Deconstructing Bears’ demise: Marc Trestman

In Part II of our effort to figure out how the Bears got here - 5-7 and with no hope of the playoffs - we look at the role of head coach Marc Trestman, who has struggled to maintain control of a once-proud franchise.

“There is a heck of a football coach under all that quietness and confidence and intellect. Do not underestimate Marc Trestman as a competitor. He's as tough-minded and football-oriented than anybody I've been around in 31 years in this game. It'll be evident when you see this team play.” –Phil Emery (Jan. 17, 2013)

Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman is highly intelligent. He’s a man who takes his job as a coach seriously. In his book, “Perseverance”, he discusses his role in his player’s lives as more than a coach, into the realm of mentor. He’s systematic in his approach to the game, to his coaching staff and to his players, one who doesn’t get too caught up in the emotional roller coaster of a football season.

There is a lot of good when it comes to Trestman as a head football coach. He’s organized, professional and experienced, and he represents well the teams for which he’s worked. He’s had success at the NCAA, NFL and CFL levels, working his way up the coaching ladder for more than 25 years.

Trestman can be an asset to any NFL organization, yet after two years in charge of the Bears, he might have bit off more than he can chew, with the team spiraling downward during his second season.

At 5-7, Chicago’s playoffs hopes are almost non-existent. The team will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row under Trestman and when it comes down to it, winning football games is the main criteria by which a coach should be judged. With a 12-15 record through 27 regular-season games, Trestman has not made the Bears a better football team. In fact, they’ve been the laughing stock of the league at times the past two years.

For an organization with as rich and proud a history as the Chicago Bears, that’s unacceptable.

Call Up from the Minors

In baseball, prospects often fire out of the gates once called into MLB duty. Pitchers and batters both tend to elevate quickly during their first month at the major-league level, as the rest of the teams don’t have sufficient data on those players. Yet usually after a few weeks, the rookies tend to level off once the league has developed a book on them.

It’s a similar situation for Trestman, who was out of the NFL for eight years before taking over last season. As a result, Chicago’s offense was an unknown commodity. Opposing defenses struggled to game plan for a system about which they knew little.

Not surprisingly, the Bears finished Top 10 in total offense and fifth in passing. The team returned all 11 offensive starters this year, so the expectation was that Trestman would take the offense to an elite level.

Yet the rest of the league built a book on Trestman during the 2013 campaign and were much better prepared for his West Coast attack this season. That should have been expected. Unfortunately for the Bears, Trestman wasn’t prepared for the adjustments of opposing defenses and failed to adjust his offense accordingly.

Because of that, the Bears are two games under .500 and out of the playoff race. The offense ranks 20th overall, 14th in passing and 22nd in points scored.

Not only did Trestman’s offense regress its first season, it essentially cost the Bears a chance at the postseason.

Blueprint to Mediocrity

As a play caller, Trestman is far too reliant on the passing attack. In the CFL, teams often live and die by the passing game. There are 12 players on the field and one wide receiver is allowed a running head start before the snap. With the clock stopping after every possession in the final three minutes of each half, it’s a points-driven league where an efficient passing attack can quickly erase sizable leads.

Conversely, in the NFL, balance is necessary. One-dimensional offenses get you nowhere unless Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning are under center. Otherwise, you’re doomed for failure.

This season, the Bears have been anything but balanced. En route to a 3-6 start this year, Matt Forte carried the ball more than 20 times in just one of the team’s first nine games. Only when the club had dug itself a huge hole did Trestman begin to feed his workhorse back, giving Forte 23 and 26 carries in back-to-back victories in Weeks 11 and 12.

Yet after the team had climbed to 5-6 and put the fate of the season in their own hands, Trestman reverted to his pass-heavy ways, running the ball just seven times against the Detroit Lions. That includes just one run in the second half, despite being down just 10 at halftime.

In essence, Trestman developed an insufficient and ineffective game plan for a crucial road game against an NFC North opponent that could have resurrected Chicago’s season. Of all the times to lose your nerve …

Two Steps Back

Trestman has a long, successful history with NFL quarterbacks. He’s helped develop Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Steve Young and Rich Gannon, to name a few. A former quarterback himself, Trestman was brought to Chicago to cure Jay Cutler, a supremely talented passer no coach has been able to corral.

On the surface, Cutler is having a very solid year. He’s on pace to shatter nearly every single-season record of his career. Yet the struggles of the offense are firmly on his shoulders. Most of his numbers have come in garbage time, as he’s routinely wilted with games on the line.

