Coaching ‘change' may hold key to unlocking Bears non-existent run game


As the Bears search for ways to build an effective running game, one question overhanging the process is whether the team in fact has the coaches for it. In fact, one solution may be a coaching “change.”

Not a staff makeover. Rather, an internal change which has a very successful precedent, one that once nearly took them to a Super Bowl.

First, consider:

The Bears can pay lip service to a run commitment. But a notable void on the offensive coaching staff is the dearth of individuals with a proven grasp of a rushing offense. Nagy is himself a former quarterback, with his entire NFL experience based in Andy Reid’s West Coast pass-based offense.

Coordinator Mark Helfrich for much of the past 20 years has been a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and passing-game coordinator, plus being a head coach at Oregon where the Ducks ran more than they threw, but Helfrich’s No. 2 rusher annually was his quarterback. Bears QB coach Dave Ragone was a college and NFL quarterback before becoming a QB coach at the NFL level.

Hold that thought. Now rewind to 2010… .

The Bears had hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, he of Greatest Show on Turf. The season began with three wins, including one over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. But quarterback Jay Cutler was coming under assault in an offense that averaged barely 70 rushing yards per game with little commitment to the run. The imbalance bottomed out in a loss to the New York Giants when, trailing just 0-3 through the first half, Cutler was sacked nine times in the first half and was lost to a concussion.

With Cutler out, the Bears then ran 42 times for 218 yards and a pair of Matt Forte rushing touchdowns in a blowout of the Carolina Panthers.

But then the Bears rushed for 61 and 68 yards in dismal losses to Seattle and Washington. Martz called 14 runs against Seattle, 16 against Washington, with Cutler taking 10 more combined sacks in the two games

Coach Lovie Smith had had enough.

The Bears’ off week followed, during which Smith sat Martz down and told him in no uncertain terms that offensive-line coach Mike Tice, a former primarily-blocking NFL tight end, was now to be a major factor in the game planning. Tice’s title did not expand to anything like “run game coordinator” but that was effectively what Smith created to balance his offense.

The Bears proceeded to go 8-3 the remainder of the way, losing only to the New England Patriots and twice to the Packers. Over the final 11 games the Bears rushed for fewer than 100 yards only twice – to the Patriots, and to the Packers in the NFC Championship game loss. The three defeats over that span were the three games with the Bears’ fewest rushing attempts (14 at New England, 20 and 24 vs. Green Bay.)

Back to the 2019 Bears coaching situation

The Bears may talk about committing to the run but have only two coaches with true roots in that part of the game: offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and running backs coach Charles London. Neither have been more than supporting players, however, to the Bears structure built around the maximizing of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

An expanded role for one or both may hold a key to advancing a Bears run game that has struggled not only with results, but also even play design.

London, a former Duke running back, has coached running backs at Duke, Penn State and for the Houston Texans and Bears. Under coach Bill O’Brien, London worked with Arian Foster and Lamar Miller.

Hiestand is another matter. He was coordinator Ron Turner’s offensive line coach in the 2005 playoff season and 2006 Super Bowl year, offenses built around Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson and which were effectively 50-50 run-pass. At Notre Dame, which ran the ball more than threw it, Hiestand coached, among others, Zack Martin, Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and Ronnie Stanley -- all first-round draft picks.

Hiestand also was once the run-game coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, after which he was Missouri’s offensive line coach when Mizzou averaged 250 rush yards per game (1986).

Point is, the Bears coaching staff as it is currently constituted is quarterback-centric. An even modest tilt toward the assistants whose forte (pun intended) is in running the football projects to expand the realm of the possible from the limited scope that Nagy has displayed with that aspect of his game. Perhaps promoting Hiestand to run-game coordinator is a step that makes a necessary statement.

Changing definitions

The challenge on Nagy is not simply to call greater numbers of run plays, but to redefine his idea of a “productive” play, which he’s put forward as his standard for calling plays and why he stops calling runs when they come up short on productive yardage.

Because when Nagy’s fleeting commitment to the run game vanishes, he feeds his quarterback to the opposing defense. He makes his own offense one-dimensional, which is an objective of all defenses. The Bears’ head coach is doing it for them.

The point for Nagy is to make Trubisky, not a game-manager overseeing a run-based scheme, but an unpredictable quarterback that utilizes a skillset beyond just his arm. The route to that objective is through a mix of well-designed plays, not simply a tilt toward running the football a bunch of times.

It also involves getting Trubisky back to the mental/confidence level he and every quarterback needs.

“[Trubisky’s] confidence isn’t at an all-time high,” Nagy conceded. “We’re struggling right now. But he’s not the only one that the confidence isn't there.

“But how do you get that back. You get it back by practicing hard, by actually getting ‘tighter.’ We need to get tighter and understand, and I think that’s the message that we’ve had is get tighter, believe in one another, keep trusting, right? And bond together and then when you get that one win, it just sparks. (snaps his fingers) It’s crazy. It’s just absolutely crazy how that works. So, we gotta do that.”

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