And on the eighth day, Vic Fangio created football.
Surely, I jest. But the reaction around Chicago to Fangio’s return deified the Bears defensive coordinator like he was the second coming of Buddy Ryan.
Fangio indeed ranks among the best at his job in the NFL, and the Bears will benefit from him staying, but the offseason of a 5-11 team didn’t hinge on whether the 59-year-old curmudgeon accepted new coach Matt Nagy’s offer. That’s how good the week was at Halas Hall.
The Bears acted like one of the smartest teams in the NFL.
Without checking Nexis, something tells me that sentence never, ever has appeared in this space. In a span of five frenetic days, they decisively hired a head coach and three coordinators, all four highly respected men considered dynamic coaches with sharp minds: Nagy, Fangio, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor.
Meanwhile, the hiring process dragged on for four other teams still trying to decide on their head coach. Other than the Bears, the only team to fill its head-coaching vacancy was the Oakland Grudens. Sorry, the Las Vegas Grudens — and that bold move represented a $100 million gamble on a coach who hasn’t won a playoff game in 15 years.
Dare I say that no team in transition has gotten off to a better start than the Bears? Nagy followed up a virtuoso performance at his introductory news conference by assembling a staff that reflected well on the 39-year-old first-time head coach. Just as you can tell a lot about a person’s character based on his friends, the assistants an NFL head coach hires speaks volumes about his judgment. And, in Nagy’s case, every move screams louder than the one before that he knows what he’s doing.
Keeping Fangio on board underscored that intelligent approach and suggested how confidently Nagy will operate despite his inexperience. It takes a secure boss to pursue a staff member who sought the same job he took — especially when that guy already has a built-in following in the Bears locker room that might threaten a lesser leader. Wisely, Nagy believed the need for experience and continuity trumped any potential for awkwardness.
To Fangio’s credit, he also likely had to swallow some pride to agree to walk into the building every day to work for a coach 20 years younger who holds the position he wanted. Perhaps it helped that Fangio and Nagy are Pennsylvania natives from small towns about 125 miles apart; Fangio is from Dunmore, Nagy from Manheim. The compromise both men made put the Bears first. Chances are, Fangio will find more autonomy under Nagy than he did under John Fox, a defensive head coach whose internal clashes with his defensive coordinator were disguised as poorly as a third-down blitz. Regardless, Fangio consistently did more with less, often by outscheming opponents and getting the Bears defense to improve gradually over his tenure.
A fourth season in Fangio’s defense also means the Bears will stay in the 3-4 scheme. That ensures Akiem Hicks, their strongest interior defensive lineman, won’t have to switch to a 4-3 system that contributed to his struggles with the Saints.
Overlooked in Chicago’s preoccupation with Fangio’s status was how the Bears’ improved offensive brainpower figures to make their defense better simply by possessing the ball more. As vital as Fangio is to the Bears’ success, the philosophical overhaul offensively presents the biggest reason for excitement for 2018. Say goodbye to safe and predictable and hello to aggressive and progressive. Gone are the days when the Bears allow defenses to dictate what their offense does — the legacy of the Dowell Loggains error.
The addition of Helfrich illustrates how open-minded Nagy is to potentially unconventional ideas — and Helfrich’s Oregon offenses commanded stares for reasons beyond their Technicolor uniforms. Ask several college coaches about Helfrich, as I did, and every impression is connected by one word: cerebral. Helfrich offers Nagy a voice that has commanded a large stage before as a head coach, as well as a reservoir of offensive knowledge that should make the Bears fun to watch and hard to stop.
The Bears have assembled a highly creative offensive think tank. They combined the ideas of Nagy, gleaned from mentor Andy Reid, and of Helfrich, influenced by mad scientist Chip Kelly, in a way that should make quarterback Mitch Trubisky eager to further his football education.
And yet Helfrich wasn’t even the most impactful offensive assistant Nagy hired. That would be Harry Hiestand, who is to offensive line coaches what Steven Spielberg is to Hollywood directors. Hiestand, who was on the Bears staff from 2005-2009, left Notre Dame with little more to accomplish after winning the Joe Moore Award honoring the nation’s No. 1 offensive front. Hiestand’s return bodes as well for the Bears offensive line as Fangio’s does for the defense. When you consider Nagy hired two elite assistants, it provides optimism to counter local cynicism that’s deeper than the snow this winter.
Now it comes down to players, shifting the focus from Nagy back to general manager Ryan Pace. The collaborative feel Pace sensed with Nagy once felt right with Fox too — and Pace and Fox collaborated on a 14-34 record. For that to change, the roster must. The Bears desperately require offensive upgrades at wide receiver, tight end and offensive tackle and defensive answers at cornerback and pass-rusher.
Unless Pace successfully addresses those needs, well, no coach is that smart.
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