The Bears’ defensive coordinator spot was the most highly coveted coordinator position in the NFL. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy had plenty of options, and none were better than who they hired: Chuck Pagano. It may not have been the sexy choice that Rex Ryan may have been, but it was the right hire.
Let’s look at the history of Chuck Pagano. I’m going to go all the way back to 1995 when he was hired to be the defensive backs coach and special teams coach at Miami under Butch Davis. This is where Pagano really started to make a name for himself.
Pagano coached defensive backs for the Hurricanes for five years. He taught Duane Starks, Mike Rumph, Phillip Buchanon, and the great Ed Reed during that time, all of whom ended up being first-round draft picks.
Miami may not have been at its peak when Pagano was there, as he decided to follow coach Davis when he became the head coach for the Cleveland Browns, but he left his mark. The year after he left, the team went to the National Championship, and the defensive backs were one of the best units on that team, for which Pagano earned much credit.
As was mentioned earlier, Pagano moved on to be the secondary coach of the Cleveland Browns under Butch Davis. He helped develop a great secondary in his time there. The year before Pagano came to Cleveland, the Browns had a total of 12 interceptions, with eight of those coming from the defensive backs. In 2001, Pagano’s first season in Cleveland, the Browns had 33 interceptions – 28 of them from his secondary.
In his second season in Cleveland, the Browns went to the playoffs. They haven’t been back since.
His time in Cleveland was a success, but when Butch Davis was let go in the middle of the 2004 season, Pagano got a defensive backs coach job with the Oakland Raiders. Just like in his previous stops, Pagano was successful coaching the secondary. In 2005, however, the Raiders’ defense did not get the turnovers that usually come with Pagano, as they had a league-worst five interceptions that season.
The Pagano effect came next season, as the Raiders gave up only 2413 passing yards that entire season, the lowest amount allowed in a season this century (!!!). The Raiders team as a whole was, unfortunately, terrible. The offense on the Raiders was historically bad, causing everyone to brush over this historic stat.
The biggest impact that Chuck Pagano had was not what he did with that 2006 defense, but it was the development of Nnamdi Asomugha. Asomugha had not started a full season before Pagano came to Oakland, but that changed when Pagano became his coach.
Asomugha’s second year as a starter is when he broke out, as he had eight interceptions that year, and developed into one of the most dangerous cornerbacks in the NFL. Teams avoided throwing the ball anywhere near him because they knew that it was a bad idea to even try.
Pagano left Oakland and went and rejoined Butch Davis, but this time as a defensive coordinator for North Carolina. This was the first time he had a defensive coordinator gig since 1991 with UNLV. This stint did not last long, as he left after only one season.
After that season, Pagano got the opportunity to coach his former player at Miami again in Ed Reed as the coach of the secondary in Baltimore. He joined a great staff, which included the now-former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as the linebackers coach at the time. Again, Pagano came in and made an impact on the secondary, as the Ravens’ defense led the NFL in interceptions with 26 that season.
The Ravens clearly saw the whole body of work that Pagano had, and they made him their defensive coordinator in 2011 after the departure of Greg Mattison. This was the first and only year of Chuck Pagano as an NFL defensive coordinator, and he made the most of it.
As I have mentioned before, whatever group that Pagano has coached, that group improved, and the same thing happened to Pagano when he took over the entire defense, as the whole team saw an improvement. Let’s look at some of the key improvements with the whole team that year.
The Ravens’ defense was tied for third-worst in sacks in 2010 with only 27 the year before Pagano took over as defensive coordinator. The very next season, they flipped the script and had the third-most sacks with 47. The Ravens’ secondary got a slight bump, but nothing crazy, but that’s not that big of a surprise because he coached the secondary exceptionally in the previous year.
The Ravens’ defense as a whole saw an increase in performance, as when you look at the DVOA from 2010 to 2011, the Ravens went from sixth to first in the NFL. In one season, Chuck Pagano turned a good defense into a great defense.
Individually, the player that saw the biggest impact under Chuck Pagano was Terrell Suggs. Suggs was a great player before Pagano became the defensive coordinator, but Suggs became one of the best in the NFL under Pagano. In 2011, Suggs was a first team all-pro and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the first and only time of his career. Suggs ended his all-pro season with career-highs of 14 sacks and 7 forced fumbles.
After so many successful seasons as a football coach, the Indianapolis Colts were the team to give Chuck Pagano his first shot as an NFL head coach in 2012. Unfortunately, he had a rougher start than any coach could have. After waiting so many years to get his shot, Pagano was diagnosed with Leukemia in the middle of his first season as the Colts coach. The story of Pagano overcoming cancer is incredible, and you can read about that here.
Chuck Pagano had a rollercoaster of a ride as the coach of the Colts, but Bears fans can look at his time with them as a positive. His team made the playoffs the first three years as the head coach of the Colts, but it was downhill from there.
In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the Colts went 8-8. In his final year as the head coach, Pagano was given a roster that had holes and was missing its starting quarterback in Andrew Luck. It would have been tough for any coach to have success with that team, but Pagano was fired after a 4-12 season, his only losing season as a head coach. Pagano’s final record as a head coach is 56-46.
The stats for the latter part of Chuck Pagano’s time as a head coach were not strong, but that is not all on him. It is hard to succeed when your quarterback isn’t healthy and the rest of the team does not have a ton of talent – comes down to the GM.
Pagano did not get a fair shake in Indianapolis, but he did have some very successful teams and created some very successful defensive players. Robert Mathis saw a huge improvement in his first season with Pagano present for the entire season. Mathis had career highs of 19.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles that season, leading the NFL in both.
When looking at Pagano as a defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, it seems as though he will become a perfect fit for the Bears’ great defense. They will not have to make a switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the Pagano system, which is a huge plus for the team.
What I really like about the Pagano system is the mixture of disguised coverages and a more agressive blitz attack. The Pagano system changes things up a lot, causing teams to make mistakes. It displays much more aggressiveness than Vic Fangio’s did, which I believe was one of the flaws with the Fangio system. This Bears defense could be even scarier if the Bears really start trying to get after the quarterback more.
This is why Bears fans should be so excited for Chuck Pagano. Terrelle Suggs and Robert Mathis were great players, but when Pagano put them in his system, they went off and became some of the most dangerous men in football. Pagano did this with two great pass rushers, now imagine what he can do with the best edge rusher in the NFL in Khalil Mack.
I think all members of the Bears defense could see improvement, as the stats seem clear that his players do so in all areas on the field. Fans should get especially excited for the Bears’ secondary, as all the teams that he was with saw better play from defensive backs. Chuck Pagano could make Eddie Jackson undoubtedly the best safety in football, and Kyle Fuller could take the next step and become an elite cornerback.
Basically, under Pagano, great players have become elite, and elite players become the best of the best. The Bears already have some elite players, so Bears fans should really look forward to what he can do with the talent that is already here.
Change is scary when your team loses such a key contributor on such a successful team, but the Bears found a replacement that should give the same or even better results than the previous coach.
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Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports