Coronavirus forcing Bears to build versatility into their game plans
From a purely practical standpoint, positive tests will be a game-planning catastrophe. That’s why offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is preparing now.
NFL coaches are paid to plan for the worst, particularly during the offseason.
But Bill Lazor, the Bears’ new offensive coordinator, has been forced to consider a scenario that would have seemed unthinkable just last year: How will he run an offense if — or, more likely, when — his players are forced to miss games because of the coronavirus?
NFL Players Association medical director Thom Mayer on Saturday advised players not to hold private workouts with each other in light of players testing positive for the disease in southern states. Mayer said the union is ‘‘working on the best mitigation procedures at team facilities for both training camps and the upcoming season.’’
It’s a near-certainty teams will be struck by the disease after they open their doors to socially distanced training camp in late July. Infections will continue throughout the season. Some players who test positive will be asymptomatic, while others might have medical complications. That’s a horrifying thought for the NFL — and one that mirrors nationwide concerns for the last three-plus months.
From a purely practical standpoint, positive tests will be a game-planning catastrophe. That’s why Lazor, who was hired to help revamp the Bears’ offense, is preparing now.
‘‘We haven’t had a chance to practice on the field and really see the guys in person,’’ Lazor said Wednesday. ‘‘Once we do that, now you maybe start leaning toward, ‘This is the way we’d like to take this system, all things being perfect.’ ’’
All things will not be perfect.
‘‘Then you add in ‘2020: The Year of the Pandemic,’ ’’ Lazor said. ‘‘I have no idea. Who knows if you’re going to have to sit three wide receivers one week because they’re all sick? I couldn’t predict how this is going to go. So you better have depth and you better have multiplicity in your plan.’’
Multiplicity means a team can run the same concepts and use the same language in any personnel grouping. In a typical season, teams that excel at multiplicity use personnel groupings to force the defense into a matchup they want. In 2020, however, multiplicity will be a necessity.
Coach Matt Nagy never has had a problem with variety. Only six teams used more offensive lineups than the Bears’ 320 last season. The Bears ran only 2.94 percent of their plays with their most common lineup.
The Bears, however, struggled to be effective, leaving Nagy to wonder after only three games last season whether he needed to scale back his personnel groupings and formations.
While coaches can scheme to help compensate for a sick player, backups eventually need to play. And that raises a concern about depth.
For defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, depth comes down to two factors: the quality of the players on the roster and their ability to move around the line in a pinch. He has seven players — one more than he’s likely to keep on the roster — who already have appeared in games with the Bears. Everyone but Akiem Hicks, who plays on the left side, and Eddie Goldman, who plays nose tackle, is used to moving around.
‘‘Versatility is huge because some people have made a living playing one position,’’ Rogers said. ‘‘But there comes a point in time where you will be asked to play something else. And you hopefully have trained at it to have a chance at success.’’
In a typical week, special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor has to replace an injured player. The next week, he’ll have to sub out a special-teamer who might have a more prominent role on offense.
‘‘That’s part of our world, to be honest with you,’’ Tabor said. ‘‘With guys going down and plugging a guy in, it can be uncomfortable. But I’m comfortable being uncomfortable.’’
One way Tabor develops depth is to have players to do a kick-slide — backpedaling to block, then running forward to simulate punt coverage — before and after practice. Each player will do 10 to the left and another 10 to the right each time.
‘‘That’s 40 extra reps that he just picked up, and he didn’t even know it,’’ Tabor said. ‘‘In the short amount of time that we’ve got, we coached him. You just start building that stuff so, when his number is called, he’s ready to go.’’
Coaches are used to leaning on depth. This season will provide the most frightening reason to do so.
‘‘There’s no excuses,’’ Tabor said. ‘‘If a guy has to play, it’s our job to make sure he is ready to play. So we’ll do whatever we can to get them up to snuff.’’