David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
The Bears' new head coach gets knocked for being a CFL head coach and out of the NFL for the last eight years - but his time in the CFL isn't necessarily a disadvantage.
Let me just say this to start - I am not a devoted follower of the Canadian Football League, though I do love watching the Arena game from time to time. But I do know that overall, as a league, the CFL doesn't compare in talent to the NFL. I mean, the NFL gets the best players in their primes; it's the richest league in the country and one of the biggest names in the world.
I also know that quite a few coaches try to make the jump from the college level to the professional ranks - keep in mind of course the college ranks this year have been largely about "Can Alabama beat the Kansas City Chiefs?"
My thought is, given the choice between an NCAA coach and a CFL coach for the head coach of a football team, more often than not it seems fans gravitate towards the NCAA name as opposed to the CFL name. My question, I suppose, is why?
Let's consider a few base facts about each league. First, we'll begin with talent.
The NCAA as a football base is tremendously widespread in talent diversity, with head coaches from each program out to recruit and stockpile as much talent as they possibly can. The CFL has a more NFL-style free agency and draft period, meaning more of a competitive environment for players and more of a level talent field than, say, the NCAA, where a team can simply blow a team away based on the talent on the team. (Northern Illinois alumni are nodding their heads at that statement.)
I think generally we agree the CFL doesn't have the talent base of the NFL to build with - and in some cases I'm sure the NCAA talent could overtake a CFL team. But that's exactly the point - when teams don't have a decided talent advantage, coaching, preparation and execution are often the deciding factors.
Players have tried to make the jump from the CFL to the NFL - ask Andy Fantuz and Henry Burris how that worked out. (Somewhere, though, Cameron Wake, Warren Moon and Doug Flutie are smiling.) But the list of coaches coming to the NFL from the CFL isn't very long - Bud Grant and Marv Levy, but after that I draw a blank. I found Hugh Campbell, who went to the NFL from the CFL via the old USFL, and ditto for Ray Jauch. Forrest Gregg was the Toronto Argonauts head coach in '79 before heading to Cincinnati, where in his second year the Bengals were in the Super Bowl. Mike Riley formerly coached Winnipeg for four years, winning two Grey Cups, before moving to the World League of American Football, USC and Oregon State before heading to San Diego and not doing too well. And Frank Filchock coached in the CFL when his playing career ended, before becoming the Denver Broncos' first head coach. Small sampling size, but certainly too soon to say that coming from the CFL automatically dooms him to failure.
Then you have the list of college coaches that have flamed out in the NFL (the link glances at the last 20 years). Nick Saban was 15-17 in two seasons in Miami. Steve Spurrier was 12-20 with the Redskins. Butch Davis turned in 12-23 with the Browns. Bobby Petrino was 3-10 before bailing on the Falcons' lost season. Mike Riley was hired after two seasons at Oregon State and went 14-34 with the Chargers. Lane Kiffin was only 5-15 before being canned by the Raiders. Of course there are examples of college coaches succeeding - Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh for two - but college hasn't been the greatest spot for NFL head coaches.
(Of course, with the NCAA, there are plenty of other examples of a coach succeeding or failing. That's not the point. The point is that hiring a coach from the CFL isn't necessarily any better or worse than hiring an NCAA coach, and with the limited sample size that I found, there isn't a way to say that a CFL coach will be a success or a failure, just like an NCAA coach may be good or not-so-good when he comes up.)
Player talent may have a hard time translating from league to league, particularly given the talent disparity between. But getting guys in a position to succeed, getting players open, utilizing players correctly, gameday preparation, making adjustments - these are all things that can translate across leagues. Getting the most out of the talent you're given is the key. Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo is professional football's all-time passing yardage leader and second only to Brett Favre in passing touchdowns, is turning 40 years old and still playing, and absolutely believes that the Bears picked the right guy to develop an offense and football team.
I also think that, generally, we'd say the NCAA's rules are closer to the NFL's rules than the CFL's rules are - I mean, the CFL has only three downs per series, a 20-second college-style ready-play clock, a wider and longer field... But when you take all that into account, doesn't it say something that a coach would willingly walk into that environment after being an NFL coordinator/NCAA head coach and leave with three Grey Cup appearances and two titles in five seasons?
Let's also not forget how offensive and downfield a CFL offense has to be, so it's only natural that the CFL is an offensive league. Then consider that the new Bears' head coach led an offense that set franchise records and led the league in most offensive categories in 2011. His "weak division" may have led to a free postseason berth and free homefield advantage, but even as we know in the NFL, come the playoffs, you still have to defeat other playoff teams to advance.
This is your new head coach, Marc Trestman. Trestman has NFL experience as a coordinator and working with NFL quarterbacks. His offenses set records in a heavy-offense league. He got head coaching experience running a college program and later a professional football franchise. He displayed great adaptability by entering a league with different rules and making three title runs, winning two.
Is Trestman a slam-dunk, Super-Bowl-Guaranteed hire? No - there is no such hire. On the other hand, does his time as a CFL coach mean he can't be a good NFL coach? Not at all. In my opinion, his experience as a CFL head coach doesn't give me reason to pause that Trestman's the head coach - rather, it gives me a reason to think maybe Trestman knows a thing or two about this "coaching" thing.