Chuck Pagano sets bar high for Bears’ defense — chance to be the best ever

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New Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano takes over a Bears defense that ranked first in points allowed last season. | AJ Mast/AP photo

After 33 years of coaching, Chuck Pagano was so bored in his season away from football, he said he started sending clean shirts to the dry cleaners just to have something

to do.

“They still had the tag on them,” Pagano said. “I’d take them [to the cleaners], they’d say, ‘Coach these are already clean.’ I’d say, ‘Clean ’em again. I need something to do.’ And then it would be noon — it’s only noon? And then you try to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of the day.”

After a year to “reset, recharge and reflect” since being fired as coach of the Colts after the 2017 season, the 58-year-old Pagano sure sounded like the right guy to replace Vic Fangio as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. He’s a 16-year NFL veteran coach with experience coaching a top-flight defense with the Ravens in 2011. He’s motivated to get his hands dirty again as a coordinator after six seasons as a head coach. Despite going to the playoffs three times with Andrew Luck and the Colts, it seemed like Pagano sees the Bears’ job as a chance to do his best work.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Pagano said Thursday at Halas Hall. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be back on the grass — and at such a special place. I’m very grateful, and I’m thankful and very excited to be a Bear. I feel like the luckiest man in the world right now.”

And perhaps most of all, Pagano is comfortable in Fangio’s shadow and unafraid of the high expectations for a defense that Fangio built into arguably the best in the NFL last season.

“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.”

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Pagano’s defensive philosophy, as he explained it, is not much different from any other defensive coach: “Wreak havoc and be calculated about it,” he said. “Want to be aggressive. Want to dictate the tempo. But [with] a premium on fundamentals and technique. Take the ball away — nobody did it better than the Bears last year. Affecting the quarterback. Stopping the run. Getting them in third-and-long so we can be creative.”

The difference here is that Pagano has the players to do that — a legitimate game-wrecker in his prime in 28-year-old linebacker Khalil Mack; two other All-Pros in cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson; a dominant Pro Bowl defensive end in Akiem Hicks; and several other pieces coming off big seasons: linebackers Leonard Floyd and Danny Trevathan, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerback Prince Amukamara.

“Let those guys play,” Pagano said. “Let their lights shine. Have fun. We have a bunch of swagger in that room and I believe in swag. I believe in confidence. I believe in letting guys play and not making them robots.”

Still, implementing his defensive scheme with players who grew up with Fangio’s defense could be tricky. But Pagano downplayed that challenge.

“We’re not gonna try to jam square pegs into round holes,” Pagano said. “There is a ton of talent here. There [are] impact players on all three levels. So we’ll always do the best that we can to put them in the best position to play to their strengths.

“There’ll be some things from a terminology standpoint that I’ll have to learn and I’ll put the onus on myself and the new coaches and try to make it as seamless of a transition as possible for the players.”

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