The Bears’ offseason is about to be full of activity with college All-Star games on tap, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will be part of it all.
He’ll remain in charge of the Bears’ defense.
Ten days after coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery said “everything is on the table” when it came to evaluating the Bears’ coaching staff, the team announced Sunday that Tucker will remain its defensive coordinator.
Tucker, though, will be searching for new assistants with the Bears firing defensive line coach Mike Phair (a holdover from Lovie Smith’s tenure) and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar (a Trestman hire who coached at Purdue).
“We believe Mel is the right person to lead our defensive unit,” Trestman said in a statement. “He fully understands where we need to improve, has the skill set and leadership to oversee the changes that need to be made and to execute our plan to get the results we know are necessary.”
There is nothing odd about the timing of the Bears’ announcement with practice week for the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. beginning Monday and practices for the more prestigious Senior Bowl starting next Monday in Mobile, Ala. Tucker’s involvement will be crucial.
Keeping Tucker may not so much be a matter of what happened this past season, which saw the Bears allow team records for points, total yards and rushing yards. It should be about what the Bears brass thinks and what he thinks he can accomplish next season given different players and the freedom to fully implement his own system after running Smith’s defense, but minus the same players because of serious injuries.
Tucker’s meetings with Trestman and Emery may have been like second interviews with the Bears’ defense destined for an overhaul with or without him.
What type of schematic changes does Tucker have in mind? What plans does he have for Shea McClellin, whose run with the Bears has reached a crossroads? Which free agents would he like to re-sign or target on the market?
Tucker apparently had the right answers as the Bears’ defense moves forward and attempts to rise above its record-setting bad 2013 campaign.
One important factor is that Tucker, by some accounts, was able to reach some of the Lovie loyalists and defensive leaders, who are signed past this season. That includes linebacker Lance Briggs, whom Trestman and Emery intentionally commended earlier this month.
If there ever was a discord between Briggs and Tucker last season, Trestman never saw or felt it.
“I didn’t see any of that, and I have a pretty good sense for those things,” Trestman said earlier this month at the Bears’ end-of-the-year press conference. “The thing about Lance is he’s in a position where he would be able to speak up and I know him. He and Mel were constantly talking throughout the season and not only growing on the football side, but in terms of, just their relationship man-to-man.”
Trestman also said Tucker did an “outstanding job” with a “very, very difficult transition from an outstanding group, starting with the head coach and the defensive coordinator and the staff that was here a year before.”
Defensive players seemed to all agree that Tucker handled all the injuries well. The Bears were without defensive tackles Henry Melton (torn anterior cruciate ligament) for 13 games, Nate Collins (torn ACL) for 11 games and Stephen Paea (sprained toe) for three. Linebackers D.J. Williams (10 missed games with torn chest muscle) and Lance Briggs (seven with fractured shoulder) and cornerback Charles Tillman (eight with torn triceps) also missed long stretches.
Tucker’s practices changed because of all the injuries. With rookies and other inexperienced players starting and other players like Corey Wootton learning new positions, individual work and fundamentals increased.
“I thought Mel did an exceptional job,” Tillman said. “We had a lot of injuries on defense. I don’t think anyone got hurt on offense. I think he did a really good job despite all the injuries we had.”
Cornerback Tim Jennings said Tucker had the full support of the defense.
“In our room, linebackers’, [the support is] all over, man,” Jennings said. “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.”
Phair first joined the Bears as an assistant defensive line coach in 2011 behind former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Tibesar was dismissed after one season with the Bears. He previously coached at Purdue before joining Trestman’s staff last January. Before Purdue, Tibesar also was part of Trestman’s staff with the Montreal Alouettes.
“We thank Mike and Tim for their effort and dedication,” Trestman said in his statement. “They are men of high character and integrity. These are not easy decisions and we do not attribute our lack of success on defense to two individuals. We need to improve in all areas defensively and that will be a focal point for us this offseason. The process starts with me as the head coach. Our search for a defensive line and linebackers coach has begun and we will be looking for the best candidates whose experience can bring the most out of our veteran and young players in both areas.”