For all the the bad on offense during Lovie Smith's tenure with the Bears, there was plenty of good on defense. Give Lovie his due credit for his defensive coaching, but the Bears went out of their way to stock the roster with players who fit into Smith's Tampa 2 scheme. Starting with the first pick made after Lovie came onto the Bears, Tommie Harris in 2004, and running all the way through the team's most recent first-rounder, Shea McClellin, the defensive roster is built to play for Lovie Smith, or at least his system.
Phil Emery understands this as well as anyone. He said in his New Year's Day press conference that a new head coach would really have to sell him on the idea of making a wholesale switch to a two-gap, 3-4 defense, as this kind of change would require pretty much starting from scratch on defense. True, he did not rule out the possibility of making this kind of change, but the team simply has too many other needs to begin a complete defensive overhaul right now.
The way I see it, Phil Emery and his new head coach have a few different routes they could take with this great but ageing defense:
Keep Rod Marinelli
Mr. 0 and 16 will never be an NFL head coach again, and as he is currently under contract, no team can steal him away from the Bears until they release him. Despite his historically bad performance as a head coach, Marinelli has done a great job as defensive coordinator. The players know and trust him, and having coached in a Tampa 2 system since 1996, he knows the defense as well as anyone.
Also, unlike Mike Tice, Marinelli has been able to develop raw players into playmakers. Having made fourth-rounder Henry Melton into a Pro Bowler and fellow fourth-rounder Corey Wootton into a Favre Slayer, it's hard to question his ability to get the most out of the all-important defensive line. If the Bears are going to pursue offensive excellence as much as Emery claims, that will mean the Bears need to do as more with less draft picks on defense. Marinelli has a proven record of success in molding marginal talent into greatness, and could get by with what the team can give him.
Larry Meyer noted in a recent mailbag that teams rarely keep assistants around when a head coach leaves, but the move is hardly without precedence. Indeed, the last time the Bears won a Super Bowl it was with a head coach brought in to be an offensive mind and a defensive coordinator who was a retread from the last regime. Just saying...
Would Marinelli want to hang around now that Lovie is gone? Hard to say. Would keeping Marinelli around be the easiest way to maintain continuity on defense while moving the major focus of the team over to the offense? Yes.
Find Another Tampa Two Coach
The NFL is littered with other disciples of the Tampa 2. The new head coach could easily find someone else to run a defense very similar to Lovie's if the team wanted to go that way. The job of luring in a new Tampa 2 defensive coordinator is that much easier thanks the team's talent-filled defensive roster. Still, why trade a known quantity in Marinelli for a less proven coach who wants to run the same system? Change for change's sake can be a good thing, though, and after years of mediocrity perhaps some more change is in order.
Get a More "Aggressive" 4-3
For all the fuss made about the Tampa 2 in Chicago, it's not like the Bears rushed four and played zone on every play the last nine years. As Bob Babich's and Ron Rivera's defensive calls proved, this defensive build can play in ways far more aggressive than the name Tampa 2 would suggest. The Bears could find a defensive coordinator to take this idea to the next level and run something more philosophically aligned with a Gregg Williams or Rob Ryan but still using a 4-3 front.
This change would require some major additions to the roster, as the secondary is not built for the amount of man coverage a blitzing defense would require on the back end. Still, the Bears could transition over to a more aggressive defensive style without needing a huge rebuild. It is also worth noting that many successful teams built around their offensives - Green Bay and New Orleans immediately come to mind - complement their aggressive offenses with equally aggressive defenses.
Blow It All Up
Phil Emery didn't completely slam the door on the possibility of changing to a 3-4. If the new head coach could sell his boss on the idea, the Bears could begin a transition towards a 3-4 in 2013. Trouble with that plan is that there are plenty of other teams out there competing for a very small pool of players who can fill in the many areas of need that such a transition would create, least of all a giant of a man to play nose tackle. As Emery noted, such a sea change in the defense would turn the greatest strength of the Bears' current roster into a weakness. With so many other needs, Emery is wise to be skeptical of such a major shift. Still, it's a possibility that 2013 becomes a true rebuilding year.
With Phil Emery's search clearly focused on offensive and special teams coordinators for now, the Bears defense might seem like an afterthought. But if Emery does break with Bears tradition and hire a so-called "offensive mind" to run the team, one of the most important moves the new head coach will make is his pick for defensive coordinator. Whether he sticks with Marinelli or finds someone new, let's just hope that the Bears' new head coach doesn't break the defense while trying to fix the offense.