Thursday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys was a prototypical game for the 2014 Chicago Bears. The offense couldn’t move the ball until the game was out of hand, the defense gave up 41 points, and special teams allowed two blocked punts, a punt-return touchdown (which was called back) and committed three penalties.
Par for the course.
The loss to the Cowboys officially squashed any hope the Bears have at making the playoffs, and once again, it was a team effort.
No one is surprised, as these are the same issues the Monsters of the Midway dealt with last season: a turnstile defense and egregiously undisciplined special teams units.
So what’s to be done?
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker came to the Bears after four seasons running Jacksonville’s defense. During those four years between 2009-2012, the Jaguars ranked 23rd, 28th, 6th and 30th in total defense.
In addition to running the 30th ranked defense in 2012, Tucker also led a unit that ranked dead last in sacks (20).
Tucker lacked elite-level talent in Jacksonville, so it was assumed that, with the bevy of top-notch players left over from the Lovie Smith era, he would have much more success in Chicago.
Yet in 2013, the Bears finished 30th in total defense and 32nd against the run. It was the first time in the 95-year history of the franchise the team finished last in the league against the run.
Injuries decimated that defense, particularly along the front seven. It was the excuse given by both head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery as the reason Tucker was retained.
Emery stepped in this offseason and promised Tucker more talent with which to work. He then went out and signed Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Jared Allen and Ryan Mundy in free agency, while using four of the team’s first five draft picks on defensive players.
Yet even with all that new talent, Tucker’s 2014 defense has been even worse than his 2013 unit.
Through 13 games, the Bears currently rank 32nd in the NFL in total defense, passing defense and points allowed.
This is, far and away, the worst defense in the league. They’ve had their moments but collectively no other unit in the NFL can match Chicago’s ineptitude on a weekly basis.
There have been significant injuries for sure (Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Lamarr Houston) but every team deals with injuries. That excuse no longer holds water.
Bears fans have been calling for Tucker’s head since about midway through the 2013 campaign. There’s even a “Fire Mel Tucker” Web site and Facebook page.
In spite of all that, Tucker is still in charge of Chicago’s defense and has the full support of his head coach.
“I watch him work every day. I watch him communicate with these players. I watch him work on the field with these players. To me he's doing everything he can under the circumstances to coach, to teach and to lead that side of the ball, and he's got a very good staff with him,” Trestman said during the bye week. “They're great teachers, they're veteran coaches who have been in a lot of situations, as Mel has. He's been through these types of things, and I feel very confident that he's doing the things that he can do to help us go forward.”
Beyond the fact his players appear to lack motivation or discipline, beyond the fact he’s consistently out-schemed by opposing offensive coordinators, beyond the fact he’s taken a franchise known for its defensive prowess and made it the laughing stock of the league, Tucker’s biggest fault is his inability to mentally prepare his players, both before and during games.
For two seasons, Chicago’s linebackers have appeared lost on the field. Even with a well-respected linebackers coach in Reggie Herring, Jon Bostic continues to make the same mistakes – filling incorrect gaps, overrunning plays and wandering around in coverage with little idea of where to go.
At the same time, there has been no point in team history where the safeties have lacked as much discipline as they do under Tucker.
The most obvious example of this came in last year’s season finale, when a missed call on the field in the game’s most crucial moment resulted in Packers receiver Randall Cobb running wide open 30 yards down the field for a touchdown that shattered the team’s playoff hopes.
Players play and Chicago’s defenders deserve a lot of the blame for the collective performance of the defense over the last two years. Yet mental mistakes, those are the fault of the coach. To see those mistakes repeated week after week, it’s obvious Tucker isn’t getting through to his players and that very little will change with him in charge.
Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis is a veteran NFL coach. Since 1988, he’s served in the NFL as a special teams coach for six different organizations. There’s little he hasn’t seen before and his experience is what made him so attractive to Trestman and Emery.
Remember, DeCamillis was interviewed by Emery for the head coaching position last year. He’s held in high esteem by Bears brass, yet the play of Chicago’s special teams units has been anything but special the past two years.
This season in particular, things have unraveled under DeCamillis, dating all the way back to training camp.
The Bears brought two punters to Bourbonnais: Tress Way and sixth-round rookie Patrick O’Donnell. The team stuck with O’Donnell despite Way out-kicking him in camp. Currently, Way leads the league in average yards per punt (48.3) while O’Donnell is 30th out of 32 in punting average (43.3).
In the offseason, DeCamillis worked out two long snappers: Brandon Hartson and Chad Rempel. From the start of OTAs through training camp, the two long snappers competed. Hartson won the competition, yet was waived during the week of practice leading up to the regular-season opener.
In essence, it took an NFL coach with 25 years experience four months to decide neither long snapper was worth keeping.
Finding a legitimate kick returner this year has been even more comical. The club held an open competition in camp for the job, yet no one claimed the position. As a result, four different players have served as the club’s starting kick returner during the season, forcing the club to sign a free-agent off the street, Marc Mariani, less than a month ago.
The punt returner position has also been a carousel, with three players serving as the starting PR during the year.
Under DeCamillis this season, here are Chicago’s current special teams rankings:
Field goal percentage, 30th Kickoff return average, 20th Punt return average, 28th Opponent kickoff return average, 22nd Opposing punt return average, 10th Yard per punt, 30th Special teams penalties, 32nd Punts blocked by opponents, 32nd
Other than covering punts, the Bears are in the bottom third of every special teams category. Even Robbie Gould, the most reliable player on the team the past decade, is having the worst year of his career.
Not all of this is DeCamillis’ fault. He didn’t let Devin Hester walk. He didn’t waste a draft pick on a punter. He didn’t sign mediocre returner after mediocre returner.
It’s also highly unlikely DeCamillis signed off on waiving Craig Steltz – who for six years manned the up-back spot on punts, through which three kicks have been blocked this season – and Eric Weems, who has been a special teams ace for the Falcons this year.
Joe D has had very little help from Emery and Trestman, who have stripped the back end of the roster trying to find viable backups on offense and defense – a process that continues even now, in Week 15, because Emery has failed to put quality starters on the roster. So DeCamillis is stuck with scraps, with special teams production that matches the talent with which he’s working.
Still, it’s his job to create a cohesive unit, no matter the personnel. Very few special teams coordinators in the league are working with top-tier talent on a weekly basis.
Yet DeCamillis’ failures go beyond technique and fundamentals. Each and every week, his units commit penalty after penalty. The Bears lead the league in special teams penalties. That lack of discipline falls on the coach.
Mel Tucker and Joe DeCamillis will be fired following the season. There’s little doubt about that.
Bears brass can justify keeping Trestman. His offense was great in 2013, so it’s reasonable to believe he can fix the offensive problems going forward.
Yet Tucker and DeCamillis have failed for two years in a row. Who could have confidence in those two based on the basement-level production of their units for consecutive seasons?
Trestman may not get the boot this offseason but Tucker and DeCamillis are dead men walking, along with most of their coaching staffs.
If the Bears can find competent coaches to replace them, they’ll have a chance to turn things around in 2015.
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.