The smoke cleared, the Seahawks threw a pass when they shouldn’t have and Malcom Butler caught it, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The 2014-2015 NFL season ended. We have given you 4 days to soak in one of the best Super Bowls in the history of the league. We gave you a few days to wonder about why Pete Carroll threw it, how Javon Kearse caught it, and where the Brady-Belichick Patriots fall in the hierarchy of NFL history. If 4 days was not enough time, I apologize in advance; but it’s offseason time!
I took it upon myself to mark the unofficial four days after the Super Bowl beginning of the NFL offseason by checking-in with the team near and dear to my heart, the Chicago Bears. I examined their front office, coaching staff, offensive, and defensive personal in a way that looks both forward and backwards.
It seems natural to start at the top of an organization when examining it, but it’s oddly the place where there is the least to say when concerning the Bears. After leaving the 2014 season with a bad taste in their mouth, Bears ownership made the decision to fire general manager Phil Emery and replace him with New Orleans Saints Director of Player Personal Ryan Pace.
The harshest criticism of Emery will be that he signed Jay Cutler to a 7-year, $126 million contract that is actually a 3-year, $54 million contract. I wasn’t as critical as some others have been of the contract. Roughly 18 million a year is market price for a starting quarterback in 2015 and no one could have foreseen how bad Cutler was going to be this past season. Emery did not deserve to be fired based on the Cutler contract.
That being said, I still understand ownership’s desire to move on from Emery. Other than the Cutler contract, Emery’s most prominent decision as general manager came when he decided to hire now-former head coach Marc Trestman out of the CFL over Bruce Arians; who has lead the Cardinals to a 21-11 record over the past two seasons.
It seems impossible to separate Emery’s administration with that of Trestman’s. Both were Spoc-like figures, relying on cold-blooded logic to solve all of their problems and then proceeding to tell you what their logic was, why it was right, and why yours was wrong. I was a fan of Emery’s processed orientated decision making, but with Trestman’s obvious failings I think it’s justifiable to go in a completely different direction from the top down. Trestman’s process failing is by extension a failing’s of Emery’s process. It just feels natural that if the Bears were going to fire Trestman, Emery would have to go to in order to give this franchise a completely clean slate.
That brings us to Ryan Pace, former Director of Player Personal for the New Orleans Saints. He’s spent 13 years in various personal roles with the Saints and is just 37 years olds, making him the league’s youngest general manager. That is about all we know about Ryan Pace.
It’s hard to evaluate executives until they are given the chance to run the show themselves. Though people around the league speak highly of Pace, he has to develop some sort of track record as a general manager before we judge this hiring. All of his work up to this point was just an extension of Saints’ General Manager Mickey Loomis’ work. It does seem like a good sign that Loomis fought hard to keep Pace in New Orleans, though. However, until Pace gets an offseason of moves under his belt we should reserve judgment on this hire.
As we move down the food chain more changes were made for the Bears. Head coach Marc Trestman was fired after just 2 seasons, where his teams went a disappointing 13-19. While some might remember the Trestman Era for the improbable run of success Trestman had with Josh McCown at QB in 2013, it will more than likely be remembered for the admissible 2014 season, the players’ poor body language, awkwardness, lack of effort, pissing off the veterans of the Lovie Smith Era and above all else just not being fun. The Bears have been bad before, but they were never a mess; this team was a mess.
When the Bears hired Trestman before the 2013 season it was considered a high risk, high reward move. In the end, the risk outweighed the reward. Trestman’s show-no-emotion personality failed to control a locker room of heavy personalities and his offense bottomed out in year two. His offensive coordinator broke the cardinal rule of locker room integrity and his defensive coordinator just was not good at his job, to say the least. The Trestman Era was a gamble and the Bears left the casino broke.
That’s why the choice the Bears made to replace Trestman with veteran head coach John Fox. Fox “mutually parted ways” with the Broncos the day after their Divisional Round loss to the Colts. Fox is finished his 4 year tenure with the Broncos with a 46-18 record, 4 trips to the playoffs, and a Super Bowl loss in 2013. Fox spent the 9 years prior as the coach of the Carolina Panthers where he also made the Super Bowl once and lost.
Fox is everything Trestman wasn’t. He’s a grizzled veteran head coach, who despite his flaws as an in-game tactician installs a culture of winning and consistency. This will be especially helpful to the Bears on the defensive side of the ball. The once proud Bears defense finished 25th and 28th in defensive DVOA during the two years of the Trestman Era. Fox’s defenses have never finished lower than 18th in Defensive DVOA during his 20+ years of running them (per Football Outsiders). Fox coaches defense in the same way guys like Pete Carroll and Rex Ryan; installing a simple scheme that works to get the best of his players and stressing discipline as way to be effective. Discipline was obviously lacking when Mel Tucker was running this defense.
