The Chicago Bears yesterday announced the firing of defensive line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar. In that press release came the revelation that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will be retained for at least one more season.
"We believe Mel is the right person to lead our defensive unit," coach Marc 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."
Tucker will stay on board after Chicago's defense had its worst season in the 94-year history of the organization. The Bears set records in yards allowed (6,313, 30th in the NFL) and points allowed (478, 30th in the NFL), and finished dead last in the league in rushing defense for the first time ever. Opposing offenses rushed for 161.4 yards and posted 29.9 points per game against the Bears this year, which is unheard of for a franchise that has always prided itself on defensive dominance.
The defense allowed 40 or more points in four contests this year, including a 45-41 loss in Week 7 to the Washington Redskins – the first time in franchise history the Bears lost a game when scoring 40-plus.
And when the 2013 campaign was on the line, the defense made two egregious mental errors – a fumble that no one touched and a blown coverage on 4th and 8 – that resulted in season-ending touchdowns to the Green Bay Packers.
Heads rolled, with the axe falling on the two assistants directly responsible for the front seven, yet Tucker is left standing.
For Tucker, it all came down to injuries. He lost his starting nickelback (Kelvin Hayden), his Pro Bowl under tackle (Henry Melton) and his primary backup (Nate Collins), his middle linebacker (D.J. Williams), his Pro Bowl cornerback (Charles Tillman) and his seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker (Lance Briggs), while defensive tackle Stephen Paea was hobbled with a severe turf toe injury for most of the year. And we'd be remiss if we left out defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who retired the first day of training camp.
"We all can easily reflect on what happened late [in the season] but let me just tell you and reiterate what we saw as we looked at our defense initially," Trestman said at his post-season press conference. "We saw speed on tape. We saw a sense of urgency on tape. We saw disruption at the line of scrimmage on tape. We saw a defense that forced turnovers. We saw a defense that scored. We saw players making plays. We saw 11 turnovers in the first three games of the season. We created 44 the year before. We saw things going in the right direction.
"I saw Henry Melton disrupting the middle of the line of scrimmage and Nate Collins disrupting the middle of the line of scrimmage. I saw D.J. Williams blowing up piles and running with speed to the ball. I saw Lance Briggs playing at a Pro Bowl level and certainly Charles Tillman not only making plays but the physicality with which he tackled and the sense of urgency with which he played the game. And I saw Tim [Jennings] making plays and scoring touchdowns.
"So I saw something completely different in a lot of ways than I saw at the end of the season. I saw a healthy Stephen Paea making plays and moving the line of scrimmage and running to the football. And I reminded myself that our nickel, Kelvin Hayden, hadn't even made it through OTAs."
So Tucker gets a pass due to the injuries and it makes sense, to a certain extent. Few defensive coordinators in the league are forced to cobble together a productive unit without two-thirds of their starters, including three Pro Bowlers, and a 33-year-old Julius Peppers who finally hit a wall. The injuries also forced Tucker to slide his best edge rusher, Corey Wootton, inside to defensive tackle, which left him no choice but to make Shea McClellin an every-down player. That wasn't Tucker's fault.
"We needed a pass rusher to step us, Shea contributed greatly in terms of our overall production … but he did not have enough impact plays. Sacks are king and Shea did not have enough of those," GM Phil Emery said. "What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have. Putting him at defensive end, that's on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed. He produced in a positive way but the overall impact of the last two seasons has not been at a high enough level."
In essence, Tucker was asked to build a car with a broken-down chassis, a motor from 1999 and two flat tires. He made a number of mistakes and things snowballed out of control very quickly, with on-field confusion and miscommunication far too prevalent on a weekly basis, but you can't ask a guy to walk when you've cut off both his feet … or at least that's the way Trestman looks at it.
The problem is Tucker's history as a defensive coordinator, in seasons when he wasn't handcuffed by injuries. In five previous seasons as a DC (one in Cleveland, four in Jacksonville) Tucker produced a Top 10 defense just once, in 2011 as the de-facto coordinator under Jack Del Rio. Other than that, it's been nothing but less-than-mediocre results under Tucker, including ranking dead last in the NFL in sacks in each of the past two years.
What is it about Tucker's history that gives Trestman confidence he can right the ship? It's a question every Bears fan in the country is asking themselves right now, one few can answer.
This is a bold move by Trestman. Even Lovie Smith fired Terry Shea after one horrible season as his first offensive coordinator in 2004. Granted, Shea didn't have the excuse of injuries, but if Tucker fails again in 2014, folks will be screaming for both his head and Trestman's head next offseason. Smith was fired because he could not find a competent offensive coordinator, despite getting five shots at it. Trestman is already heading down that same path, only on the other side of the ball.
Only time will tell if keeping Tucker is the wrong move. He may be a budding coordinator who just needs a healthy group of players to show his greatness. But he may also be the next Mike Tice, which could ultimately set the defense back for years.
If it's the latter, those quietly questioning Trestman's decision making will be screaming about it a year from now.
The Bears had championship-caliber defenses under Smith but couldn't win a Super Bowl because his offenses, in nine seasons, never ranked higher than 15th – which not coincidentally came in 2006, the year they made it to the Super Bowl. It would be a shame if championships again fell by the wayside because another head coach, who did wonders with the offense this year, can't find a competent coordinator on the other side of the ball.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.