Bears lack in player development

Ah, January.

It's that special time of year when we can stay inside, stuff our faces and become ill from the constant reminders of just how far the Bears are from playoff-caliber football.

Even with the comatose performance of the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, we are reminded that this is the same team that throttled the Bears 45-10, while Cedric Benson gashed the Jets' defense for 169 yards.

The Ex Factor

These former Bears are currently playing for playoff teams:

With 13 ex-Bears playing for eight playoff teams -- some enjoying a career resurgence -- it also begs the persistent question regarding player development.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo kept that discussion relevant late in the season when he said the team he gave Lovie Smith and his coaching staff was a good one. In other words, the coaching staff blew it for not developing its players.

As convoluted and wishy-washy as last week's memorable news conference was, Angelo did try to back off a bit, saying "a combination of a lot of things" have led to the Bears' woes. But firing six offensive assistant coaches pretty much hammered home the development point again.

So which is it? And how much is there to the development question? We know the Bears have blown it in the draft and in free agency, and we have seen Bears players change their careers for the better with a change of uniform.

Benson accepts some responsibility, as he should, for his Bears days being such a disaster. But what of the others? To find the answer, we did what all self-respecting reporters with a crayon at the ready do, and offered a former Bears assistant coach -- whom we respect and who has no more bitterness than the next guy -- speak on the subject anonymously, on the off chance he should want another job in the NFL again.

"I don't think there's a lot of it happening," the coach said of player development. "I think what happens during the season is that coaches get caught up in the preparation of the games, then all the younger players go by the wayside, and at the end of the day, the younger players go home."

The advent of hiring assistants for position coaches (which about 50 percent of the league now has, as do the Bears at most spots) has helped, but it isn't always enough. Those assistants must be qualified and willing to work solely with young players before and after practice on fundamentals and technique, and must do more work on Fridays and more work off the field as well, with lessons such as how to study film, something many players do not master.

"That's how you develop young players," the coach said. "You don't just stick them in a room and tell them to shut up and listen, because they get lost in the shuffle. A lot of [assistants] get caught up with other stuff -- like coaching the five, six guys who have to get prepared for Sunday -- and pay lip service to developing younger players. But you'd better have a method and organized scheme for those guys that is different from the others."

Training camp is evidently not much better, because most position coaches can have 15 or more players to manage. And in our source's estimation, 85 percent of the roster has been determined before camp even starts, with young and developing players rarely getting the practice reps they require.

As soon as players display too many bad habits or don't develop -- even if they were neglected in the coaching department -- they're cut, so sometimes you never know who would have developed. Sometimes they go to other teams that recognize their potential and spend more time developing them.

"They never fault scouts for bringing in bad players; it's always the coaches' fault for not developing them," the coach said.
He said scouts, particularly in the Bears' front office, are generally preoccupied with athletic ability.

"They'll say a guy can jump, run a 4.5 40, or he's too short or doesn't have long enough arms," he said. "[Coaches] don't give a [hoot] about that. I want to know how productive he is. And with quarterbacks, I want to know about his decision-making ability. Then let's see how tall he is or hear about his arm strength or footwork."

The most important position to develop? Our guy says there's no question -- it's quarterback.

"It needs to be developed and developed and developed," he said. "No matter how good you are on offense with your running backs, receivers, offensive line; no matter what kind of defense you have, that's the one key position. If you don't have that guy playing well, it doesn't work, and it affects the whole team."

Hello, Jay Cutler.

The days of hiring the best assistant coaches, the coach said, "are over."

He told a story about a position coach on another team asking another assistant to perform a fundamental coaching task.

"He came back an hour later and the guy couldn't do it," he said. "It was one of the first things you learn in high school [coaching]."

Young coaches, he said, might be able to draw up plays, but if they've never done it at the NFL level or worked with pro players, it shows on the field.

"There are a lot of great coaches out there if you take the time to look for them," he said.

Unfortunately for the Bears, he said, everyone in the business knows the coordinators' jobs are "a one-and-done deal [next year]. You think you're going to get Green Bay's defensive coordinator? It isn't going to happen. [The Bears] have to restructure the whole organization."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.