Outside of learning how to be a leader of 53 men, being one of the faces of a franchise, and (at least) attempting to become an effective in-game manager, the greatest challenge facing Matt Nagy in his head coaching opportunity with the Bears was always going to be what kind of subordinates he'd surround himself with. Meaning, who he hand-picked for his coaching staff to carry out his vision.
For a 39-year-old in the mold of Nagy, it was crucial for him to find experienced position coaches and coordinators for his Bears group. People he could properly delegate not only when he saw pressing offensive or quarterback concern in his specialty, but in general to take the stress off management of an entire organization. The life of an NFL head coach isn't easy, so it pays to have experience around you to help ease in properly.
The other aspect a young coach like Nagy had to accomplish, was venture out with a semblance of risk as to who he hired. He had to play on his connections and playing days, as well as seek upside in risers for his staff. That not only would allow much of his staff the opportunity to grow long-term as they'd hopefully succeed together, but also give them a shot to expand his own coaching tree.
To his credit, while there are questions, Nagy has fit these sentiments with his now complete Bears coaching staff. A group that'll be counted on developing Mitchell Trubisky, having Chicago's defense take the elite step, keeping the locker room together, and more.
Is this the best Bears' coaching staff ever? It's too soon to tell, so pump the brakes for now.
Let's break down each Nagy Bears' hire (or retention of staff members).
Mark Helfrich, Offensive Coordinator
Of every addition Nagy made, Helfrich is by far the most polarizing to me. Especially since he's going to help design the offense Nagy will be implementing for Trubisky and company.
On one hand, the spread concepts he undertook at Oregon with Marcus Mariota and a variety of other quarterbacks for a prolific Ducks offense is intriguing in a mesh of Nagy's version of the West Coast offense. With these two brainstorming Chicago's attack, expect high tempo fireworks that feature a bevy of pro and college concepts to keep defenses on their heels. The ideal would be another NFL offensive innovation not limited to the buzzword run-pass options of 2017. A West Coast spread option hybrid offense the league isn't prepared to handle..
On the other hand, Helfrich has never coached at the NFL level, a fact that he alluded to as much that could be a concern for his transition to the professional game last week. Coaching amateurs in a simplistic offense is drastically different from dealing with paid grown men of which most are physical freakishly sized and fast specimens. His adjustment in this niche will be key to how the Bears' offense as a whole adapts over time.
It's a good thing Helfrich is intelligent enough to be prepared for this once he gets comfortable, because the core tenets of football are the same at any level, regardless of the level of competition. He'll undoubtedly remind himself of this constantly at first.
Luckily enough, Nagy will be handling the play-calling as the head orchestral maestro, so Helfrich's primary role will be assisting in the development of Trubisky and in the designs of an extensive, but advantageous playbook. The 44-year-old will receive a lot of credit should he help the Bears' offense flourish. Or, if the plan fails, crash and burn out of the league. As boom or bust in an out-of-the-box hire as it gets.
Vic Fangio, Defensive Coordinator (Sean Desai, Quality Control)
There was never any issue of retaining Fangio. He's one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL and it isn't up for debate.
The question with Fangio, as his future in Chicago was largely up in the air for all of 2017, was whether him leaving would be that backbreaking to the Bears' defense.
Is he so ingenious as a defensive "guru" to where if the Bears ended up hiring someone like the now Giants' and former Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, that the Bears would lose a step? No, if anything, it's my belief that Bettcher is a better and more aggressive defensive coordinator, which suits Chicago's current talent to a tee.
Was Fangio's situation of jumping ship actually comparable to Buddy Ryan in the early 1980's, mostly to the point of the idea that the players loved him so he should stay? No. Ryan was a legendary defensive mind and an all-timer. Football isn't played in a vacuum, especially in historical context. Some of the Bears' players also had a soft spot for John Fox, and obviously Chicago couldn't retain him albeit in a less apples-to-apples situation.
All of this is a moot point now. Keeping Fangio on as the leader of your still ascending defense isn't bad. It maintains defensive continuity for players such as Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, and the most tenured (as well as healthy) Adrian Amos to dominate in.
That kind of experience under the same tutelage pays tremendous dividends for a defense, as everyone reacts and just plays football, instead of thinking and playing scared. Look at the Vikings' defense (pre-NFC Championship Game): every starter had at least three years in head coach Mike Zimmer's scheme. Perhaps under Fangio, with the necessary addition of some pass rush depth, the Bears could make the same leap next season on the defensive side of the ball thanks to comfort.
