- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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After the worst defensive season in Chicago Bears history, there were bound to be casualties.
That is, beside all the hair follicles pulled out across Chicagoland as fans marveled how one team could miss that many tackles.
The first two casualties were announced Sunday in between the two divisional-round games when the Bears fired two assistant coaches.
Ah, assistant coaches. The traditional sacrifices when a coach is on the hot seat. In this case, the coach is defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Tucker is safe, for the time being. Head coach Marc Trestman announced, via a media release, that Tucker will return for his second season. There is no word on whether the Bears are officially adding "embattled" to his job title. Let's just say he and Chris Conte won't be asked to sing the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field. But, hey, at least Tucker has a season to save himself.
"We believe Mel is the right person to lead our defensive unit," went the words attributed to Trestman. "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."
Simply by mentioning Tucker in the email announcing the firing of defensive line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, Trestman has put him on public notice. I suppose being in charge of the worst rushing defense in the NFL -- not to mention the worst in Bears history -- was notice enough, but just in case Tucker didn't get the message, here you go.
Replacing Rod Marinelli and Lovie Smith wasn't going to be easy, but circumstances made Tucker's job unenviable, to say the least.
It didn't help that seemingly every running back, a few fans and a can of RC Cola ran for 100 yards against the once-feared Bears defense.
I'm not sure this qualifies as irony, but it was fitting -- given the history of the organization -- that as Trestman's offense took off, even under backup Josh McCown, the defense faltered.
A few days after the Bears finished the season 8-8 with a last-minute loss to the Green Bay Packers, Trestman and general manager Phil Emery praised Tucker in their exit meeting with the media but also refused to give him a public acquittal.
In the end, they kept Tucker and did the usual smokescreen: They fired some of his underlings and are hoping for the best.
After two weeks of analysis, the Bears fired Phair -- a holdover from the Smith staff -- and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, who came from Purdue but had worked in Montreal with Trestman.
Hard-core Bears fans might have heard of Phair, but, aside from family, friends and linebackers, Tibesar was pretty much an unknown. After all, wasn't Brian Urlacher the previous linebackers coach?
Of course, the failures in the front seven doomed the defense. That's how it works. If you get good pressure up front and can stop the run, it doesn't matter as much that your safeties take bad angles.
But when you can't get pressure -- and how the Bears were trying to do so was a cause for debate -- and your linebackers' inexperience is exposed, the defense can't work.
In related news, I'm not sure how much of a difference a position coach makes when he doesn't have players to work with.
The Bears lost defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins for 24 combined games and Stephen Paea for another three. Shea McClellin is playing out of position at defensive end, and even Emery, who drafted him, agreed with that by the end of the season. Julius Peppers is close to the end. I don't know what Phair could've done, but what he did didn't help.
As far as Tibesar, he lost D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs for much of the season, forcing the Bears to start two rookies and James Anderson. But the rookies -- Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene -- didn't show noticeable improvement.
From the time injuries started to mount, the theme of the defense this season was, "It doesn't always get better."
Are Trestman and Emery taking a bit of gamble by keeping Tucker? Yes, judged by the results he should've been a goner.
Is this a mistake? That's tough to say until we see how the Bears play next season. It's not as though Tucker was some kind of failed dictator who lost his team, but this is a results league. Are the Bears throwing away another season by keeping him? It's questions like this one that decide a franchise's future. A fork in the road and all that.
On one hand, Trestman and Emery needed to show some decisive action by replacing Tucker, just in case, you know, some of the defense's shortcomings were actually his fault.
On the other hand, what does it say when they fire a coordinator after one season? A coordinator who felt obligated to run his predecessor's defensive scheme and was beset by one of the worst injury runs in the league?
While coaches get the credit, or the heat, the success of the unit has more to do with players than schemes. The Bears have to load up this season and completely recreate the defense. It'll be on Tucker to give those players an outlet to realize their talents. It'll be up to Tucker to organize and strategize. But it's up to his bosses to pick the players.
The root of the Bears' defensive failures came up front. It was Emery's fault that there wasn't enough depth on the defensive line -- he can thank free-agent signing Sedrick Ellis for retiring as training camp started -- and at linebacker. He admitted as much.
But it's years before you can start blaming Emery for a failure to fix the defense in the same way his predecessor got axed after years of fiddling with the offense.
For now, you can just blame the players and point fingers at the coaches.
The players, naturally, stuck up for Tucker during the season and at the locker room move-out day.
Well, most of them.
Briggs, the defensive captain of the team, avoided the media at the end of the season, but he did talk in his paid appearance on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
"I mean, the thing about having a big-time offense is that it ain't gonna matter if you don't have a defense," Briggs said on Chicago SportsTalk Live. "If someone can't stop an opponent from getting in the end zone or special teams, we might have a much better offense, but we have taken a hit on defense and we've taken a hit on special teams.
"We got to find who we are," Briggs continued. "We have to recreate our identity. That's what it is. It's an attitude. It's the character of our defense."
I'm not sure how much longer Briggs will last as the face of this defense. "Peanut" Tillman and Peppers look like they're done. The familiar faces will soon be forgotten.
Until a player steps up to take the reins, is Tucker the right guy to embody that Chicago Bears attitude? It's a question that Trestman has to be confident can be answered affirmatively. But it's a question that even he can't answer with confidence.
Mel Tucker coached the Bears' worst defense ever, but was he solely to blame?