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Bears’ 2021 off-season roundtable: Scheming away

With the band back together, another foundational spring awaits the Bears. But the WCG staff has differing definitions of ideals and success.

Chicago Bears v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The Bears are known for their stability and consistency, but for all the wrong reasons.

They are consistent — consistently bad and incompetent. They are stable — seemingly stuck in place in mediocrity, and beset with no means to climb out of an ongoing 35-year infamous “there’s always next year” rut. While the NFL’s charter franchise has more regular season wins than every other team, that’s the prospect of longevity more than anything. While they have, on average, almost double the individual Hall of Famers of everyone else, that’s more rooted in (yes, worthwhile) pioneering than any recent success. Save for those hallowed marks the powers that be love to tout regularly, the Bears have become a largely irrelevant dead weight with the appearance of prestige.

The Bears are the embodiment of an unrequited reputation that hasn’t remotely been lived up to since George Halas was throwing nickels around like they were manholes to this star players. There’s no other reasonable means to summate seven total playoff appearances since 1991. You can’t explain four separate expansion franchises — the Jaguars, Panthers, new Browns, and Texans — all seeing the now unremarkable benchmark of a 4,000 yard passer before a team that’s older than a century. The Bears have been so utterly ephemeral for so long that even former long-time laughingstocks like the Bills and Browns have managed to build respectable playoff contenders with sound leadership before they did. If not for their position in the third-largest television market buoying their failure, this franchise would be unrecognizable from more familiar low-hanging fruit punching bags like the Washington Football Team and Lions. In fact, even if not outright acknowledged, the Bears have already arrived as a perennial also-ran to forget about come December and January.

But, after 28 wins and two playoff appearances in three seasons, the Bears believe they finally possess something resembling genuine stability — the good kind. By Chicago’s recent standards, and in their defense, that kind of ledger is likely legendary success to them. Letting this leadership go by the wayside would likely spell out a more obvious doom on the horizon. And so, the same brain trust of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy will return for 2021. Not everyone invested in their operation, both directly and indirectly, agrees with the soundness of this decision to change, well, nothing.

This is the path the Bears have chosen and locked themselves into, for at least another year. There isn’t a gas station or rest stop for them to pull into for almost 12 months. This is the road they’re riding on for a little while longer, for better or worse.

How does a team stuck in No-Man’s Land at 16-16 over the past two years (a listless playoff performance not counted and not withstanding) vault itself back into something commendable everyone praises? How do Pace, Nagy and their subordinates inflate genuine confidence back into an organization accustomed to treading water?

This upcoming late winter and spring is the most important off-season the Bears have had since 2020 (as well as 2019, 2018, and 2017).

Over the course of a comprehensive off-season primer roundtable, the Windy City Gridiron staff will tackle exactly what it is the Bears must accomplish over the next three months and change to become a steady contender with the same regime. How each of us defines this subjective success invites a spirited debate that certainly won’t be dying down any time soon.

Today, the topic at hand concerns the fundamental nuances of coaching, schemes, and game-plans.

What changes do the Bears need to make as a coaching staff in schemes, player deployment and development, and in game-planning?

Erik Duerrwaechter: I would, still, be open to seeing a new offensive coordinator hired. Either that, or they need to commit to Bill Lazor and let him do his thing as a play-caller. There needs to be decisiveness in this offensive staff. There can’t be confusion caused by endless collaboration. The game plan on offense has to stay balanced. No matter who they acquire at quarterback, Matt Nagy can’t go back into the habit of throwing the ball 50-60 times a game. Entrust David Montgomery to be your motor on offense.

In player development, quarterback speaks for itself. They can’t continue screwing around and not having a clear pathway to develop. They need to go out and get talented passers, not just guys who know the system. Frankly, if you can’t teach your system to a new quarterback, you can’t be a coach in any level of football.

Defensively, they need to get back to basics under Sean Desai. Too many “splash” plays were whiffed during live action over the last two years. Clean up the tackling, start mixing up your pressure packages more, and stop being soft on third-and-long situations. I trust Desai to at least refresh the play-calling for coverages. Let your linebackers and aggressive defensive backs go out and play football.

Here’s the biggest philosophical change that needs to happen in Chicago: Entrust your young players if they’re your best option at any position. I get the idea of being patient with player development. I do. But there was no reason to wait until you’re staring at pre-playoff elimination to let guys like Cole Kmet play over Jimmy Graham if they’ve earned the time. Don’t play veterans solely because they’re experienced. Don’t stick yourself mindlessly on the same piece of fly paper while you contemplate a re-shuffling of the depth chart. Trust your players, and get the hell out of the way. Players need repetitions to develop. There isn’t any developmental league yet where you can stash these guys and wait for the ideal time. If they’re your best option, play them. End of story.

