After losing Vic Fangio to a head coaching job with the Broncos earlier this week, the Bears have hired former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano to be their new defensive coordinator, according to the Bears themselves. The Bears had brought in Pagano for an interview Friday afternoon, and it’s evident that interview went very well.
Pagano was last seen in Indianapolis in 2017 as the Colts meandered about to a 4-12 record under his guidance as head coach. The 58-year-old took some time off from the game after being unceremoniously fired last off-season. That final mark shouldn’t overshadow just how bright of a defensive mind and leader he’s proven to be during his lengthy time in the NFL. It’s an impressive and extensive resume that the Bears couldn’t overlook.
Before taking the Colts to the playoffs in his first three seasons in Indianapolis from 2012-2014, Pagano was a secondary coach and defensive coordinator with the Ravens from 2008-2011. The Ravens never had a pass defense worse than seventh overall in DVOA over the course of Pagano’s four seasons in Baltimore. When he took over as defensive coordinator in 2011, the Ravens had the NFL’s best defense in DVOA and went to the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Guys like Ed Reed (23 interceptions from 2008 to 2010) and Terrell Suggs (2011 Defensive Player of the Year) also enjoyed some of their best and most productive years in large part thanks to Pagano’s coaching. The future Hall of Famer in Reed that was near the end of his career during Pagano’s time in Baltimore stands out in particular. Pagano has a successful secondary background, and it paid off for arguably the best safety to ever play. Paging Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller.
Aside from Indianapolis and Baltimore, largely everywhere Pagano has been he’s turned a defense he was a part of into gold. When he was with the Raiders as a defensive backs coach from 2005-2006, Oakland had the league’s fourth best passing defense by DVOA. That was a team that ended up going 2-14, so think about the level of (minimal) talent at Pagano’s disposal. Though, former All-Pros like Nhamdi Asomugha shined under Pagano’s mentorship, and it didn’t matter.
Before Oakland, Pagano made his hay with the Browns as a secondary coach from 2001-2004. There, Cleveland never had a defense worse than No. 11 overall in his four seasons. Yes, those very same formerly porous Browns.
If there’s a man (or at least one of them) that can adjust to a quick change of scenery with whatever talent’s available, it’s Pagano. If there’s a man that can help maintain the NFL’s best active defense with the Bears, it’s Pagano. That’s the challenge now. Something says the Bears should be fine with Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Roquan Smith, among others. But Pagano must still park the car oh so carefully.
A year after the Bears lead the NFL in takeaways (36), finished with the best overall DVOA, and had one of the five best pass defenses ever, it’s Pagano’s mandate to make sure the Bears maintain that high level of play. If there’s a drop off, it’s Pagano’s responsibility to make sure it’s minimal and more due to the cruel nature of injury and turnover variance, than anything to do with his coaching. If there’s an uptick in play for the Bears in the coming years, even better.
Pagano is renown around the league for his work with defensive backs and his steady hand as a coach. His 3-4 scheme (which is similar to Fangio’s) relies on creative pressures up front: not necessarily blitzing more, but making sure that pressures are consistently mixed up from standard and basic alignments. Rarely are there two or three-man pass rushes in this system, and that’s a good sign for a team like the Bears with arguably the best collective front seven talent in pro football. It’s about consistently attacking and making sure the opponent never knows where the attack is coming from. The zone blitz will be a Bears mainstay for awhile.
The fact that Pagano is a secondary guru means none of Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and the Bears’ secondary company should have their play suffer as a consequence with this pressure and front seven emphasis. If anything, they’ll have a chance to continue to grow and make even more plays on the ball, especially Jackson: as minimal as that growth may be from the heights they’ve already reached.
What Pagano’s hire gives the Bears most importantly is the freedom to maintain the same game-planning and locker room dynamic they possessed with Matt Nagy and Fangio in 2018. Pagano’s presence as a savvy defensive leader and coach allows Nagy to focus on the Bears offense in a similar fashion to 2018. He will let Nagy be Nagy, and Nagy will let be Pagano be himself and operate freely in return.
The coming days and weeks present the best opportunity for Pagano to hand pick his Chicago defensive staff, another important obstacle. But the hard part of nailing down the all-important coordinator is over. For a team that will be a chic Super Bowl pick come September 2019, the Bears have their defensive coordinator in Pagano to help them achieve that lofty February goal.
Oh by the way: the last two great NFL defenses in the 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos changed their coordinators from the year before, improved, and then ended up lifting Lombardi trophies.
Your move, Pagano.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and has a host of bylines for many fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.