Finishing 2013 with an epically bad defensive season, the Bears jettisoned line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar while leaving the rest of the defensive staff in place, beginning with beleaguered coordinator Mel Tucker.
Having two position coaches take the fall for a nightmare season was more than some form of scapegoating, however, and in fact suggests some potentially key developments coming in 2014.
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The three decisions — retaining Tucker, dismissing Phair and Tibesar — were made for differing and multiple reasons, less looking back at the failures of 2013 than looking forward to 2014 and beyond:
Marc Trestman deciding to replace his defensive coordinator would have been the surprise, not that Tucker is remaining. Unless Trestman was simply lying, his generally positive comments about Tucker even amid the difficulties of late last season made his feelings apparent — just as were his statement on Sunday that improvements were demanded from this point forward.
Loyalty is not usually a coin of the NFL realm, but Tucker taking the coordinator position filled a vacuum left by the abrupt departure of Rod Marinelli, who decided he did not want to work for Trestman; nothing personal, just not a fit. So he left and Trestman turned to Tucker.
Tucker, who had run both 4-3 and 3-4 systems in previous coordinator-ships, put a lot of personal designs in the drawer and stayed with a system familiar to the Bears’ veteran core (Lance Briggs, Tim Jennings, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman). He left Shea McClellin where Marinelli and the organization had slotted him — with a hand on the ground rushing the passer.
Trestman and Aaron Kromer not only installed their offense; they were given four new offensive-line starters, a new tight end and new fullback. To have thought enough to hire Tucker, then sack him without a true opportunity to do some things his way with enough of his own people, is not the right thing to do.
Because Tucker has operated different schemes, he is in fact something of an anomaly among coordinators, and also a logical choice to run what Trestman and general manager Phil Emery are determined will be creative, with tenets of both.
Emery made no secret of Bears draft plans: defense. That means a pipeline with young players on whose shoulder pads will rest the Chicago defense for some time to come.
The Bears used a 2013 second-round draft choice on linebacker Jonathan Bostic and a fourth-rounder on Khaseem Greene. Their development was not what the organization wanted or needed, and both appeared to regress rather than progress as the season went on.
The organization now has major new plans for McClellin, its No. 1 pick of 2012. Having failed to sufficiently develop Bostic and Greene despite daily post-practice extra work, Tibesar, who never coached in the NFL prior to last season, was not looked upon as the one to be tasked with more development assignments, presumably including McClellin.
Phair was a holdover from Lovie Smith’s tenure, which was not a liability. But beset with major personnel losses beginning back in training camp (Sedrick Ellis, Turk McBride, Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Stephen Paea), the defensive line managed only a league-low 31 sacks and was where all problems on defense began, justly or not, on Phair’s watch.
And Phair’s experience has been exclusively in traditional 4-3 defenses (Seattle, Chicago). The anticipated draft focus on defensive line, plus tweakings of the scheme and what that will mean for teaching, projects to require a more proven ability to develop.