Ken Mitchell: On offense, Matt Nagy needs to take to heart the lesson he apparently learned near the end of the year: He needs to use his player’s strengths instead of going with his own wishes. No more square pegs in round holes. When you have a player like Jimmy Graham (who may or may not be back, but I’m using this as an example) who is a cheat-code player in the red zone, he should be on the field for all red-zone plays, if for no other reason than as a decoy.

On defense, the Bears need to be more aggressive. They have some great players who are best used attacking, not sitting back. Khalil Mack is a great pass rusher and run stopper. There shouldn’t be any plays where he drops back into coverage.

Josh Sunderbruch: The organization needs to shift into a very brutal assessment of resources. Young players need reps to develop. Anyone who has watched the division games and beyond should understand how far beyond the Bears the teams that played in the conference championship games are. Look at wide receivers—Pace has drafted Anthony Miller (51), Riley Ridley (126), Darnell Mooney (173), and Javon Wims (224). They need to play. Cole Kmet needs to play. Don’t chase free agents. Play these guys and see what they have, or cut them and move on.

Lester Wiltfong Jr.: I think they’re on the right track defensively with Sean Desai at the helm. Getting back to more Vic Fangio stuff should help the players. (If you aren’t sure why then be sure to check out Sam Acho’s recent insights into the familiarity, and read this great breakdown from our Rule of 3 co-host, Brandon Robinson.) I think an experienced defensive coach added to the staff would be wise to match up with first time play caller Desai, but even if they don’t add one, I’m still fine with the strides they should make defensively. On offense, nothing matters until they get the quarterback position figured out.

Will Robinson: Desai is already in place. I’m hoping he will learn from the mistakes of Chuck Pagano’s scheme and run a more Fangio-Brandon Staley-esque two-high shell defense with an emphasis on disguising and rotating coverage, taking away what the opposing offense does best (cough, Wild Card Game, cough) and a willingness to rush five more than 22 percent of the time. If that happens, it will solve a lot of the issues on this Bears defense, and allow them to get the most out of what is still a talented unit.

As far as offense goes, yeesh. It’s hard to say. Without getting into the whole “who’s calling plays and how often” debate that everyone seems to get bent out of shape over, I’ll say I want more coherent play calls. We saw it during the Vikings and Jaguars games, and a bit during the Lions game (by which I don’t mean how often plays worked, but whether they made sense given the situation). Other than that, the play calling was far too scattershot in 2020. It often didn’t take into account personnel (and their capabilities), situation, defensive tenancies and even sometimes defensive alignment.

I want the Bears offense to make sense. Until they get the quarterback solved, it’s never going to be a top-end offense. We should realize that. However, it’d make me a lot more comfortable if I could see a competently run offense that puts its players in positions to win, and takes advantage of what the defense is giving up. Because if they can’t do that when it’s their only real chance to consistently move the ball, then they probably aren’t going to do it when they actually have a competent passer. And that means the offense will likely never be truly good, regardless of personnel.

Give me that hope. Show me you can scheme your players into positive situations, rather than asking them to do things you should know they can’t, while ignoring everything else on the field because the play should work on paper. I see good play designs, now I need to see them called at the correct times, with the correct personnel, consistently. I don’t expect them to always work, but I do expect them to make sense.

Other than that, find some good, experienced position coaches to fill all the vacancies, because it feels like all of the Bears’ position coaches have already been poached.

Robert Schmitz: Defensively speaking, I think the Bears are off to a great start — Sean Desai should hopefully bring the Fangio/Staley two-high shell defense back to Chicago and that should help Eddie Jackson return to his 2017-2018 form. Does that mean he’ll record seven picks next year? Probably not, but the two-high disguise-oriented defense ought to help him deny deep shots and break on sideline balls rather than play the Robber spot in Cover 1 that often allowed quarterbacks to ignore his presence. Much of his production will depend on the pass-rushing potential of the seven players in front of him. If the Bears can’t pressure the passer don’t expect much to change. Overall, I’m a fan of bend-don’t-break two-high defense and I’m hopeful Desai breaks back toward that direction.

Offensively speaking, it’s hard to say. I could say something about how “Nagy needs to get more consistent in his play-calling,” but I ultimately think the Bears’ issues stemmed more from a lack of offensive talent than play-calling problems. Generally, the Bears’ Trubisky-led offense mashed up bad defenses (Detroit twice, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Houston) and the Foles-led offense fought a few good defenses tough (Tampa, New Orleans), but ultimately gave both Nagy and Lazor fits versus bad defenses (Nagy: Carolina, Tennessee. Lazor: Minnesota). This, to me, indicates something simple: Against good defenses, the Bears’ offensive line isn’t good enough to establish a rushing identity. Their quarterback-receiver-tight end combo isn’t good enough to establish a passing identity. That’s not something coaching can magically fix. The Bears need an infusion of talent.

