After a season in which the defense hit historic lows, change was necessary. Which is why Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman yesterday fired defensive line coach Mike Phair and linebackers coach Tom Tibesar.
Phair was one of two holdovers from the Lovie Smith era – the other being defensive backs coach John Hoke, who somehow avoided the axe – while Tibesar was a first-year NFL coach who had previously worked with Trestman in the CFL. The Bears had the fewest sacks of any team last year and finished last in the league against the run for the first time in franchise history. Phair and Tibesar took the fall.
Coordinator Mel Tucker kept his job and will be given a second chance due to the inordinate amount of injuries to the defense in 2013. Yet wasn't it the linebackers and defensive line that were hit hardest by the injury bug? Why does Tucker get a pass and not Phair or Tibesar?
The answer might have something to do with the direction the defense is headed. Trestman admitted during his post-season press conference that everything is on the table in terms of the defense going forward, which includes a potential switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense.
"We know we have the coaching ability to move scheme. We have that kind of intellect in this building," Trestman said. "We're not looking to put a square peg in a round hole. [GM] Phil [Emery] is going to do everything he can to give us the best possible players that we can, and he did this past year. It's our job, from that standpoint, to bring out the best in those players and create the environment schematically to bring out the best in them.
"So I don't know. Everything is on the table in terms of a discussion. Once we get an evaluation from inside-out of what our players can do, then we'll move forward with what we can do with them schematically, and then we'll have an influx of players, as well. Phil said it. We're going to get younger. Part of our decisions and how we move forward schematically will be based on the players that are in our locker room."
The firing of Tibesar and Phair could be the first step in an eventual shift to a 3-4, a defense the Bears have never run in the 94-year history of the franchise. Remember, Tucker coached a 3-4 in his first year as a defensive coordinator, in 2008 with the Cleveland Browns, so it wouldn't be anything new for him.
On top of that, the Bears two years ago used a first-round pick on a 3-4 outside linebacker, Shea McClellin, whom Emery said will no longer asked to play 4-3 defensive end.
"What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have," said Emery. "Putting him at defensive end, that's on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed."
Even Trestman said he's willing to move McClellin to linebacker.
"That's part of this process as we move forward with the players that we do have: What is the best way to create uncertainty from an offensive standpoint, to create disruption?" said Trestman. "We'll look hard at Shea doing other things besides being lined up at defensive end. If that means moving him to a linebacker position as we move forward, that will be under consideration as well."
The Bears have expiring contracts with seven of last year's opening-day starters, as well as those of defensive tackle Nate Collins and nickelback Kelvin Hayden, and Emery admitted the defense is going to get younger.
"We're going to be a younger defense," Emery said. "The draft will be focused in that area."
So if there was ever a time to institute a sweeping schematic shift, now is the time to do it. Emery can use the draft to find young, franchise players well suited for a 3-4, while purging those players built for a 4-3. If the team dumps Julius Peppers' $18 million contract, they'll then have money to sign 3-4 free agents as well.
Shifting a front seven doesn't happen overnight and requires changes across the board. That starts with the coaching staff, and the Bears have already fired the two men who were in charge of the front seven last season. When you throw in all the expiring contracts and the team's dedication to youth on defense, don't be surprised if Tucker and company trot out a 3-4 defense in Week 1 of 2014.
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.