Building the ultimate Bears: Coaching, draft & more

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Building the ultimate Bears: Coaching, draft & more

Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011
Posted 6:41 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

In the first of a four-part examination of the 2011 Bears, CSNChicago.com looks the four main areas at issue for a team that considers itself just a few players away from another run at a championship:

Part I Coaching, free agency and the draft

Part II Offense

Part III Defense

Part IV Special teams

The Lovie Smith deal

GM Jerry Angelo was clear in his season epilogue: The Bears want Lovie Smith back in 2011 and beyond as their head coach. But do not by any stretch take that as a pronouncement that a contract extension is a fait accompli.

It isnt.

Smith is under contract for the 2011 season at 5.5 million. At that pay grade he ranks among the best-paid of his peers, meaning that he is unlikely to be looking at a new deal with a significant raise.

Other than the 5 million-per-season ransom the San Francisco 49ers were pressured into paying first-timer Jim Harbaugh, teams have been shrinking payroll for field bosses. The financial considerations are reasons are obvious. Uncertainty over the future of the collective bargaining agreement is working against teams lavishing money on head coaches who may not have teams to coach this season.

Experience countssort of

Also, the head coaches in this years Super Bowl Mike McCarthy for Green Bay and Mike Tomlin for Pittsburgh were newbies when they took their jobs. McCarthy was never a head coach at any level before Green Bay hired him in 2006, yet he has been to the playoffs three of the four years after a .500 first season.

Tomlin succeeded Bill Cowher with the Steelers a year after McCarthy went to Green Bay. He too was never a head coach before becoming one on the NFL level, was a coordinator just one year (Minnesota) and then won a Super Bowl as a rookie head coach.

Smith was never a head coach previously, yet won in Chicago. Same as Mike Ditka. Now Smith is in the ironic position of being the expensive proven head coach in a market that is turning away from those (see: Fisher, Jeff; Tennessee Titans).

Whose price?

With Angelo and Cliff Stein structuring contracts, the Bears have done consistently sound contracts with little over-extension to require cutting players for cap reasons. They took care of Smith in 2007 with a market deal and he will play that one out, at least.

The tightrope for the Bears will be to make the genuine effort, which they will, to get Smith done, possibly for a year or two at the current money, possibly longer for a lower figure, without poisoning the situation in a way that will leave scar tissue on Smiths side if it doesnt work out.

Which it may not.

Best strategies:

The Bears offer to add one year at 5.5 million and a second at 5 million, securing Smith through 2013, when Angelos own deal is up.

Smith? Two alternatives. Acknowledge a serious offer made in the right spirit and market conditions, then gamble on his team keeping upward pace with the leaders and gamble on himself that hell be worth even more with another deep playoff run to his credit.

Or, more sensibly, accept the market deal. If the Bears slip, hes bargaining this time next year from a weakened position, possibly in a further reduced market if one of the newbies this year do extremely well. And if the Bears do well, just not NFC Championship well, he is still signed for two more years in the NFL coaching-salary penthouse.
Free-agent bonanza

The constricted market of 2010 will be replaced by one with as many as 500 free agents hitting the market this year, with four and five years experience. In a supply-and-demand business, that is not at all good news for the supply but potentially very good news for the demand side.

Elite players will command contracts of the magnitude, relative to a possibly reduced salary cap, that the Bears gave Julius Peppers last year, that the New York Giants signed Antrel Rolle for, that the Miami Dolphins used to secure Karlos Dansby.

The cap is indeed the wild card. The Bears have paid elite money for free agents (Peppers, Muhsin Muhammed, John Tait, others) and cannot be faulted if they dont make a preemptive signing as theyve done in some situations.

Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson and New England guard Logan Mankins are available (pending tags or new deals with their existing teams) at need positions for the Bears. If the Bears go to that level, of player and price, it will be a surprise.

But rarely has Angelo let an area go unaddressed that he views as a major need.

In-house first
The Bears will endeavor to re-sign nose tackle Anthony Adams and the expectation is that they will fortify defense perhaps ahead even of offense; keeping a strength strong is a must.

But they have what they view as three defensive ends (Peppers, Israel Idonije, Corey Wootton) and tackle help with former Kansas City ChiefCarolina Panther Tank Tyler to go with an emerging Henry Melton, steady Matt Toeaina and still-developing Marcus Harrison.

The fate of Tommie Harris remains to play out but he is unlikely to be back with his roster bonus and salary hits facing the Bears.
Feeling the draft

The Bears have the 29th pick of the first round, the same slot where Angelo selected Marc Colombo in the 2002 draft, his first as Bears GM. The draft is expected to go off as scheduled in April irrespective of the collective bargaining agreement but trading players in draft scenarios wont be possible, so some limits may be in place.

The draft is not a sure call for the Bears to plan on needed help. For example, when you look at the guard situation right now, theres nobody that really jumps out at you and says theyre going to wow somebody and be a guaranteed first- or second-round pick, said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.

Theres nobody at that position unless you move some tackles inside. There arent that many guards who are going to be those immediate hole-fillers.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.