker Lance Briggs, whom [head coach Marc] Trestman and [general manager Phil] Emery intentionally commended earlier this month.”

It's been speculated by many (including myself) that Briggs didn't buy in to the change in coaching staffs. If he didn't, it appears that Tucker was able to get the best out of him early in the season regardless of the fact.

What I didn't like about both Jahn's account and that of Dan Weiderer of the Chicago Tribune is that they both used injuries as an excuse for Tucker's failure, something which no coach does and no fan should. Injuries happen on every team and good teams perform despite them. According to Dan Pompei at the Bleacher Report the Colts, who won a playoff game before being bounced in the second round on Saturday, had 17 players on injured reserve this year, the most in the NFL. Who beat them to make the AFC Conference Final this Sunday? The Patriots, who had 14 on injured reserve placing them behind only five teams.

So why did the Bears retain Tucker by using injuries as an excuse? The answer is that they didn't. Instead, they responded to the defensive lapse by identifying the reasons for it as being in other areas. Its no secret that the defensive performance in all three levels of the defense was subpar. Defensive line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar paid the price for the lack of improvement in young players that needed to step up in the face of injuries, namely middle linebacker Jon Bostic, outside linebacker Khaseem Greene and defensive end Shea McClellin. Apparently the job of Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke was saved by his history of excellence with the team and the good play of the cornerbacks despite a drop off from veteran safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright. The Bears will, instead, try to improve this position by bring in more players and doing a better job of creating competition.

So after weeks of meetings and what was undoubtedly endless film watching, we now know what the plan is. There may be things like scheme change on the horizon but the real problem with the Bears defense was the individual performance of the players. A change in scheme would have made very little difference last year. This is, in essence, the guts of how the Bears plan to fix the defense: better coaching of yonger players at the level of the position coaches and more competition for jobs. It isn't rocket science. How the plan is executed over the course of the off-season and in to next year will tell us if the Bears went far enough in their evaluation.

Coaching and Job Searches Show Owners Taking More Control, Trouble for Fans

Dan Pompei at the Bleacher Report addresses the Browns coaching search with this interesting nugget:

"The Browns have a group of interviewers dealing with head-coach candidates. Included in the group are team CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi. But the man heading up the interviews and calling the shots, according to a source who knows, is Jimmy Haslam. After the Browns struck out on Rob Chudzinski last year, Haslam wants to make sure they are hiring the person he feels is best for the job this time. Haslam’s involvement could be partial explanation as to why the Browns and Josh McDaniels went separate ways. What’s happening in Cleveland is part of a bigger trend of owners taking more control of their teams.”

Team owners getting involved in the down and dirty aspects of team operations is always trouble. The further down he has to go to "get things right", the worse things get.

If Haslam can’t trust his CEO and his general manager to hire the right coach, his “search” should be for a new CEO.

Shea McClellin Will See Time at Linebacker Next Year

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune addresses the future of rookie linebacker Jonathan Bostic. As he does so, he drops a piece of news about defensive end Shea McClellin:

“[Bostic’s] future could be at outside linebacker, Emery has said, because of his ability to cover ground and tackle. And with the Bears expected to move defensive end Shea McClellin to outside linebacker in running situations next season, according to a person with knowledge of the Bears’ plan, McClellin, Bostic and Khaseem Greene are positioned to compete for the strong-side spot. If the Bears re-sign [D.J.] Williams, which they would consider if he is cleared medically, Bostic would have to battle for time at middle linebacker as well.”

The move of McClellin to linebacker isn’t completely unexpected but its going to have its draw backs. Instead of concentrating on one position, he’s now going to be responsible for learning two. This is something that players might have to get used to doing, at least situationally as indications are that the Bears are considering changing to a hybrid defensive scheme.

Lions to Interview Munchak

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Lions will interview former Titans head coach Mike Munchak for their head coaching position. Some will remember that Munchak was refused permission to interview (and probably hire) former Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice for their offensive coordinator position. Not a good sign for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. And for Lions fans.

When Good Isn’t Good Enough

Rob Demovsky at ESPN breaks down the Packers-49ers game, concentrating upon the defense:

“’I have to give credit to [defensive coordinator] Dom [Capers] because he called a heck of a game,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “I’m sorry we weren’t able to execute for him.'”

“The 63-year-old veteran coordinator, if he indeed returns next season, is in desperate need of more playmakers. Capers’ contract situation remains unclear, although he may have been in the final year of his contract.”

“When asked about his team’s defensive performance, coach Mike McCarthy: “We were probably one play away. We were one play not good enough.”

“General manager Ted Thompson, however, will have to ask himself how many players away his team is from having an impact defense. His best player on that side of the ball, linebacker Clay Matthews, was sidelined with a broken thumb, while starting cornerback Sam Shields and starting outside linebacker Mike Neal were lost to knee injuries on Sunday’s first drive. At one point, the Packers had to play rookie defensive end Datone Jones at outside linebacker, something the first-round draft pick never did in the regular season.

“Those were among the issues on Sunday, but it doesn’t explain why the defense nose-dived in the second half of the season. It would appear Thompson overestimated several of his positions on defense, inside linebacker and safety chief among them.

“Two years ago, Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players. Last year, he took Jones with the 26th pick in the draft.

“It wasn’t enough.

“’I think it’s always been close,” Williams said of the Packers’ defense. “It’s just been so inconsistent.’”

I found this article to be surprising. I assumed that the Packers would be happy, having survived eight games without quarterback Aaron Rogers to make the playoffs with a season-defining victory against the Bears.

The Packers defense did, indeed, play well yesterday. They stacked the box with nine men leaving the cornerbacks to cover with no safety help for much of the game. They did a good job, albeit with some help from an officiating crew who decided to let both sides play it rough in the defensive backfield.

Having said that, the Packers have been inconsistent on defense for some time. They’ve had to deal with injuries just like everyone else and, though they’ve done a superior job of getting young players ready to play at times, the defense has let them down on occasion. Now Capers appears to be in trouble and, like the situation in Chicago (with more justification), they are talking about a defensive over haul and the general manager is taking heat for not drafting the players they need.

Yesterday, like the quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears offense a week ago, the Packer defense played well enough to win. Overall, this was a playoff team that I thought played with some heart to get there. But good isn’t good enough. Not anymore.

Safety Valve Targets as a Part of Bears Offensive Improvement

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune discusses the Bears offense going forward:

“The Bears allowed only 30 sacks and finished fifth in the NFL in passing yardage at 4,281 and sixth in passer rating at 96.9.

“A big part of that, [general manager Phil] Emery believes, stemmed from the quarterbacks’ ability to spread the ball around and, of more importance, [head coach Marc] Trestman’s understanding of how to uncover safety valve targets over the middle.

“Said Emery: ‘Our quarterback needed more targets in an immediate area he could count on, so when he did have pressure from the rush, he was able to place the ball in an area right in front of his eyes. We greatly improved in that area.’”