For a significant part of the 2013 season, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker had to just stand there and take it: weekly grillings on shortcomings of players, the drumbeat of questions about his game plans and schemings, and finally, whether or not he had a future in Chicago.
“I just stay focused on the task at hand and working to teach, motivate and develop, and work with these guys and get them ready for the next outing,” he said by way of explanation. “That’s really my main focus.”
Now, with free agency effectively beginning in earnest this weekend, Tucker stands as one of the critical players in personnel decisions and the shaping of the Chicago Bears defense for 2014 and beyond. The tasks of finding and signing players fall to GM Phil Emery and finance minister Cliff Stein, but the primary boots on the ground in all of this belong to Tucker.
The last of those three battlegrounds mentioned above was resolved immediately after the season. The Bears were switching out some coaches, but not the coordinator.
The second was handled before and during the season: Tucker stayed with a system familiar to veterans of it, with simple reasoning: “It’s much easier for coaches to learn a new language than it is for players, particularly pre-existing players,” coach Marc Trestman said during last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.
That dictum will apply very little to the 2014 defense, given the exits of certain players and the additions of ones via the draft and free agency.
“I think [Tucker] always had the autonomy to do things within parameters,” Trestman said. “It’s wide open this year and everything’s on the table this year in terms of where we’re going defensively.”
Which logically brings up the first area of Tucker’s 2013 difficulties and 2014 parameters: players. The Bears remain committed to a single-gap scheme, starting with linemen who can get upfield and linebackers who are fast enough to cover and stout enough to control their gaps against the run.
(All of which makes Shea McClellin at 255 pounds arguably the No. 1 player to watch through the off- and preseasons, but that’s for another time. Tucker was excited about McClellin’s versatility last offseason, only to have the domino of injuries force Corey Wootton inside to tackle and McClellin to remain almost exclusively at end.)
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The pro and college scouting areas of GM Phil Emery’s staff have been tasked with finding impact players that fit Tucker’s plans — not the pattern of last season when it was Tucker who was the one adapting. That does not involve radical change; one of the benefits of staying with the 4-3, single-gap base was maintaining the familiar personnel search patterns that produced the likes of Wootton and Henry Melton (under the previous GM) in drafts and Jeremiah Ratliff and D.J. Williams on the pro side.
But the key figure, incommunicado in the background since the Thursday before the week 17 Green Bay game, is Tucker. Emery and his staff secured players (Martellus Bennett, Jermon Bushrod, Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, others) that fit the offensive bill of particulars for Trestman and Aaron Kromer.
This offseason, the shopping list in front of Emery has been developed — necessarily and fairly — with direction from Tucker. Evaluation meetings after the season were for purposes of assessing 2013 Bears, but even more important, for Tucker’s input on the players that will work where others didn’t.