I think the Bears need to keep Allen Robinson while testing the trade market for quarterback prospects, primarily because I think it’ll be easier for the Bears to add at receiver (Kadarius Toney?), tight end (Kyle Pitts?), or offensive tackle (Jalen Mayfield?) at pick No. 20 than it will be for them to add at quarterback (Mac Jones? Kyle Trask?). Given that, I think the Bears then need to measure potential quarterback trades under the following criteria: “Is this passer demonstrably better than Nick Foles when given proper protection? If so, can they be our starter for at least the next four years?”. If they find someone who meets that criteria (Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Matt Ryan) go ahead and pull the trigger. Otherwise, roll with Foles and invest with tools around him while drafting a tool-sy project QB in the third round or so. Basically, if they can upgrade to a “win because of quarterback” within a reasonable price they should do it. Then they can invest resources into other position groups where they don’t end up in another 2009 Cutler situation.

Depending on how the Bears shake up their offensive locker room, I think game plans would need to adjust accordingly — did they acquire Kyle Pitts? In that case, maybe bring in Doug Pederson as a coordinator and run the tight end- centric 2017 Philly offense with a few Chiefs wrinkles for Darnell Mooney and Robinson. Did they instead upgrade at offensive line? Great, run the dang ball. What if they added speed at the perimeter or a dynamic quarterback? Fire up the Kansas City vertical offense. Everything the Bears do on offense should come back to the personnel they have on their roster. As long as they marry scheme with personnel they should set themselves up for success.

That frankly describes what I want to see from this off-season. Upgrade offensive personnel, marry proper scheme with added talent, and let the defense do its best with the guys they already have. The Bears likely won’t win the Super Bowl in 2021, but they can establish an offensive foundation next year that sets themselves up well for the future if they make the right moves.

Bill Zimmerman: There’s plenty here that can be discussed, so let’s start on the defensive side of the ball. Chuck Pagano didn’t work out. He wasn’t horrendous, but he never helped his unit succeed. Vic Fangio was great at disguising coverages, and opening up opportunities and mismatches for his players to succeed in the secondary and up front. Pagano didn’t do that. Was it totally his fault? No. It’s tough to be aggressive defensively when the offense is inept and doesn’t allow the defense to be aggressive and take changes when one mistake could bury the team.

I’m pleased with the Desai hiring. I was honking for Jay Rodgers, but I’d much rather give a fresh face an opportunity to do something special than a retread defensive coordinator that’s bounced around the league. Desai may not work out, but if the Bears fail this year, it won’t be because Desai wasn’t Fangio. If the Bears do surprise people, perhaps Desai is the next Brandon Staley. He deserves the opportunity.

As for the rest of the coaching staff, nobody is going to be too interested in joining a coaching staff that has no job security beyond 2021. The Bears are most likely going to have to promote from within and bring in fresh quality control coaches. They could snatch a position coach from another team that’s out of contract, but you’ll either have to be giving a quality control coach a promotion to lure them in, or you’ll be potentially landing position coaches that aren’t highly sought after. It’s a tough spot to be in.

Offensively, none of this matters if they don’t have a capable quarterback. Matt Nagy has flaws offensively and I don’t think he should be calling plays. There’s a rhythm to play-calling and I don’t think Nagy has that knack. I also don’t think Nagy is an offensive moron that should be barred from coaches’ meetings either. I think Nagy understands the modern passing game and there’s plenty of times that players are schemed open and his quarterbacks fail to execute. Are there play designs when receivers are too bunched up? Absolutely. But the offensive line play improved greatly the back half of the season once Rashaad Coward was placed on the pine, the running game has improved tremendously, and we know there’s talent on the outside with Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney. As bad as this offense is, if they can fortify the offensive line and create some depth and find the right quarterback, this offense has a chance to make strides next season. If they don’t find the right quarterback, again, none of it matters.

Jack Salo: The Bears run a lot of YAC plays, screens, and short throws. Maybe that’s due to poor trust in their quarterbacks, but that game plan is so easy to stop it’s not funny. It also heavily restricts the running game, because it pulls the safeties up. The Bears are going to have to get more creative, style a game-plan around a quarterback who can move in the pocket long enough for receivers to get open and then accurately hit on deep throws. They’ll need better play from the offensive tackle position and a cheaper tight end than Jimmy Graham. On defense, I think they still have the pieces to be great, but they need a couple guys who are more solid tacklers. There were a lot of sloppy attempts in the back half of the 2020 season and it led to stupid first downs that sunk otherwise great efforts.

Windy City Gridiron Podcast Channel which includes Bear With Me from Robert Schmitz, Bears Over Beers featuring Jeff Berckes & EJ Snyder, Bears Banter hosted by Bill Zimmerman, and T Formation Conversation from Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.; EJ also co-hosts The Bootleg Football Podcast with Brett Kollmann; R. Schmitz has a film breakdown show on YouTube titled Run Pass Opinion; and Steven’s Streaming Twitch Channel from Steven Schweickert.

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