Two weeks after the Broncos hired away the architect of the Bears’ top-ranked defense, Chuck Pagano sat for his introductory news conference in January 2019 and was asked some version of the following: ‘‘How in the heck do you follow Vic Fangio?’’
‘‘Our vision for this defense is to be the best,’’ Pagano said. ‘‘Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there — and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely. It’s going to be very, very difficult and a huge challenge but one we will be up for.’’
Two years later, it’s clear the Bears weren’t. Sources late Tuesday said Pagano was retiring at 60. It’s fair to wonder how voluntary the decision was, given that staffing changes likely were necessary to bring back coach Matt Nagy and, by extension, general manager Ryan Pace.
The Bears’ offense is in more need of an overhaul. In Pagano’s two seasons, the Bears lost five games in which the defense allowed fewer than 20 points. Still, in the last three seasons, the Bears’ defense has gone from historically dominant to elite to good but not great. After allowing the fewest points in the NFL in 2018, it yielded the fourth-fewest in 2019 and the 14th-fewest in 2020.
The Bears had a league-best 36 takeaways in 2018, but they had only 37 in two seasons under Pagano. The pass rush declined similarly, from 50 sacks in 2018 to a combined 67 the last two seasons. The Bears had a franchise-worst streak of seven consecutive opposing quarterbacks post a 100-plus passer rating against them this season.
The backslide, however, doesn’t fall fully at Pagano’s feet. Pace cut outside linebacker Leonard Floyd to give Robert Quinn a five-year, $70 million contract. Floyd has 12½ sacks in 17 games for a Rams team getting ready to play a second-round playoff game; Quinn had two in 16 games. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, whom Pace gave a three-year, $21.75 million deal in March, had a choppy season at 30. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the season because of coronavirus fears.
Pagano, however, never gave excuses. As recently as last week, he took responsibility for the defense needing to improve.
‘‘I’ve gotta do my job, you know, and I have to do it better,’’ he said.
A cancer survivor, advocate and fund-raiser, Pagano was the Colts’ head coach in 2012-17 before taking 2018 off. When the Bears hired him, he last had been a coordinator in 2011 with the Ravens.
The Bears’ job won’t be as attractive as the one Pagano landed, given the questions about Nagy’s future beyond 2021. Defensive star power might be diminished by the Bears’ salary-cap squeeze, too. At least for now, however, the Bears can boast outside linebacker Khalil Mack, inside linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Kyle Fuller as among the best players at their positions. Safety Eddie Jackson and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks have played in Pro Bowls.
The Bears have options on staff, but only one defensive assistant — outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino — has been an NFL coordinator. He ran Pagano’s defense with the Colts in 2016-17.
Jay Rodgers is among the finest defensive line coaches in the NFL. The Bears have to ask themselves, however, whether they would want to change that teaching role.
Hiring from outside Halas Hall increases the chances the Bears would have to overhaul their defensive position coaches for the second time in three years. Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn interviewed for the Jets’ head-coaching job this week and has mutual friends with Pace. Former Vikings coordinator George Edwards, who interviewed for the Bears’ head-coaching job three years ago, is a Cowboys assistant. Former hotshot Seahawks coordinator Kris Richard didn’t coach in the NFL this season.
- Reporter Jason Lieser contributed to this report