The Bears are trying to get back to the dangerous, dynamic defense they had under Vic Fangio by turning to one of his protégés as their defensive coordinator.
Their search to replace retired coordinator Chuck Pagano ended where it began: with promising in-house candidate Sean Desai.
At 37, he is believed to be the team’s youngest defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl era and the first NFL defensive coordinator of Indian descent.
He walks into a high-pressure situation with the entire coaching staff’s jobs seemingly on the line, and his task is to restore the defense to its dominance under Fangio in 2018.
That was when the Bears stripped and picked their way to an NFC North title with one of the best defenses in recent NFL history. They allowed the fewest points (17.7 per game), had the most takeaways (36) and were third in sacks (50).
Since then, with mostly the same personnel, they’ve slipped from great to good. They were 14th in scoring defense this season.
Over the last two seasons, the Bears have allowed 20.9 points per game and totaled only 37 takeaways and 67 sacks.
The pass rush is of particular importance, especially with Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks taking up $53.3 million in salary-cap space next season.
“It’s a passing league, [and] if you hit the quarterback, your corners are better, your safeties are better,” general manager Ryan Pace said last year of his roster construction. “If you’re hitting the quarterback, those balls are going to get thrown up. . . . We’ve loaded up the secondary with guys that have ball skills. With a defense that can generate that kind of pass rush, that can equate to a lot of turnovers.”
It’s vital that Pace’s plan materializes. The Bears have scored the 12th-fewest points in the NFL during coach Matt Nagy’s three seasons and depend on their defense to keep them afloat.
Desai figures to be mostly autonomous, as were Fangio and Pagano under Nagy. As an offensive-minded coach — and potentially the offensive play-caller — Nagy lets the defensive coordinator run that side of the ball.
Fangio left Desai the road map before taking the Broncos’ head-coaching job after the 2018 season. The Bears were so high on Desai at the time that they blocked him from accepting an offer to join Fangio’s staff in Denver.
As a quality-control coach, Desai worked closely with Fangio to compile scouting reports on upcoming opponents. He also helped coach outside linebackers, which was Fangio’s forte, as well as defensive backs and special teams.
“Sean Desai has been ready for that role for years,” former Bears outside linebacker Sam Acho wrote on Twitter. “He was Vic Fangio’s right-hand man for 4 years & helped craft that defense to greatness. Smart, talented, knows ball and has all the credentials. All he needs is an opportunity.”
Acho called him “a spitting image of Brandon Staley,” the former Fangio assistant who was named the Chargers’ coach this week.
“Desai is the man,” ex-Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long wrote. “My rookie year, he drew the cards for the scout defense. . . . He then ran scout meetings — worked his way up. Always the same guy, too.
“I’m not saying Desai is a lock to be a top-tier coordinator, but nobody knows the personnel like Desai — also knows Chicago well.”
Desai got his coaching start in 2006 at Temple, where he earned a doctorate in educational administration. He was an assistant at major college football programs before joining the Bears as a quality-control assistant in 2013. He held that job for six years before being promoted to safeties coach in 2019.
The last Bears defensive coordinator under 40 was Bob Slowik, who was 39 under coach Dave Wannstedt in 1993.
The Bears started their defensive-coordinator search with Desai and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers and spoke with outside candidates George Edwards, James Bettcher and Jonathan Gannon. They also interviewed legendary linebacker and former 49ers coach Mike Singletary before deciding on Desai.
While promoting Desai gives the Bears some continuity this offseason, he’ll have some key decisions to make on his staff. Rodgers left to join Staley after it became apparent he wasn’t getting the coordinator job. Desai also must evaluate the job other position coaches did under Pagano and decide whether he wants to replace them.