It took four years for the Bears to build an ideal modern defense with Vic Fangio. Four years to not only accumulate special talent like Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith, and Akiem Hicks, but to maximize a defense to it’s fullest. Then, after the Bears retook their rightful mantle (in accordance with tradition) as pro football’s premier defense in 2018, the mastermind behind their operation in Fangio was gone to the Denver Broncos faster than you can say, “head coach.”
In came the worries of continuity withering away what the Bears had accomplished defensively. The loss of a mentor, of whom was following his dream, was leaving behind the foundation of something that was supposed to be long lasting. The Bears defense had only now become truly great and their “evil genius” in the words of a leader like Mack, was gone without basking in coming glory.
There’s so much fun to be had with the Bears, so many ruined afternoons for offensive coordinators and quarterbacks alike. But none of it will happen with Fangio. Not another electrifying Jackson pick-six, demoralizing Mack sack, missile of a tackle from Smith, or brute display of power from Hicks will happen under his watch.
The man who gets the fortune and seemingly insurmountable task of building upon another growing collective Bears defensive legend is new defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano. A defensive coach tailor made to not mess with what works, and to keep the Bears in the limelight because of who he is at his core.
On a quiet and wintry day at Halas Halas Thursday, Pagano slowly sauntered up to a prepared podium at the PNC Center. After a year away from football, he’s none the worse for wear and has no sign of attrition anywhere on his face. In what is the perfect example of the person Pagano is, he has a relaxed smile on his face. This part of the process, the formal introduction and beginning of a partnership that could in time be remembered oh so fondly is something he relishes as much as the grinding of tape, the play installations, and relationships. All of it matters, every last detail.
Pagano, of course, is conveniently (and necessarily) already fully Bears-branded, wearing the slick garb of the franchise and carrying himself like the experienced coach he is. His new home took no time to be a new home. If a difficult end to a head coaching tenure in Indianapolis with the Colts where he had a mere four wins in his last season in 2017 bothered him, you’d never be able to tell.
That’s not because Pagano doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeves. It’s quite the opposite for an intently passionate coach and man in one. Pagano wouldn’t be in the position of being so graciously handed football’s best defense in the Bears if he wasn’t a passionate person. His passion is his best trait. That’s not limited to football. It only so happens he gets to apply it in this avenue. His passion and honesty are how he endears himself to friends, family members, coaching colleagues, and players at the same time. Nowhere was that better exemplified than how he started his fateful tenure in Indianapolis.
In 2012, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. He had landed his dream job that he had worked for for most of his adult life only to face the reality of dire circumstances he couldn’t control came crashing in. Fittingly, in typical Pagano fashion, he didn’t shy away from the fight. He didn’t internalize one of the most distressing of human battles. He leaned into it, to give an example to those in his life - both in and outside of football - of what it means to have strength. He offered a template of how to see adversity through and never wavered. Unsurprisingly, Pagano’s victory over cancer became a rallying cry for the Colts. “ChuckStrong” was born as the resolve of a man with the most impeccable of positive, genuine attitude shined through.
“I’ve got circumstances, you guys understand it, I understand it,” Pagano said breathlessly to a victorious Colts locker room in November 2012, visibly exhausted by the rigors of his tussle. Then came a pause.
“It’s already beat. It’s already beat,” emphasized Pagano.
An ordeal that arrived at the least convenient time was already cast off to the side. Pagano was weary even while uttering his words of inspiration, but never had doubt in the face of darkness.
Throughout that grueling endeavor, Pagano never let himself become something he wasn’t. If how he coached was always sincere, the fight for his life would also experience the same. If he approached his entire life with positivity and initiative, why would overcoming disease even in the most inopportune moment, see any different? A situation that would’ve left a lesser person scrambling for answers instead became a defining moment about what it means to wear your heart on your sleeve no matter what.
Flash forward to the present, and it’s only because Pagano’s ready to move past his previous challenges and failures that he does have a smile on his face on this chilling January morning. He’s not only prepared to move past them, he wants to channel them to be a better coach than ever before. The past year has been one of relaxation and reflection for Pagano. It’s been about focusing on what intrinsically matters and resetting to do what he does best: coach the hell out of football professionals who need the attention, mentorship, and guidance to be great.