Assisting Fox as defensive coordinator will be former 49ers DC Vic Fangio. Over the past 4 years with Fangio at the helm, San Francisco’s defense has finished an average of 6th in Defensive DVOA. Fangio even manged to get his defense all the way to 5th in this category this past season despite injuries to stars like Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman and the suspension of Aldon Smith. Fangio was once considered the favorite to replace Jim Harbaugh as the head man in San Francsico before they decided to go in a different direction. As far as defensive assistants go, Fangio is the cream of the crop.
On the offensive side of the coaching staff, Fox hired his former offensive coordinator from Denver, Adam Gase, to fill the same position. Gase was also considered to be a serious candidate for multiple head coaching vacancies, including the Bears’. Gase has a track record of producing highly rated offenses though some of that could be having Peyton Manning as a starting quarterback. Manning, who isn’t shy about voicing his opinions when it comes to football knowledge, makes a point to complement Gase whenever he can. Gase also has an established relationship with Jay Cutler, as he was the quarterbacks’ coach during Cutler’s time in Denver.
Fox is the marquee name on this new coaching staff but Fangio and Gase are equally valuable hires. After a team fires their coach they look for one new man to replace him, the Bears got three who potentially could have. Results will dictate how we perceive this coaching staff, but on paper it looks like a coaching All-Star Team. Ryan Pace did well in his first mission as general manager.
There also isn’t much to say about the Bears’ offense. Despite all of the uproar it sort of is what it is. Veterans like Brandon Marshall and Jermon Bushrod could be cut to create some cap space. Right Tackle Jordan Mills could easily be replaced but that would require spending assets on the offensive line that could be better spent elsewhere. More likely, the Bears re-roll the same dice and hope for better luck.
This offense still has 4 physical freaks they can throw the ball to: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Marquis Wilson. Wilson will be healthy coming to this season and should be able to have the type of year the Bears expected from him this past year. Jeffery and Marshall will be more effective if Gase decides to open things up and throw the ball downfield a little bit more.
Matt Forte is solid as a rock at running back and baring some age regression should continue to be a focal point of this offense. Despite struggling mightily this year, this is still the best group of offensive lineman the Bears have had in years when healthy. They could shake things up at both tackle positions if they wanted to, but spending assets on building an offensive line should be a secondary priority to building a defense. This is mostly the same offense that finished 2nd in the NFL in points per game just two years ago. But that brings us to the big sulking elephant in the room..
It is impossible to discuss this offense without talking about Cutler. He’s coming off the worst season of his career where he turned the ball over a league-high 24 times. His massive contract makes him almost untradable. No one likes watching him play or having him as their quarterback. I do not know a single Bears fan who genuinely wants him to come back as our starting quarterback. That being said, there is no reason for him not to be back.
In this day and age you cannot trade your starting quarterback for nothing. A Cutler trade serves the Bears no benefit, they will get little to no roster capital back, a 5th round pick if a team is really desperate. There is no Cutler replacement on this roster right now and free agency looks bleak.
Brian Hoyer and Mark Sanchez aren’t going to do any better with this group than Cutler would. With no logical plan of succession in place and a lot of parts that look like they could be molded together into a good offense the Bears are going to have to gut out another year with Jay Cutler at the helm. They don’t really have any other options other than to hope he plays better because of his relationship with Gase. It would be at the very least, a high variance option. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this offense as a top unit in 2015, but it’s going to be on Jay Cutler’s sulking shoulders to get them there. I’m not sure that’s something anyone is ready for.
The biggest task at hand for the Bears this offseason will be rebuilding this defense while also transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. Fox and Fangio (has a nice ring to it) will have a lot of work to do if they are going to restore one of the league’s worst units of the last two years into their previous Monsters of the Midway status.
Starting up front, the defensive line appears to be the strength of this defense, but the transition to a 3-4 will also be the hardest here. Jared Allen’s lack of athleticism makes him an awkward fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker but his lack of size could prevent him from moving inside and playing a 5 technique (similar to the role JJ Watt and Sheldon Richardson play). Willie Young is recovering from a torn Achilles and has the same problem that Allen does. While Young has the skills as a run stopper to bump inside and play a 5 tech, it’s unclear if his injury will prevent him from being able to put in the offseason work to bulk up enough to play that role. Despite his career 10 high sacks in 2014 Young isn’t the type of pass rush who can dominate whether or not his hand is on the ground.
