The Chicago Bears' coaching staff gets back to business on Monday, with some reporting to Halas Hall and others heading to the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Obviously, with Jay Cutler signed to a new deal, the focus shifts to the embattled defense and coordinator Mel Tucker, who is scheduled to be a part of the team’s contingent at the East-West Shrine Game.
Given the historic downfall of the defense, which allowed the most points (478) in franchise history as well as total yards (6,313) and rushing yards (2,583), not to mention the way the team’s season came to a disappointing end on a mental bust in the secondary, the emotional reaction might be to fire Tucker. But that would be a mistake that could potentially set back the defense even further, which is probably why the team hasn't yet made a firm decision (although his trip to the East-West Shrine Game leads me to believe he's staying).
I’ve said it before: Tucker isn’t to blame for Chicago’s demise on defense. He wasn’t the one missing tackles, busting assignments, failing to leverage blocks correctly or being manhandled physically by opponents in 2013. Some of Tucker’s coaching colleagues on the team and around the league agree, as do many of his players.
Is the criticism of Tucker fair?
"Not at all," linebacker D.J. Williams said a day after the team’s season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers. "He didn’t really get to put out the defense on the field that he thought he was going to have. But I felt he did a great job. It’s hard to go out there and compete with teams when you don’t have your guys out there. But I think he got the guys to rally around each other and give great effort. You lose two Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame guys like [cornerback Charles Tillman] and Lance [Briggs] and lost two starting D-tackles. We lost [starting nickel corner] Kelvin [Hayden]. We lost me. It’s tough."
Injuries cost the Bears a combined 55 games from key players in 2013, and that's not even taking into account that defensive lineman Turk McBride suffered a ruptured Achilles or that defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis decided to retire on the eve of training camp.
Chicago failed to limit an opponent to fewer than 20 points all season, but last year's vaunted unit -- which was healthy for the most part -- also failed to hold opponents to fewer than 20 in seven of the last 10 games and gave up four 100-yard rushing performances.
The group in 2013 relied on significant snaps from players like rookie David Bass, who was claimed Sept. 1 off waivers from the Oakland Raiders, and rookies Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene, who spent time in the starting lineup. Chicago was also forced to lean on players like defensive tackle Landon Cohen, who played in 13 games and had three starts in 2013, despite having played in only seven games over the previous four seasons before signing with the Bears, not to mention nickel corner Isaiah Frey, who spent all of 2012 on the practice squad.
So say what you want about what Tucker should have done. The circumstances he faced were almost insurmountable, yet Tucker still put a respectable defense on the field on a couple of occasions.
"He has full support of the defense, in our room, linebackers, it’s all over, man," said cornerback Tim Jennings. "We all support him. We all know what we’re capable of doing. He makes the play call. We line up and play. I think it’s unfortunate he got the raw end of the stick with the injuries, and what he had to deal with and make work, and I think we still did a fairly good job."
Defensive end Shea McClellin, a first-round pick in 2012 who underperformed when thrust into the bright lights in 2013, even said "I don't think so," when asked whether the criticism of Tucker was fair.
"It's going to happen, that’s your guys’ job; that’s everyone’s job," McClellin said. "I don’t think it’s fair. I think he’s a great coach. I think he did an excellent job. Just a few things fell out of place. It was unfortunate. But overall, I think he’s a great coach. I learned a lot from him."
Arguments aplenty exist with regards to dismissing Tucker, but the truth is the majority, if not all of them, can be countered. For instance, there’s the argument that Tucker should be teaching the Bears how to tackle and get off blocks. Yes and no. Tucker should be making sure the players’ skills in those areas remain sharp, but no team in the NFL should ever draft defensive players who can’t tackle or leverage blocks; and the Bears didn’t all of a sudden forget how to do either of those under a new defensive coordinator.
There’s the argument that not one player improved under Tucker’s watch in 2013. That's a subjective viewpoint. Corey Wootton showed tremendous improvement in 2013, and even widely criticized players like McClellin improved at least some aspect of their games. But it’s also incredibly difficult for inexperienced players thrown into the fire to improve when nearly every on-field situation is chaotic because of all the holes in the defense brought on by injuries.
There’s the argument that Tucker was outcoached, or that his defense wasn’t adequately prepared most games. But the truth is all the prep time in the world will never trump horrid execution.
Tucker has performed well at his main job, which is to put the players in the best position to succeed through schemes, motivation and making the right calls during games. That’s part of why safety Major Wright said it’s unfair to criticize Tucker.
It would be even more unfair to fire Tucker after one season in which the coach was basically forced to fight with one hand tied behind his back. Besides that, wouldn’t dismissing Tucker after one season under such circumstances diminish the attractiveness of the job to any potential replacement?
"At the end of the day, people have to do their jobs and [live] up to being the player they’re supposed to be," Wright said. "He’s going to take the majority of the criticism. But I think it’s within the defense. It’s all of us."