Pagano took a necessary one-year breather from the NFL to decompress and enjoy the simpler aspects of life. After roosting in the benefits of a wholesale recharge, the time to sit on the sideline and watch the game pass him by is over. The passionate man with his heart on his sleeve knows hard work lies ahead.
He’s where he belongs, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pagano, 58, is not a man that carries himself with hollow bravado. He doesn’t try to be someone he isn’t. He prefers to be his most authentic self, as that is the way he knows he can connect with people. You don’t make out a terrific career spanning from graduate assistant positions with USC and Miami in the 1980s to the tops of the coaching ranks in Indianapolis in the 2010s if you’re not your self.
“Sitting out 33 years in coaching, and then sitting out last year, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be back on the grass at such a special, special place,” Pagano delightedly beamed. “I’m very excited. I’m very grateful. And I’m very hopeful to be a Bear.”
Being yourself is some of the most common advice a person receives in life, and it’s applied professionally, romantically, and socially. It sounds easy. Don’t hide who you are and amazing opportunities will not only come, they’ll throw themselves at your feet. Let your personality shine, flaws and wonders and all, and people will gravitate to you. Being yourself shouldn’t have to be a reverberated mantra because it’s the easiest thing a person can do. While there are pieces of our lives where we do indeed have to reach for the stars outside of our means, who we are can’t change. Our best asset is our identity and capacity to be genuine. When we push our identity through, the hope is we rub people the right way.
But being yourself is never that easy. For a football coach that has to balance a host of voices, young and old, it’s particularly difficult. A coach that has to constantly relate to and communicate with people so many walks of life can find it hard to just be himself. Even the most successful lose sight of who they are as they believe giving off a different aura that doesn’t match up with their persona is the path to glory. Coaching, though, isn’t about sacrificing who you are for the greater good. It’s about using the best parts of yourself to help others morph into the best versions of themselves.
As he begins his football journey anew in Chicago, it’s a little too on-the-nose that Pagano’s new hands-on coaching partner in Matt Nagy is known for talking about the joys of being yourself. “Be You” is a motto that separates the new era Bears from most previous iterations. “Be You” is how Pagano, who has been around football far longer than Nagy, built himself his reputation.
It’s a match made in heaven for a man that wanted to return to his roots.
“There’s a lot of things, as coach Nagy will tell you having now sat in that chair for a year, and I sat in it for six years. There’s many times where I said, ‘Boy do I wish I was a defensive coordinator again. Man, do I wish I was a secondary coach,” Pagano said candidly. “It had nothing to do with coaching. It had nothing to do with the football part of it. There’s other stuff, but that’s part of the job.”
A noted secondary guru that prefers the hands-on aspects of coaching, Pagano didn’t always get to do that as Colts head coach. As a head coach, you have to concern yourself with every aspect of the team down to the minute detail. Everything starts and ends with you. That “other stuff” Pagano mentions but pointedly doesn’t complain about, isn’t always related to football, coaching, and or building trust with players. It’s minutiae that takes a life of it’s own, drags you down, and takes away from what many coaches came into the profession looking to do: coach.
In Chicago, Pagano doesn’t have to worry about anything but keeping a suffocating defensive train rolling. With the Bears, he’s found the best means of driving his uncanny passion home again and again. Nagy’s job as head coach is to keep up with the day to day of the entire roster and organization. Pagano’s job is to be the shoulder and leader a stacked Bears defense needs to climb the NFL’s mountain. Like most things, he’ll do it by being himself.
“I’m a coach at heart. It wouldn’t have mattered what the role was. I’m very, very fortunate to have this opportunity and get this job,” Pagano espoused about making his comeback with the Bears. “Being away, I’ve always got great perspective on things, great perspective on life. But it’s just how fortunate we are and what a privilege it is to be here.”
As Pagano would know, you never go anywhere if you don’t revel in the moment. It’s safe to say he’s nailed this part down.
In 2011, the Ravens had the NFL’s best defense. From top to bottom, the Ravens defense took it’s competition to task every single week. It didn’t matter that key players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were in their mid-30s, Baltimore ran roughshod on the rest of the league en route to an appearance in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.
