In the middle of a cold January night, the Chicago Bears hit a brilliant home run. Either that, or they struck out wildly. I just don't see much gray area in their decision to hire Marc Trestman as their next head coach, a man who was once a hot coaching candidate but was so thoroughly rejected by NFL teams that he fled to the CFL five years ago.
The Bears were so excited about hiring Trestman as their next head coach that they announced it in a press release issued at 4:07 a.m. local time. His arrival is either a stroke of genius for general manager Phil Emery, who clearly sought an offensive guru for this role, or a classic case of overthinking a process in hopes of finding the perfect candidate in an imperfect world.
There was a time when Trestman was the Mike McCoy of the NFL -- the league's top young offensive assistant with an impressive résumé of success who seemed destined for a head coach's job. That time, quite frankly, was more than two decades ago and predates the teen years of most players on the Bears' roster.
Trestman's offenses were explosive and innovative and loved by the quarterbacks who ran them. In recent days, some of those quarterbacks have advanced the cause of a coach they feel was unfairly passed over. We've heard from Rich Gannon and Steve Young, among others. They've spoken of Trestman's work with them, along with his success in developing a long list of other quarterbacks that include Bernie Kosar, Jake Plummer and Scott Mitchell. And Trestman's biggest benefactor might be former Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, who hired him with the Minnesota Vikings in the mid-1980s.
You would be excused for a double-take after reading those names. Grant retired for good in 1985. Kosar has been out of the NFL for 17 years. Young's last season with Trestman was 1996. Mitchell last played in 2001. Today's NFL players probably view Gannon, the league's MVP in 2002, as a television analyst more than a contemporary.
In an industry in which teams are always looking for the next great head coach, Trestman was passed over repeatedly and without fail. His NFL success dates back to a long-gone era in a fast-moving league.
So in my view, Emery has either plucked a savant with exceptional ability to adapt over time or he has hired a relic based on a profile -- smart, innovative with head-coaching success -- whose window closed a long time ago. As we noted earlier this week, men of Trestman's age (57) almost never get a chance to be a first-time NFL head coach. Fair or not, general managers and owners value recent success and surely connect it to understanding the latest trends in the league.
Trestman's run as an NFL assistant began in 1985 -- when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was 2 years old -- and ended around 2002. His last NFL job, before he returned to the college ranks and later moved to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, was in 2004. Eight years is a long time to be away from the day-to-day workings of an industry.
To be clear, that alone doesn't make Trestman a bad hire or even over the hill. It means he is unique relative to the way NFL teams have typically done business in recent years, and it's why I think his chances to be a brutal strikeout are just as high as the possibility that he is a monster home run.
Living in Minnesota for the past 13 years, I can't tell you how many people I've heard speak reverentially about Trestman, a native of the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park who played at the University of Minnesota. Those people range from Grant to Gannon to people Trestman went to high school with. They all believe he is a brilliant offensive strategist and quarterback guru, one whose professorial and quiet demeanor perhaps clouded the view of NFL teams who questioned his ability to command a room and lead an entire team. His name has been championed for every head-coach opening the Vikings and the University of Minnesota have had since I've lived here, and yet he has never received serious interest.
In terms of profile, Trestman fits everything you would imagine a general manager such as Emery would want. He has previous success in developing quarterbacks and has the capacity to elevate Cutler's game if the quarterback buys in. His ego is small enough, by all accounts, to trust the front office with all personnel moves. He was humble enough to take a CFL job and good enough to win two Grey Cups in the process.
But any skepticism is completely understandable. That previous NFL success is in many cases decades old, with schemes whose popularity have waned and with quarterbacks who haven't played in a long time. His success in Canada is better than the alternative, but the CFL is undeniably a different game at a lower level of competition with players of dissimilar mindsets than those in the NFL.
Without question, hiring Marc Trestman was a courageous decision. There are plenty of people who consider it brilliant and decades in the making. The bottom line, however, is that most of the NFL rendered its judgment on him -- right or wrong, fair or otherwise -- a long time ago. Are the Bears smarter than everyone else? We'll soon find out.