One of the biggest problems for the offense is that Trestman and Cutler have no answer for zone coverage. When opposing secondaries drop into zone and face Cutler, they’ve been able to easily read his eyes and anticipate throws. That’s because Cutler locks onto his targets and almost never gets to his third progression.

In addition, Cutler is still throwing off his back foot, which kills his accuracy and leads to balls sailing over the heads of receivers.

Trestman was brought in to cure Cutler’s bad habits. Instead Chicago’s franchise signal caller has regressed, which is why he leads the NFL in total turnovers.

Tenuous Grasp

Under Trestman, there is very little accountability.

Martellus Bennett began the offseason by picking numerous fights with teammates on the practice field. Trestman did nothing and the situation rose to a boiling point.

After a fairly innocuous play in training camp, Bennett picked up Kyle Fuller, the club’s first-round draft pick, and slammed him to the ground. That slam could have easily landed Fuller on IR.

Trestman’s response, “That will be handled in-house.”

The next day, GM Phil Emery held an impromptu press conference in the middle of practice – which was anything but in-house – to announce Bennett had been suspended.

Obviously, Emery had to step in and quell a situation that spiraled out of control. Since then, Bennett has been the perfect teammate and is having the best season of his career. The suspension sent him a message he received, yet the act of suspending him was lost on Trestman.

Since then, Lance Briggs left on the first practice of the regular season to open a BBQ joint, Lamarr Houston tore his ACL celebrating a sack with the Bears being blown out – just weeks after he told fans on Twitter to “eat dirt” – and Brandon Marshall recently threatened a Lions fan with physical violence on a public forum.

Trestman is adamant about treating his players like men. That makes sense but only to a point. Players every year remind us how childish they can be. At some point, the top dog needs to assert his authority or he risks losing the pack.

In addition, both of Trestman’s coordinators – Mel Tucker and Joe DeCamillis – have failed to live up to expectations. Both are guiding league-worst units. Tucker sets franchise records in futility seemingly every week – the Bears recently became only the second team in NFL history to give up 50 or more points in back-to-back contests – yet both coordinators are still employed.

At a certain point you have to wonder what someone has to do, how badly they have to fail at their job or how badly they have to embarrass the organization, for Trestman to bring down the hammer.

Doused

Trestman doesn’t scream or chastise players. He’s not a rah-rah coach in any sense and his coaching style rubs a lot folks the wrong way, just ask former Bears linebacker Blake Costanzo.

“(Trestman) has made the Bears soft,” Costanzo Tweeted following the Bears’ loss to the Dolphins. “I took pride in wearing that jersey. Ditka, Urlacher, Briggs. Unreal man. No respect.”

A coach doesn’t have to scream to gain his player’s respect. Lovie Smith is known as a player’s coach and he never yells. But at some point you must light a fire under your players, in whatever form that takes. Trestman, for all his intelligence, does not have that in him. That lack of fire has carried over to the field in the form of numerous second-half collapses in which the team, for all intents and purposes, gave up.

Next Man Up?

In hiring Trestman, Emery was looking to hit a grand slam. He passed on the easy double in the right-field gap (Bruce Arians) and the opposite field single (Darrell Bevell), and instead swing for the fences.

As most baseball fans are well aware, the guys looking to knock the ball out of the park at every bat are often the guys who strike out the most.

Emery is a risk taker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yet he swung and missed with Trestman.

Now it’s time to pick up the pieces. The problem is that Trestman is great value. Contracts for NFL coaches are not public knowledge but it’s widely believed he’s the lowest-paid coach in the NFL. The McCaskey family has always been frugal, so why would they eat a friendly contract, on top of the much larger contract they’d be forced to give a new head coach? From a business standpoint, that makes sense, and the Bears are, in every sense of the word, a business.

Which is why it’s easy to foresee Trestman keeping his job for one more season.

That decision won’t be made until the season is over, which gives added significance to the next four games. If the Bears roll over and close out the campaign 1-3, it would be tough to justify bringing back a 6-10 coach who lost his team.

Yet if the Bears finish strong and beat the Cowboys, Saints and Lions, that would easily be enough incentive to keep Trestman and his friendly contract on board for one more year.

Trestman is a good person and solid football mind. If the Bears hand him his pink slip, he’ll likely have success elsewhere as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach. Those are the roles for which he’s best suited.

Unfortunately for both him and the Bears, the honeymoon is over, and it appears the relationship is headed toward divorce.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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