- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Chicago Bears announced on Sunday they won't be bringing back defensive line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar for 2014. Given all the scrutiny surrounding a defense that suffered a historic collapse in surrendering the most points (478) in franchise history, total yards (6,313), and rushing yards, it was pretty much guaranteed someone would be held accountable.
Obviously, Phair and Tibesar were left holding the bag. But the move to dismiss them can't be categorized as entirely unfair.
In Phair's case, he was dealt a difficult hand having lost Henry Melton and Nate Collins to season-ending injuries. But Phair was never able to get the best out of former first-round pick Shea McClellin (29 tackles, four sacks), and defensive tackle Stephen Paea, although hobbled most of the year with a turf toe injury, posted 29 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in his third season, after producing at least two sacks in each of his first two years. Perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, meanwhile, finished with 7 ½ sacks after generating 11 sacks or more in each of the last two years. Of all the club's defensive linemen expected to play key roles in 2013, it's probably safe to say that Corey Wootton was the only player to show any improvement of that group.
No outside candidates to replace Phair have emerged, but it's likely the Bears will promote assistant defensive line coach Michael Sinclair to the post. In his first year with the Bears, Sinclair worked under head coach Marc Trestman as the defensive line coach of the Montreal Alouettes for all of the coach's years in the Canadian Football League.
Tibesar had also spent time with Trestman in the CFL, but worked all of 2012 as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Purdue before joining the Bears. The Bears started the season with a veteran group at linebacker in D.J. Williams, James Anderson and Lance Briggs, but the position group fell off dramatically when forced to play rookies Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene for extended periods due to injuries to the veterans.
While Bostic showed promise early on, he improved slightly, but not significantly enough as the season progressed, which was likely unacceptable for Trestman and general manager Phil Emery, given the rookie's tremendous upside, coupled with the fact he received plenty of snaps at one of the most important positions on Chicago's defense to gain enough experience to make a marked jump. Even after Briggs returned from a seven-game absence and was paired alongside Anderson and Bostic, the group still struggled.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker drew most of the criticism from the general public for the collapse of the franchise's once-vaunted defense in 2013, but several factors such as injuries conspired beyond his control as well as Phair and Tibesar. During the team's thorough self-evaluation over the past several days, the Bears looked closely at every aspect and likely determined they could coax more out of the linebackers and defensive line than Emery and Trestman thought Phair and Tibesar were capable of.
What does it mean for Tucker? That's unknown, but Trestman gave Tucker another vote of confidence when the team made the announcement Sunday about Phair and Tibesar. Tucker will join some of the team's other staff members on Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the East-West Shrine Bowl.
“We believe Mel is the right person to lead our defensive unit,” Trestman said. “He fully understands where we need to improve, has the skill set and leadership to oversee the changes that need to be made, and to execute our plan to get the results we know are necessary.”
It's also likely that Tucker understands he's absolutely got to deliver results in 2014, regardless of the circumstances thrown his way or he'll wind up like Phair and Tibesar.