Bears eager for fresh start on special teams

Special teams used to be a source of pride for the Chicago Bears.

In 2014, the third phase hit rock bottom.

Former special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis – now the special-teams coach of the Denver Broncos – took much of the blame last year, but the Bears’ issues on special teams extended far beyond DeCamillis. Instead of prioritizing players with special-teams experience, the Bears believed they were better off going with younger, often more athletic players and coaching them up on the fly. The results were disastrous. From costly penalties to surrendering punt blocks to a stalled return game, the Bears endured every conceivable breakdown imaginable on special teams last year as ex-general manager Phil Emery tried to cycle though players to find the proper mix.

Enter new special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers, who previously served on head coach John Fox’s staff in Denver and Carolina. He joins the Bears with 11 years of NFL experience coaching special teams and 14 years overall.

After more than three months on the job, Rodgers participated in a question-and-answer session with the Chicago media where he laid out some of his core special-teams philosophies.

Do you have to sell rookies on special teams? “You’re trying to educate them on how roster makeup goes. The reality is most of these guys have been all-conference or All-American, they’ve been getting a lot of burn on offense or defense, so there are a lot of guys who come into this league and their roles kind of get defined in a way that if they’re going to play on Sunday, if they’re going to be active on Sunday, they might have to have a special-teams role. You try to tell them that, but as they get more and more exposure to the veteran players, those guys let them know.

Do you like any of the players you inherited from last year’s team? “Well, we’re still evaluating. There’s a lot of different ways to teach things. The previous regime, some things will carry over, some won’t. You try to keep an open mind. And it’s just like the rookies; this is our first exposure to these guys. And you’re trying to get a feel for, 'OK, here are some of things that we’d like to be able to do with guys.' To say that there is an overriding positive trait about guys, I mean, yeah, there’s a lot of things to like about guys that make tackles or guys that did a good job with blocks or if they were penalty-type guys, you just try to identify those things, educate them on what we’re trying to do and move forward.

Can fourth-round pick Jeremy Langford thrive on special teams because of his defensive background?

“Yeah, for a lot of guys they aren’t used to playing coverage-type things when they’re offensive players. He obviously has that background. Most guys did in high school or whatever, but being whatever it was 3-4 years ago, you know he can tackle, you know he’s a willing player, you like everything about [him] athletically and hopefully that translates.”

What are you looking for from the return game? “No. 1 is ball security. Our No. 1 goal of our return game is going to be giving the ball back to the offense. Every guy is different. I’ve coached bigger guys, smaller guys, faster guys; the ball-security thing is always going to be a common trait. But we’re going to scheme our return stuff based on whatever the player does well. That’s still yet to be determined. Whoever that guy is will win that job in training camp and into the season, they realize they are competing with everyone else on the roster. They realize they’re competing with the guys league-wide who are on rosters. And someone will emerge in that role.”