What keeping Fangio on for at least three more seasons does, is it allows Nagy to focus on the offense and team as a whole. This applies in this specific coaching relationship more than any other dynamic on the Bears. Fangio will get to run his defense more or less autonomously, and Nagy will chip in when he has to: taking a significant brunt of the coaching load off his back.
It bears repeating: Chicago is in an excellent spot to take over games defensively for the first time in years because of Fangio's return. For posterity's sake, that means seeing the October 2017 Bears defense that scored more points than they allowed over the course of several weeks with regularity. What'll be exciting is to see Fangio's skepticism of a merely above average defense morph into a winning unit that'll have him show genuine enthusiasm.
Okay, maybe a small smirk instead.
Chris Tabor, Special Teams Coordinator (Brock Olivo, Assistant)
Keep this in mind: Five head coaches had been in Cleveland since Tabor joined the Browns in 2010. After Eric Mangini was fired, the next four all elected to keep him around. That speaks volumes as to the value they believed he brings while embroiled in the most tumultuous organization in the NFL.
Tabor is an interesting hire for Nagy and the Bears as it undoubtedly comes from a place of comfort. Tabor learned from the best special teams mind in the NFL in Chicago under Dave Toub from 2008-2010, and eventually earned his lead position with the Browns for the last seven seasons because of it.
Let's not act as if this is solely because the Bears above Nagy know Tabor, though. This is part of the Toub comfort and in line with Nagy's mentor Andy Reid passing along staff recommendations, yes. But Tabor is one of the most respected special teams coordinators in the NFL for a reason.
After helping along Danieal Manning and Devin Hester, Tabor helped returner Joshua Cribbs and kicker Phil Dawson become Pro Bowlers in Cleveland. He also had the Browns routinely among the best at punting (that comes with practice of course). Under Tabor, the Browns received special output on the third phase almost every year.
If we're going for the efficiency angle, while the past few years haven't been kind in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (two bottom-three finishes), Tabor's Browns were in the top-10 for four consecutive years from 2010-2013, including top-two finishes, and from 2014-2015, were still in the top-15.
As for Olivo - other than that it'll pay off to have two former special teams coordinators working side by side - I have nothing more to add on his behalf other than the Bears going out and "killing it."
Well, let's do it then!— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) February 8, 2017
See more » https://t.co/9AvcvEScaQ pic.twitter.com/Wcj3QrCnEF
With Tarik Cohen at returner and a unit that was less than special in 2017, the Bears' hope has to be that Tabor receives the same kind of performance he had early on in Cleveland. Perhaps Cairo Santos even becomes Chicago's long-term kicker with a coaching confidence boost.
Harry Hiestand, Offensive Line
Some position coaches are more valuable than others. It's debatable as to how that ranking goes, but most will agree that quality offensive line coaches are not a dime a dozen. Having someone who can corral the foundational front of your offense sets the table for the rest of your team. Which is why Nagy's addition of former Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand for his second stint with the Bears is perfect.
Hiestand is widely considered one of the best, if not the best at his job. He did excellent work with the Bears from 2005-2009 (before Mike Martz decided his archaic seven-step drop back passing attack didn't need a sagely offensive line coach), and has since turned Notre Dame into a hot bed of talent. Hiestand's resume includes developing Zack Martin, Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley and this year's inarguable (by ability) top offensive line prospect in Quenton Nelson.
One can imagine what Hiestand will be able to do with say, Cody Whitehair at center. Can he turn him into a perennial All-Pro? How will Hiestand get Kyle Long comfortable again after two injury-riddled seasons? Can the veteran coach fully unlock the underrated Charles Leno Jr. at left tackle?
These possibilities are endless, but nothing Hiestand can't handle. They're nothing that won't have a ripple effect across Chicago's entire offense.
Charles London, Running Backs
In contrast to the offensive line, running back coaches are actually a dime a dozen. If an NFL team doesn't have a difference-making tailback coach, that's more of an indictment on not being able to fill a need with a bevy of options at their disposal.
At any rate, the young London brings a solid resume from the Texans to the Bears. Having coached Arian Foster at the end of his prime and an underrated Lamar Millier in the past few years, he understands how to coach backfield stars. The Texans' running scheme is also rooted similarly to the Bears' zone blocking concepts that won't be altered too much under Nagy, so London is a good fit there. He'll be well-equipped for his chief task in Chicago: keeping Jordan Howard and Cohen on their heels
Mike Furrey, Wide Receivers
In case you forgot (you probably did), Mike Furrey once caught 98 passes in a season for the Lions. You read that correctly: Furrey effectively produced, or was once treated, like a No. 1 option in an NFL passing offense in 2006.
