What Matt Nagy's Past Hirings May Say About New Bears Staff

Matt Nagy had to revamp his staff greatly with  a crucial season coming up and his past major hiring event could say something about how this year's reorganization will go.
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Bears coach Matt Nagy did a complete revamp of his coaching staff when the season ended, caused in some cases by the loss of staff members to more stable working situations.

When an assistant coach's contract expires it's better to go somewhere starting up than it is to sit and wait to be fired with everyone or endure uncertainty in an old regime.

In some rare instances, a position coach in that situation can find an opening on a staff with an established winner, but usually it doesn't happen because those teams are involved in the playoffs while hiring season occurs. The new programs are the places to go for job stability.

It's possible some of these Bears coaches who left might have been fired anyway. This is how Nagy operated after the 2019 season.

Some team problems then were placed on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride and special teams assistant Brock Olivo. They were fired.

Nagy brought in Juan Castillo for the offensive line, Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator, Clancy Barone at tight end and promoted Brian Ginn to assistant special teams coach.

After sweeping defensive coaching changes this past offseason followed Chuck Pagano's retirement, it's fair to wonder how Nagy's massive hirings can work out on that side of the ball in a crucial 2021 season. Is this defense going to regress or collapse with an all new staff?

A look at how his offensive hirings after the 2019 season went might help draw conclusions about how his defensive hirings could work.

However, it's also necessary to point out Nagy made those hirings for 2020 largely on offense and this is his field of expertise.

Hiring defensive coaches is another matter, although he did hire Chuck Pagano following Vic Fangio's departure. The defense did take a step back under Pagano for various reasons but remained strong overall.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor

Nagy gave far more reponsibility to Lazor than to Helfrich. Lazor became a play caller, a bold move and one Nagy really had to come to grips with because he loves calling plays so much. Lazor also had to cope with a quarterback benching, the loss of the replacement with an injury and then turning to a completely new run-blocking scheme at midseason after the running game failed. It's a lot to put on any coordinator's plate and Lazor still had a big part in finding a way to get the losing streak stopped. They eventually burned some very weak defenses with the midseason offensive adjustments, but prior to going on their three-game winning streak to make the playoffs they appeared incapable of even doing this against weak defenses. The loss at home to Minnesota comes to mind.

So this hire definitely paid off. The Bears overall ranked a bit better in most offensive categories after they struggled to move the ball initially and played worse than during the previous season. They went from 29th on offense to 26th, improved from 29th in scoring to 22nd, went from 25th in passing yards to 22nd and from 27th in rushing yards to 25th. The midseason strategic changes to outside zone blocking had a good deal to do with this, as did the use of Mitchell Trubisky as quarterback within the scheme. A backdrop to all of this is how they managed to make all these changes and make the offense improve without benefit of an offseason working with their players. No one else had that benefit, either, but it still didn't make the job easier for Lazor. GRADE: B-

Offensive line coach Juan Castillo

Hiestand was a media favorite, having coached for the Bears under Lovie Smith during their run to the Super Bowl. While laying blame on him for the offensive line's troubles in 2019 seemed both an oversimplication and even scapegoating, the positive effect of Castillo's coaching definitely took root. He took a wayward, penalty-shocked spare piece from Seattle and transformed Germain Ifedi into an effective guard and then to at least an adequate tackle. None of this looked possible after Ifedi's struggles in Seattle. Undrafted practice squad center Sam Mustipher morphed into a total discovery after Castillo had to cope with the injury loss of possibly his best overall blocker, James Daniels. Statistics from Pro Football Focus had shown Cody Whitehair blocked best while playing center and not guard in the past. They moved him to left guard and he played at the highest level of his career for five weeks. Castillo took another practice squad player, Alex Bars, and fashioned a successful right guard.

All of these changes occurred at midseason and a great deal of it had to do with Castillo's extreme emphasis on blocking fundamentals from the start of training camp. The Bears drafted only two seventh-round offensive linemen who played one total game between them. They signed no one on the line who played to any extent beyond Ifedi, who didn't even get $1 million a year. And somehow their line improved drastically by season's end. With all due respect to Hiestand and his past accomplishments, this was a brilliant hiring. GRADE: A+

Tight Ends Coach Clancy Barone

It's difficult to give a great deal of blame to Gilbride for what happened at tight end in 2020 after injuries totally decimated this group. The Trey Burton saga, constant nagging injuries to Adam Shaheen and several other injuries led to 46 total catches by tight ends. So even with the injuries, this position group failed to adapt. Barone's experience let them bring along a rookie, and also blend in veteran Jimmy Graham after he had been cast off by the Packers. Little use was made of Demetrius Harris, and J.P. Holtz served a niche purpose.

The real points of emphasis were Graham and second-round pick Cole Kmet. Once Kmet was finally given more playing time, he flourished. He needs more use downfield and can always improve as a blocker, but Kmet's talent is obvious and Barone helped bring it out of him. Graham was brought in largely to help in the red zone. He caught eight TD passes, three more than he had for two combined seasons in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and did it with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback. They had 85 catches a year after they had 46, and can definitely stand to get even more in the future. GRADE: B.

Special Teams Assistant Brian Ginn

There had to be some wondering what a friend of Nagy's from Delaware, who had been an offensive assistant and played quarterback, would know about special teams. He knows about coaching, though. Ginn helped Chris Tabor stablize a fractured area. The kicking debacle of Cody Parkey in 2018 and fluctuations with Eddy Pineiro in 2019 became a team strength with Cairo Santos in 2020. They moved up from 16th to seventh in average starting field position on offense. Punter Pat O'Donnell had his best overall season. They went from 26th to sixth in the league at defending kickoffs. However, they fell off from 16th to 28th defending punts returns. They also dropped from seventh to 22nd in punt returns, but losing Tarik Cohen left them using everyone short of team website operator Larry Mayer as a punt returner. 

Perhaps the best thing this promotion did was help improve communications and eliminate some silly special teams mistakes, like when Pineiro wanted the ball spotted in a different place against the Chargers on a game-deciding missed kick. In 2020, they even had smart special teams plays, like when both Cordarrelle Patterson and Ryan Nall extended the sideline to create better field position by fielding the ball while standing out of bounds. GRADE: B.

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