Why Bears’ offense might hinge on Mark Helfrich, who’s a ‘bag full of tricks’
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If his fingerprints are on the Bears’ playbook, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich joked, they’re just on the outside cover. Coach Matt Nagy designed the whole thing, and he just helps teach it.
‘‘I told him a long time ago [that] whatever’s good is his and whatever’s bad is mine,’’ Helfrich said. ‘‘I’m 100 percent good with that.’’
Don’t be fooled by Helfrich’s modesty. Except for Nagy, no one is more integral to quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s success.
Nagy, not Helfrich, will call plays. With Helfrich’s help, though, the Bears might look unlike any other team in the NFL, blending elements of Nagy spread-West Coast hybrid offense with the pacing and angles Helfrich developed during an impressive coaching stint at Oregon.
‘‘He’s just a bag full of tricks,’’ running back Tarik Cohen said of Helfrich. ‘‘You never know what plays he’s going to have out here to install. You’re coming into work excited about what the day’s going to bring.’’
Helfrich coached in a national championship game and mentored a Heisman Trophy winner (Marcus Mariota) during a four-year tenure as Oregon’s coach. From 2009 to 2012, when he served as Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the Ducks’ hair-on-fire offense averaged 44.7 points.
During Helfrich’s eight years on campus, Oregon ranked among the top eight in the country in scoring seven times, the top five in total yards six times and the top 10 in rushing yards six times.
Nagy brought him to the Bears, then, for a reason — to help spur offensive creativity after two moth-eaten seasons under Dowell Loggains.
The offense will seem downright revolutionary to Bears fans who were forced to slog through the end of Loggains’ tenure. As any hope for a respectable season vanished last year, it became harder to reconcile the Bears’ claim that they wanted to develop Trubisky with the game-day constraints they kept on him. No team in the NFL threw fewer passes than the Bears last season. Loggains and coach John Fox became synonymous with the team’s struggles as the season came to a merciful end.
‘‘Coach Helfrich is so smart,’’ Trubisky said. ‘‘He’s a very detailed guy. He brings a lot of creativeness to this offense. Obviously he’s got tempo in his background, so we like to implement a little bit of that.
‘‘Just his football intelligence and IQ and how he can help me detail plays and just think about different things from different perspectives have allowed me to grow in different areas already. He’s been a huge help.’’
Trubisky will be asked to make presnap reads in a way he wasn’t last season, Helfrich said. The offense will hinge on it.
‘‘Quarterbacks, we chase perfection,’’ Helfrich said. ‘‘And that’s impossible; it’s a hard chase. But [Trubisky] is a willing participant in that. He comes to every meeting prepared, every meeting with a good question, and he wants to be coached. That’s a big part of it, too.’’
Nagy, Helfrich and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone all have experience coaching the position. With each new practice, the three are sorting through the subtleties of their responsibilities. Ragone said there’s no ego.
‘‘I know the old adage about raising a kid — ‘It takes a village’ — but it’s the same with a quarterback, to that extent,’’ Ragone said.
Kelly’s offense was a raging success for one season with the Eagles before the NFL figured it out. Its elements, though, filtered through the league. Every defensive coordinator undoubtedly spent this offseason trying to find new ways to stop the run-pass option.
Details, then, are critical. Ragone points to Helfrich’s effect on how Trubisky handles the ball during read-option plays, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said he helps keep the blocking scheme simple, no matter how complicated the concept.
‘‘At this point, you’re talking about a release or an angle of a release on a route that might change,’’ Helfrich said. ‘‘Or a width of a split [on the offensive line]. Or a little schematic change on the interior of the offensive line, how you communicate things.
‘‘Those are all things that, again, they change. They adapt. And so if it’s something that we can tweak a little bit or do differently or do better, I’ll suggest it.’’
For every play in Nagy’s book, there are seven coverages a defense can use. Mastering each play seven times — multiplied by hundreds of plays — takes longer than the four-plus months the Bears’ staff has been together.
Helfrich, though, is leading the way.
‘‘When he’s in there, being able to teach concepts and the whys, he does a great job with that,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘And then he keeps it light. He’s a teacher with the players. And the coaches, they respect that.’’
Helfrich’s sarcastic sense of humor helps with the assistants. So does a communication style shaped by his coaching experience and a stint last season as a Fox Sports analyst.
‘‘He can command a room; he can get guys’ attention,’’ running backs coach Charles London said. ‘‘He explains things very thoroughly. He’s very articulate with the way he explains it. He puts complex schemes in simple terms where guys can understand it and goes from there.’’
Helfrich said his first NFL coaching job isn’t that different than his 20 years in college, though he admitted being able to fire players creates a different situation than he’s used to teams having.
‘‘But when you talk football — X’s and O’s and ‘Take this footwork, and here’s why’ — it’s all the same,’’ he said. ‘‘A lot fewer reps than I’m used to, and the rules are different this time of year for contact, all that stuff.
‘‘So [I’m] just getting used to all that and trying not to screw anything up.’’
There’s that modesty again.
Don’t be fooled.