11 years later, Furrey's made his way to professional coaching ranks after two seasons as a head coach at Limestone College. How did he get here? Well, he had the Nagy Arena Football League connection as the two were teammates in the defunct New York Dragons' 2002 season. It's clear that Nagy has an affinity for his friend and respects his ability as a coach enough to elevate one of the worst position groups the Bears possess. That's considered while his friend has never coached at this level. To take great risks you have to bet on upside.
How this partnership and lack of experience will result is anybody's guess. But we'll just have to go with the benefit of the doubt with Furrey in such a crucial position for now.
Kevin Gilbride Jr., Tight Ends
Tight end coaches in the NFL have so much lee way because you can count off maybe 10 total worthwhile players at the position in 2018. If a coach is able to coax any upside out of a young guy where there's a real need for much of the league, he'll set up for long-term employment with an NFL team.
Gilbride - the son of former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride - in that respect, accomplished some impressive work in New York.
Under Gilbride, 2017 first-round pick Evan Engram led all rookie tight ends with 64 receptions, 725 yards, and six touchdowns last season. Engram not only had one of the best rookie seasons for a Giants tight end, but in NFL history. He was also able to make a competent player out of the journeyman Larry Donnell in 2014, where Donnell caught 600-plus yards and six touchdowns.
In his short time, Gilbride's been able to squeeze out every drip of skill in tight ends he coaches. Adam Shaheen - someone the Bears are high on as their long-term starter at the position - will be his next pupil. Thanks to the rising star of the young Gilbride, we may see Shaheen shine sooner (perhaps next year?) as a franchise player than anyone believes.
Dave Ragone, Quarterbacks
There was a kerfuffle when it was announced that Ragone would be the lone offensive coach the Bears would retain last week and I don't understand why.
Yes, Trubisky's mechanics suffered in 2017. They were almost primarily at the root of his occasional struggles in his rookie season. That mechanic fault does fall on the lap of his position coach in Ragone. However, Trubisky did improve over the course of the season, did he not? Strides in reading defenses and pocket presence were made, unless I'm mistaken.
If you're going to fault Ragone for Trubisky's flaws - flaws he would've had regardless of position coach - then you should credit him for the tremendous steps Trubisky took as well. You can't pick and choose what avenues of success go to who. Trubisky didn't improve by himself, or by game experience alone. He had assistance.
Besides, if Nagy felt the need to retain the 38-year-old Ragone that means two things.
One, Trubisky vouched for and respected his relationship with Ragone enough to the point where the Bears had to respect their franchise quarterback's wishes. If Trubisky favors the guy helping oversee the minute details in his development, that speaks volumes.
Two, Nagy has a degree of belief in the still-developing in his own right Ragone as a coach. How much this means can be up for debate as it's comparable to the hiring of Furrey as a coach, but the benefit of the doubt is there nonetheless until proven otherwise.
Retained defensive staff (Ed Donatell, Jay Rodgers, Brandon Staley, Glenn Pires, and Roy Anderson)
Since Fangio is coming back to coordinate the Bears' defense, so is his staff. We largely know what Chicago is already getting with the usual suspects on this side of the ball:
- Donatell, secondary (Anderson, assistant): one of the pre-eminent secondary coaches in football helped Kyle Fuller have a 2017 resurgence, find a use for the hard-hitting Amos, bring a rookie in Eddie Jackson along properly, and get a season of fine quality from Prince Amukamara. That should continue.
- Rodgers, defensive line: another premier coach at his position, Hicks has become an All-Pro player under Rodgers' watch. Meanwhile Roy Robertson-Harris and Jonathan Bullard look to have high ceilings as long-term contributors.
- Brandon Staley, outside linebackers: Staley is more of an outside linebacker assistant since Fangio is Chicago's actual position coach here. The younger coach may receive more responsibility come next season, especially should the Bears upgrade heavily on the edge. Then we can properly evaluate him.
- Glenn Pires, linebackers: After four years, 2014 undrafted free agent Christian Jones became more than a viable contributor in 2017 for the Bears. That's thanks to the work of Pires, who didn't receive enough credit for Jones' rise. With a star in Danny Trevathan in tow, as well as the unknown but talented commodity in Nick Kwiatkoski, Pires will continue to lie in the shadows while keeping one of the Bears' better positions at inside linebacker running like a finely-tuned machine.
All in all, we won't know if Nagy has set the table for Bears' contention with his staff until live games have been played. Until then, there's no denying the level of piqued curiosity and football savvy present within this group. Upside galore and experience is the name of the game with them. At a glance it's the correct mix of people for an organization looking to consistently leave the doldrums for the first time in decades.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.