Four Downs: Keeping Tucker good call?

Mel Tucker will get another chance to lead the Bears defense next season. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A rough season by the Chicago Bears defense led to some staff changes. Did the right coaches go?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears made the correct decision retaining Mel Tucker.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Tucker deserved at least one more season to turn around the defense after a disastrous 2013. This is not about giving Tucker a free pass for the defense ranking near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. This is about looking at the facts. Tucker walked into a situation with a defensive system already in place from the Lovie Smith era. That system worked beautifully under Smith the majority of the time because, in large part, Smith had superstars such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers all playing at an extremely high level.

But the Bears decided to let Urlacher and veteran strong side linebacker Nick Roach leave in the 2013 offseason, actions that Tucker had nothing to do with. The loss of Urlacher and Roach hurt the Bears’ defense more than the organization would like you to believe. Peppers’ inconsistent play on the defensive line also hurt the team, as did the lack of development of former first-round pick Shea McClellin, who became a liability versus the run.

Finally, factor in all the injuries: Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Turk McBride, Kelvin Hayden, Tillman, Briggs and the training camp retirement of Sedrick Ellis. NFL teams are skewered by the media and public whenever they blame injuries for substandard results, but you cannot ignore what injuries to key players does to a roster. No, the Bears are not the New England Patriots. New England is a well-oiled winning machine that has three Super Bowl championships and 11 postseason appearances under head coach Bill Belichick. New England can lose Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to injuries, Wes Welker to free agency and Aaron Hernandez to a murder allegation and not skip a beat. The Bears, who have missed the playoffs six out of the last seven years, are not on that level. So please, don’t compare the Bears’ predicament last year to the Patriots'. Let’s see how Tucker fares with some tweaks to the system and some changes to the personnel on defense before deciding whether he is the right man for the job.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. What does it say if you fire a defensive coordinator after one season, and a season decimated by injuries, at that? It would say that Marc Trestman and Phil Emery are reactionary and needed a scapegoat after the worst defensive season in Bears history. It would be a different story if Tucker was a personal disaster, a clueless, combustible coach who has turned off players. But all signs point to him being a well-intentioned, organized coordinator who was dealt a lousy hand. He never blamed, he never panicked. On the other hand, if a remodeled Bears defense is bad this year and the young players continue to fail at improving, would it have been better to fire Tucker early rather than fire late? That’s a question to consider next season. But the Bears just hope that Tucker has better players to work with next season.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Fired assistants Tim Tibesar and Mike Phair were scapegoats to cover up a much deeper coaching problem.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I realize that I just defended the Bears' decision to bring back Tucker for at least one more season, but almost every NFL coaching staff undergoes some turnover when either a team fails to qualify for the postseason or one side of the ball simply falls apart, as the Bears defense did in 2013. That is part of the business. The Bears’ front seven on defense was nothing short of a disaster last year. Subsequently, Phair and Tibesar paid the price. However, I do feel bad for Phair. He was genuinely well-liked and respected by most of the players in the locker room, but he was a holdover from Smith’s coaching staff, which probably made the decision to let him go a little easier, although secondary coach Jon Hoke (another former Smith hire) is expected to remain on the staff.

I bet Phair finds another job in the NFL. Perhaps the Bears felt Phair just didn’t have enough juice in the defensive line meeting room to reach the players. But in Phair’s defense, there is only one Rod Marinelli. Seems kind of unfair to expect Phair to coach at Marinelli’s level at this stage of his career. Tibesar was a bad hire. I’m sure Tibesar is a fine collegiate and CFL coach, but he never connected with the Bears’ veteran linebackers. His lack of NFL experience/credibility hurt him almost from Day 1.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Certainly, when two assistants are fired and the coordinator stays after a wildly disappointing season, it looks like scapegoating. Injuries to the defensive line and linebacking corps led to the season-long failures on defense, not coaching. But I’d surmise that Trestman saw coaching missteps as well. Playing for D.J. Williams and Briggs, rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene didn’t improve enough by the end of the season. The defensive line was shredded early in the season, but even at full strength, the pass rush wasn’t there. It probably didn’t help that Phair was a holdover from the previous regime. I don’t think there’s a deeper coaching problem and it’s fair to say these firings were at least partially deserved.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Corey Wootton's hip surgery diminishes the chances he re-signs with the Bears.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Wootton is a selfless player. He sucked it up and moved inside to defensive tackle for much of the year because of all the Bears’ injuries on their defensive line. We have now found out that Wootton played with a nagging hip injury for the whole season, but in general, he seemed to perform at a reasonably high level despite the fact his sack totals fell from 7.0 to 3.5. Wootton’s ability to play both end and tackle should make him more valuable to most teams in free agency, especially the Bears, who need all the good defensive linemen they can find. My assumption is that Wootton, while still recovering from last week’s hip surgery, will test the open market and see what kind of offers are out there. But in the end, I can definitely envision a scenario where Wootton returns to the Bears. He probably doesn’t break the bank, but it’s not a stretch to think Wootton will receive a slight raise over the $1.323 million base salary he collected in 2013, even if he won’t be completely recovered from the hip procedure until later in the offseason. The 6-foot-6, 270 pound defensive lineman does seem to be entering the prime of his career.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. For one thing, it likely lowers his asking price and interest from other teams in prying him away in free agency. The Bears know his medical history already and unless they’re uncomfortable with it, it seems like they could afford to wait out his recovery time. A locker room mainstay, Wootton sacrificed contract-friendly statistics to move inside and play tackle this season. He’s one of the few members of the defense who should be back. I could see the Bears passing on re-signing him because they need healthy bodies, but since when is health guaranteed in the NFL?

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith will lure several Bears free agents to Tampa.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Smith’s coaching staff in Tampa is full of ex-Bears coaches. It’s only logical to assume that Smith, who has final say over the Bucs' 53-man roster, will target several of his former Chicago players in free agency. Maybe Smith wants to try and pair Tillman with Darrelle Revis, giving Tampa one of the most seasoned and accomplished cornerback duos in the NFL. Granted, the Bucs started rookie Johnthan Banks opposite Revis last year, but the idea of Tillman and Revis in the same secondary, coached by former Bears assistant Gill Byrd, is an intriguing one.

Devin Hester to the Buccaneers also makes sense. It’s hard to envision the Bears paying Hester, a Florida native and Smith loyalist, $2.107 million to strictly return punts and kickoffs in 2014. Smith probably feels Hester can still contribute at wide receiver for all we know. That appears to be a fit. Perhaps Smith is interested in free-agent defensive tackle Melton joining star pass-rusher Gerald McCoy on the inside of the Bucs defensive line. There are plenty of possibilities and scenarios to mull over. Smith is probably in the process of doing that as we speak.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I’d guess he’ll make a run at Peanut Tillman, maybe Major Wright or Peppers, if he sees a fit. While Smith is known for building close relationships with players and treating them like adults, the truth is Lovie was really very loyal to a chosen few players -- standouts like Tillman, draft projects like Wright -- and a typical coach to the rest, in terms of their usability at least. If they couldn’t do the job, they were gone. Smith isn’t out to create Halas Hall South in Tampa Bay, he’s there to win and to burnish his reputation. How many Bears free agents would you sign if you want to win immediately? I guess we’ll find out.