NFC North: Steve Wilks
Greener pastures. Chicago released cornerback Nathan Vasher after three consecutive sub-par seasons. No team wanted to see him rebound more than the Bears, who gave him a $28 million contract extension before the first of those three seasons. But Vasher never regained his 2006 form and the Bears finally gave up on him. It didn’t take long, however, for another team to grow convinced things would be different with them. That team was San Diego, which boasts two of Vasher’s former coaches on its staff. Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks each held similar positions with the Bears. The Chargers have minimal risk in the investment, but you wonder if they actually watched the film of Vasher’s play over the past three years. Rivera and Wilks are good coaches, but as they say, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie.
Jim Schwartz, Detroit head coach: As he enters his second year with the Lions, Schwartz knows the healthy thing to do would be to lower his blood pressure a bit during games. The Lions have a long way to go and are going to present him plenty of temper-inducing moments in the short term. But to his credit, Schwartz realizes that’s easier said than done. The worst thing he could do is begin accepting below-standard play. Schwartz said he will calm down once the team gets “the way we need [it] to be.” That should be a good thing for the Lions and their fans.
Let's continue our early look at the NFC North offseason with this season's second-place team.
Chicago Bears offseason analysis
- 2008 record: 9-7
- Coaching changes: Hired Rod Marinelli to replace defensive line coach Brick Haley. Put defensive coordinator Bob Babich in charge of linebackers, replacing Lloyd Lee. (Babich won't call defensive signals.) Replaced defensive backs coach Steve Wilks with Jon Hoke.
- Salary-cap space: $17.4 million before end-of-year credits and adjustments.
- Restricted free agents: None of note.
- Unrestricted free agents: Safety Mike Brown, quarterback Rex Grossman, running back Kevin Jones, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, safety Brandon McGowan, offensive lineman Fred Miller, offensive lineman John St. Clair.
- Draft highlight: The Bears have the No. 18 overall selection.
- Free-agency comment: It seems unlikely the Bears will bring back Brown or Grossman. Jones was nearly a nonfactor and reduced to special-teams work. Lloyd's fade in the second half of the season suggests the Bears won't be eager to bring him back.
- Three biggest needs: (1) Playmaking receiver to draw coverage away from Devin Hester. (2) A coverage-oriented safety to replace Brown and protect Kevin Payne. (3) A trusted running back to take some burden off starter Matt Forte. (Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if holdover Garrett Wolfe might get that chance.)
Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier made some oblique references Monday when asked about his experience interviewing for Detroit's head coaching job. You don't have to read too far between the lines to surmise that Frazier thought the Lions were much further away from competing than the Lions' front office does.
"I can tell you this, we had a difference of opinion in how we saw the current Lions and going forward. That was probably the biggest thing in my interview. We had a different perception. I'd rather not get into [the specifics]. But we had different perceptions of where to go and the length of time to get there. We were really far apart in that."
I suppose reasonable people can debate the state of the Lions' roster. But from the outside, this is one of the top fears of elevating team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. By human nature, they are looking to salvage whatever they can from the work they have already put into the team rather than simply starting anew. Time will tell if that is the most prudent tack.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- A key quote from Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy on his decision to hire a new defensive staff: "I felt that a number of things that occurred in Year 1 showed up again in Year 3." Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal has the full story. I'll be posting an extended entry later Tuesday on McCarthy's defensive turnaround.
- Lost in McCarthy's decision to hire new defensive and special teams coordinators was the firing of Packers strength and conditioning coordinator Rock Gullickson. According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy didn't believe that players were making enough strides in their physical development.
- Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times spoke Monday with Bears defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich, who will no longer call the team's defensive signals. Said Babich: "The Bears have great fans, and it was a disappointing season for us. I understand if there is criticism toward me. As the defensive coordinator, anything that goes on with the defense starts with me. I was held accountable by myself. There isn't any criticism outside of what we do within the staff that affects me because there is no one who can be harder on me than I am on myself.''
- Former Bears defensive backs coach Steve Wilks was formally hired in San Diego, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
What once appeared a tweak in the Chicago coaching staff has now turned into full-scale upheaval. The Bears fired linebackers coach Lloyd Lee on Tuesday, the third defensive assistant to leave the organization since the end of the season. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times has the story.
The Bears have now fired Lee and secondary coach Steve Wilks. Defensive line coach Brick Haley reportedly will join the staff at Louisiana State. As of Tuesday, the only defensive assistant remaining is the one many Chicago fans were hoping would depart: Defensive coordinator Bob Babich.
Former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli is a candidate for the defensive line job. The Bears have offered no comment on Babich's status, but from afar it appears that coach Lovie Smith has chosen Babich over the rest of the defensive staff. (Biggs reports that changing Babich's title could be a possibility.)
Six coaches are out in Green Bay, including the defensive coordinator. The Chicago Bears have paraded a long-time coaching friend through their facility. The Lions are looking for someone to lift them from the NFL's defensive dungeon. Minnesota will be searching for its eighth new coordinator in 11 years if their current defensive leader moves on.
It's clear that we Black and Bluers are in for a defensive overhaul in 2009. The Packers and Lions will each have new defensive coordinators, and possibly new schemes as well. The Bears desperately want former Lions coach Rod Marinelli to join their defensive staff as a trusted advisor, possibly as their new coordinator. And the Vikings could lose defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who will interview for at least two head coaching jobs this week.
Altering the makeup of a coaching staff is an annual rite of the NFL offseason, but this year's intensity is unusual for one division -- especially when only one team has fired its head coach. But 2008 was an especially dreary year for three of your NFC North defenses, and so it's not surprising to learn that no one is standing pat.
Former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli is visiting Chicago's practice facility Friday, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. Although Marinelli's agent stressed that no deal has been finalized, it seems clear that he will join the Bears' coaching staff in some capacity this offseason.
As of Friday, the Bears had created only one opening on their staff, having fired defensive backs coach Steve Wilks. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich and defensive line coach Brick Haley, whose jobs Marinelli would seem most likely to take if he were hired, remain on the payroll.
But Marinelli has a long history with Bears coach Lovie Smith and Bears general manager Jerry Angelo from the trio's time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's possible Marinelli could take Haley's job along with an assistant head coach's title.
Marinelli's agent, Frank Bauer, also represents Smith and Babich. Bauer told the Sun-Times that Marinelli is going to "take his time" deciding on his future plans. But there is a widespread belief in the NFL that Marinelli will eventually find his way to Chicago.
The Bears will need to handle this situation delicately. The fact that coaching candidates are visiting while Babich remains employed suggests the Bears are still weighing his future.
But bringing in Marinelli, while retaining Babich, would create a situation that historically is difficult to manage. Babich might technically remain in charge of the defense, but you would have to assume Marinelli would assume an unusually significant role for a non-coordinator. That creates chain-of-command issues that almost always lead to internal factioning.
To make it work, Marinelli, Babich and Smith would have to forge an exceptional relationship to present a united front and maintain a clear hierarchy. In the reality of today's NFL, that's a tough task.