The Chicago Bears have always been known as a “old school”, smash-mouth football team in theory. In actuality, the Bears have been for many years, a slow, boring and ineffective football team. Lost in the times, stuck in the past and stringing together losing season after losing season for much of the last couple decades.
Save for a couple of years under Lovie Smith in the mid-2000’s, the Chicago Bears have been a train-wreck for the majority of my nearly three decades on this earth.
Last week we saw the end of the John Fox era, and this week we saw General Manager Ryan Pace change course for the status quo at Halas Hall. In the roughly 72 hours since Ryan Pace named Matt Nagy the 16th head coach in Chicago Bears history, Nagy has injected a curious sense of excitement into a good portion of the fan-base, and if you’re actually excited to watch Bears football again, just two weeks removed from another losing season, it’s for good reason and you’re not alone.
Granted, results next fall will dictate just how long the excitement will last, but when is the last time you were genuinely excited and intrigued in the future of the Bears on January 11? Personally, the answer for me is simple… never.
Matt Nagy’s biggest knock is his inexperience on paper as an NFL coach, and in-line with that concern was the question surrounding his ability to curate a coaching staff that would be able to put him and the Bears in position for success. Well, in a rapid fashion, Matt Nagy has answered that question by filling out much of his staff with some excellent hires.
The rapid-fire ascension from skepticism, and even cynicism, to genuine excitement around the football world regarding the Chicago Bears should be enough to sell you on Matt Nagy’s plan.
The first move by Nagy was prying Harry Hiestand away from Notre Dame. Notre-freaking-Dame folks, one of the best jobs in the football world. I don’t care how you feel as a fan about the Irish, that’s a premier football job, period. Hiestand is regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the world, and has pumped out multiple high draft picks from the collegiate level to the NFL, including two of the best offensive lineman in the country this season in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, who are likely going to go in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Hiestand saw three of his Chicago Bears offensive lineman make the trip to Honolulu for the NFL Pro Bowl game in his first stint with the Bears. Now he comes back to the Windy City, bringing his 28 years of NFL and NCAA experience to Matt Nagy’s offensive system that meshes perfectly with his zone-blocking scheme.
Nagy then won the services of Chris Tabor as the special teams coordinator of the Bears. Tabor was an assistant under Dave Toub in Chicago, and Dave Toub is likely the greatest special teams coordinator ever. Tabor stuck with the Browns through a handful of head coaches and general managers despite multiple teams trying to pry him away. The Browns don’t do much right these days, but they knew damn well they needed to hold onto Tabor through all of the coaching changes.
Under Tabor’s direction since 2011, the Browns are second-best in the NFL in punt return average (10.6), fourth in kickoff return average against (21.7), eighth in total kick return yards (7,963), tied for eighth in punt return touchdowns (four) and ninth in total return yards allowed (6,674). Now Tabor gets to work with Tarik Cohen as his primary kick/punt returner.
Late Wednesday night Nagy tabbed former Houston Texans running backs coach Charles London for the same position with the Bears. London saw a down year in 2017 from his unit after the Texans lost Deshaun Watson to an ACL injury and became largely one-dimensional, but in his first three years in Houston the Texans ranked third in the AFC in rushing yards and sixth in the NFL. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will without a doubt benefit from London’s tutelage in Chicago.
Finally, this morning news broke that the Bears have hired Mark Helfrich as the new offensive coordinator. First off, Helfrich wasn’t just sitting around waiting on a job folks. He was the favorite to land the offensive coordinator job at UCLA, and the favorite to land the head coaching job at Arizona. Nagy, who shares an agent with Helfrich, sold the former Oregon head coach on the Bears job and lured him away from his other potential gigs at the NCAA level.
Before his tenure as the head coach at Oregon, Helfrich was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly from 2009 through the 2012 season when Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles job. Helfrich has been a coach in one of those two capacities at the FBS level since 1998, making stops at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado along the way.
As far as quarterbacks are concerned, Helfrich is widely regarded as a quarterback developer, guiding Marcus Mariota to the NFL during his stay at Oregon. As the offensive coordinator and head coach at Oregon, Helfrich has his hands on one of the best offenses in college football for a half-decade, and is as well regarded as a teacher as he is a quarterback specialist.
In his early days, Helfrich coached former Boise State quarterback Bart Hendricks. Under Helfrich, Hendricks won Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010, and Boise State posted the fourth best passing offense in the nation during the 2010 season.
After joining current Buccaneer’s Head Coach Dirk Koetter’s staff at Arizona State, Helfrich coached former Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter, who under Helfrich became ASU’s all-time passing leader and nearly broke the touchdown record for the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) that was held by John Elway.
At Oregon Helfrich has worked with Jeremiah Masoli, who led the Ducks to the 2010 Rose Bowl, and then quarterback Darron Thomas stepped into the driver’s seat in 2011 and Oregon went undefeated and went the BCS National Championship. In 2012 Oregon won the Rose Bowl, and of course the following season began the Marcus Mariota tenure in Eugene, that I’m sure everyone is much more familiar with.
Needless to say, Helfrich is a well-established offensive mind and quarterback developer that will work perfectly beside Matt Nagy who shares the same resume highlights.
All reports out of Lake Forest to this point have indicated that Vic Fangio will return to his current role as the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, keeping continuity on the defensive side of the ball, helping an already blossoming unit that projects to be a top-10 unit in 2018.
As it stands today, Nagy has put together a top-notch staff that is drawing rave reviews from the national media as well as the local media. Current and former players, coaches and front-office execs have spoken publicly in the last three days to how impressed they are with what Matt Nagy is doing, is well as speaking to how good he is himself.
The Bears are shedding the cookie-cutter ground-and-pound mantra that they’ve clung to for so many years, and it’s wildly intriguing and exciting. There’s still questions to be answered and holes to be filled, but the Bears have money to spend under the salary cap in free-agency, and they have the draft coming in April to add to a core that already includes a top-10 defense, and Mitch Trubisky, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen as weapons on the offensive side of the ball.
For now I strongly suggest that Bears’ fans drop the skepticism and get excited for what Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are doing in Chicago, because it’s shaping up to be something special at best, and something different and interesting at worst. I for one, am certainly excited that the days of watching a Bears’ running back slam into eight and nine man fronts 30 times a game, are without a doubt over.