At the helm as a needed steady hand was Pagano. In his first and only stint as a professional defensive coordinator, Pagano was the puppeteer the already stellar Ravens needed to keep their play at the highest level. Rarely was there a game where Baltimore’s defense was victimized due to timidness or a lack of a well-relayed rationale. This was an aggressive unit brimming with confidence. A a defense with future Hall of Famers and rising youth ideally mixed, almost like the current Bears, that never lost sight of it’s end goal.
In Chicago, Pagano is going to be expected to replicate much of the same. A drop off from what Fangio constructed won’t be a surprise, but also won’t be tolerated. That’s a sentiment the coach appreciates because it gives him a standard to work for. The Bears defense is special now. The Bears defense needs to be continue to be special, no questions asked, with a new head like Pagano.
Don’t mess with a good thing, only make it better ... if you can.
“They’ve been playing great defense here for a long, long time. Last year was no exception,” Pagano said. “For us to just throw everything out and start anew, that would not be smart on my part.”
Where Lewis is one of football’s greatest ever inside linebackers, players like Smith will have to become the face of a feared defense under Pagano. Where Reed was football’s most feared ballhawk ever, players like Jackson have to carry on that legacy. Where powerful, boisterous stars such as then Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs carried the Ravens’ pass rush, a powerful but humble star like Khalil Mack has only the brightest to come.
Pagano knows the situation he’s walking into with Chicago. The machinations of those kinds of great players and comforts are in place. Someone just has to steer the wheel. That in itself is what makes this opportunity for the coach so enthralling. The Bears, the NFL’s No. 1 defense in most relevant categories, can get better and they can do it while guided by him.
How can it get any more exciting than that?
“Our goal and our mindset will be to get better every day. We’ll be intentional and we’ll be deliberate in everything we do,” Pagano said of how his new ready-made Bears defense can take it up a notch. “We can all get better physically, mentally, knowing the playbook, knowing the opponent. It’s going to be a beginner’s mindset. Come in like it’s your rookie year.”
Elaborating on a thought that sounds like a typical coach-speak platitude is well and good. When they speak of positivity and breaking the game down, most coaches speak almost as if they’re reading from a prepared script with not a hint of originality in their voice. They don’t believe what they say. They’re only saying something because they have to say it.
When Pagano says it, you know he means it. When Pagano talks about his goals down to a basic level, cliche as some of them may be in regards to fundamentals, he’s not bluffing. A Bears defense littered with stars knows it can get better. Pagano, after taking that necessary time away, knows they can be better.
It’s Pagano’s defensive style, defined by his most authentic self and personality, that can bring out the best in his players. It’s through his experiences, not always related to football, that Pagano can relay what it means to be someone the Bears’ defenders can count on in a pinch.
The journey ahead won’t be easy for Pagano as the Bears’ defensive conductor. This orchestra will have unforeseen pitfalls along the way in regards to injuries, controversy, and walls the Bears won’t be able to scale at first. The thing is, any walls the Bears defense struggle to climb will likely be no different than anything Pagano has seen before. In fact, they’ll largely be the same types of issues under his leadership as they were under Fangio.
That’s the beauty of coaching professional football at it’s peak for so long: at a certain point, the element of surprise is gone. If you’re a good enough coach that understands not only your players but yourself, you have the advantage over most everyone else. That’s where Pagano has the upper hand in keeping the Bears full steam ahead, After stepping away from the game, Pagano can invest himself and his own very essence into exactly what the Bears defense needs.
Roughly a year ago, Pagano was unceremoniously fired by the Colts after six years. He knew he didn’t have to reinvent himself. He only needed a break. What he came back to is something he could’ve only dreamed of. The man with a relaxed but calculated plan has returned to the NFL, and he’s on a mission. He’ll continue to be himself, as will his players in following his example, and the Bears will see where it takes them.
“Wreak havoc, and be calculated about it ... keep it likable and learnable,” Pagano said matter of factly of how he coaches defense. “We don’t want to bog them down, let’s let those guys play. We’ve got a bunch of swagger in that room and I believe in swag.”
Pagano’s where he belongs, and knows he has a good thing going. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network (subscribe here!), the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for a host of other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.