It’s not all ominous though, Jay Ratliff played nose tackle in a 3-4 for the Cowboys and Lamar Houston moved all over Oakland’s 3-4 system and could do the same for the Bears. Stephan Paea is a free agent, but with the transition it’s unclear what role he could play in the new defense despite having a career year last year given his lack of top end size or speed. It has been popular Bears’ fan fiction to imagine what Shea McCellin would do as a 3-4 outside linebacker, it might just be time to cut that cord. Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton had peaks and valleys last year but are both big enough to factor in as at least rotation pieces going forward. However, defensive line that once looked like the strength of defense may have more questions than answers.
Problems grow as we sink deeper into the defense. I think I speak for most, if not all, Bears fans when I say that it would be okay for not one single linebacker from last year’s roster to come back. Young guys like Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene proved to be not very good. Shea McCellin proved to be not very good at multiple positions. Old slow linebackers like D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs proved to be old and slow. Undrafted free agent Cristian Jones was the teams best linebacker and it’s unclear whether or not he deserved to be locked in for a roster spot in 2015. When examining the Bears roster, linebacker is the spot where the cupboard is most obviously bare. The Bears should invest plenty of offseason capital in upgrading this spot. Quantity almost matters more than quality. Yes you want to get quality linebackers, but bringing in the maximum amount of guys to compete for the spot might be their best option.
The Bears have to completely rebuild a defense with an estimated $30 million dollars in cap space and sign Alshon Jeffery to an exstention. Linebacker seems like a spot to buy low on a lot of guys, hope Bostic and Jones develop and have an all-out competition for the 3 (or 4) spots. Everything is possible here, but by bringing in a lot of guys they would give themselves the most chances to find some quality players. The good news is Fox and Fangio have both had success finding real NFL starters in the later rounds of the draft at this position. Fangio got a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year type season from 3rd round pick Chris Borland last year and Fox made 6th round pick Danny Trevathan a fixture in the center of Denver’s defense over the last two years. This near impossible task has been put in the hands of two men are good at finding value buy linebackers.
The defensive backfield is another problem child for this defense. Everyone notes the need at safety, everyone has noted the need at safety for years. Ryan Mundy is a journeyman playing out of position who should be a last resort strong safety at best. Chris Conte is bad, really bad. Demontre Hurst and Brock Vereen are somehow worse. This team needs NFL quality safeties and they need them bad. It’s really hard to play defense knowing there is no protection over the top. Cornerback looks a little better, Tim Jennings has been Pro Bowler in the past despite being overrated for intercepting a lot of pass that teams were scared to throw at Charles Tillman. Rookie Kyle Fuller showed promise early in the season before playing the last 2/3 of the year with injuries to his hip and wrist, causing him to struggle. Tillman might be back, but if he comes back it will be in a limited slot corner type role. With all of those corners posing question marks of injury or actual skill, it might not hurt to get another cornerback in the room.
So where do the Bears go from here? What should the offseason game plan be?
The goal should be to bring in as much defensive talent as possible. They have some money to play around with and a full slate of draft picks. Like I said earlier, this is about quantity not quality. They could spent two thirds of their cap room on Ndamokong Suh to give this new defense a center piece but they would still have glaring holes at safety and linebacker. That money needs to be spent on bringing in guys who can help this defense that don’t prevent them from spending money in other places. Devin McCourtey would be the dream, but Denver’s Rhamin Moore is a more likely option to sure up the safety position especially given his relationship with Fox. They could buy low on linebackers like David Harris and Brandon Spikes who have experience in a 3-4. They could also consider getting a true 3-4 outside linebacker pass rusher to build around, Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Baltimore’s Pernell McPhee would be reasonable options in that direction. When it comes to free agency the Bears need to find a way to bring in as many quality players as possible, without over spending on just one guy.
In the draft, they should take the same attitude. Pace and Fox are both believers in taking the best available player on the board. Picking 7th, Alabama Safety Landon Collins has been thrown out as a popular option for the Bears. I could also see them using that pick as a way to get their 3-4 outside linebacker given how many of those guys are in this draft. Those would be reasonable options that fill needs, especially if Pace believes he is taking the best available player. That being said, I think it’s very possible the Bears trade this pick.
Grantland’s Bill Barnwell documented how the Patriots build an empire by trading down and trading down some more. I’m not saying the Bears should trade down every chance they get, but I think if you have definitive needs at 7 defensive positions, you have to at least consider that Collins or a pass rusher isn’t a definite fix. They should do everything in their power to acquire as many picks as possible. Considering that the draft is a crapshoot, the Bears’ best bet would be to give themselves as many chances as possible to be right and the only way to do that is to trade down.
Overall, the feeling surrounding this team is positive. The Fox-Fangio-Gase trio is the best coaching staff the Bears have had in years and they have the assets to improve this roster in the offseason; the potential for something is there. How big that something is, I don’t know. Whether or not Jay Cutler’s shadow will hang over whatever that something is, I don’t know. But I do know this, when you were as bad as the Bears were in 2014, the only place to go is up.