Listen to the Thunder, pt. 2: Full Measure

“Leadership, reliability, pride, tradition, concentration, determination, aggressiveness, confidence, and cooperation.  Study yourself, and see if you have a full measure of all of these qualities.  As a coach they are the things I would like to see in every candidate.  These are the things which you should develop within yourself . They will broaden your personality.  Apply them to your football.  They will help make your associations and employment pleasant and successful.”

Excerpt from “HALAS by HALAS,” by George Halas

 


Emery was well aware of his situation.  With the bulk of the roster furious over Lovie’s firing, Emery turned to Rod Marinelli to make the transition more fluid, and enlist his guidance into whom the Bears should hire.  Marinelli was respected leaguewide, and the Bears locker room revered the veteran coach.

Marinelli was then tasked to interview and rank the three finalists for the job:  Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and an unconventional third choice – Marc Trestman of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.

When Marinelli provided Emery with his rankings, his “runaway choice” was Bruce Arians.  Arians would be named the NFL Coach of the Year weeks after his Bears interview, and deservedly so, for when Chuck Pagano left the Colts to battle cancer, it was Arians who gave the Colts a 9-3 finish to the season.  Nine wins in a single season is the most for any interim coach in NFL history.  Arians seemed a logical choice, too, as he was undeterred by the media and was an unquestioned leader of men.

Phil Emery wasn’t quite convinced, however, and wanted Arians to meet a set of demands that included keeping Marinelli and several other assistant coaches, as well as perform a mock press conference.

Arians was unsettled by these conditions, but still felt like he was a logical choice to be the next Bears coach.

Days later, Phil Emery hired Marc Trestman.

Emery believed Trestman was the ideal fit for the tenuous future of the franchise.  Trestman, no stranger to CFL success, was coming off of a fine run coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, being the first CFL coach to ever win back-to-back Grey Cups (the equivalent of the Lombardi Trophy).

He had helped give Anthony Calvillo MVP seasons and career numbers that ended with Calvillo as the all-time passing yards leader in professional football; well ahead of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Brett Favre.  Trestman won CFL’s coach of the year award.  He wrote a book detailing his triumphs in life and football.

Those low-level accolades aside, Trestman’s demure and wooden demeanor, quiet character, and no doubt agreement to keeping any-and-all Marinelli assistants and follow Emery’s lead made him the only real choice.

That said, Trestman was a distant third on Marinelli’s list of finalists.  A livid Marinelli immediately resigned upon hearing the news, taking a demotion to coach the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

Emery subsequently guided Trestman’s hand in hiring coordinators Aaron Kromer of the Saints and Mel Tucker of the Jaguars.

During his introductory press conference, the bespectacled and mild-mannered Trestman told the assembled media about Cutler and he’s distant, fleeting joined pasts:

“I had to the chance to meet with Jay 10 years ago in a hotel room in Raleigh, N.C.  It was raining.  We had no facility, we had no receivers.  So we basically sat in a room for two days and stared at each other.  It was a difficult environment to try to get the most out of somebody.  When I sat with him, I found out he had some very core capabilities. He was tough, he was smart, and he loved football.  I had the opportunity to meet with him a couple days ago.  He’s a different guy.  He’s in tune to where he is and where he wants to go…

“The No. 1 marriage in all of sports is the marriage between his quarterback and his coach. That’s it. It starts there. Everything proceeds from there. There has to be a connection and an element of trust, professional trust that you have to have. We don’t have that yet, certainly, but there are indications we got started in the right place. He loves football and I love football. We are going to have two passionate guys in the room trying to win games for the Chicago Bears, and that’s a pretty good start.” – Marc Trestman

Not exactly an endorsement, considering Trestman’s blood-mission in Chicago was to fix Cutler’s dismal career trajectory, but as fans do, hopes were high, and the results of the first year were fairly respectable.


The Bears began the maiden voyage of Trestman’s head coaching career with a 4-2 start, Cutler sporting a much-improved 90+ passer rating in almost all of those games.

In spite of that, the Bears starter suffered a groin injury in late October, and very quickly the Great Rule of Chicago Sports Fans reared its ugly head:  Never, under any conditions, let the backup quarterback succeed, because the city will fall in love with him.

That backup in this instance was Josh McCown, a longtime NFL veteran who had worn an array of jerseys in his journeyman career. Through 5 starts in Cutler’s stead, McCown himself already in his mid-30’s, found a football renaissance courtesy of Marc Trestman’s instruction, throwing 13 touchdowns and only one interception.  Dan Pompei detailed the odd saga of McCown and his connection with Trestman in Chicago:

In new coach Marc Trestman, McCown found an opportunity for more growth. Previous coaches often had second-guessed McCown in the film room after games. Trestman, more than any previous coach, told McCown exactly what he should do in every situation, which removed the possibility of indecision. That allowed McCown to play fast, decisively, and not worry about being second-guessed.

Twelve seasons and eight teams into his professional career, McCown finally found his groove as a player. “It was the first time football completely made sense to me with how he taught it,” McCown said. “I was…like, this is what I’ve been waiting for. He was the best teacher for me. There is so much I still do in my preparation, what I look for, because of Marc.” – Dan Pompei

McCown was a revelation, getting the most out of stud receivers Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery.  Marshall posted the best season-numbers in his career almost entirely because of his chemistry with McCown.  It was clear as day:  The Bears offense looked better with McCown as the starting quarterback and was more consistent than at any stretch of Cutler’s Bears career.

So the questions began, and Trestman assured reporters that when Cutler was cleared to play, it would be him starting, not McCown.

At the time, the NFC North was a competitive field, and the Bears were in a second place holding pattern, nipping at the heels of the Detroit Lions.  Cutler’s return took place against the then 4-9 Cleveland Browns, and his performance temporarily quieted critics. Three touchdown passes, including a 4th quarter scoring drive to win the game, got the job done.

The magic was short-lived.  Eventual Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles led the Philadelphia Eagles to an absolute routing, in a game that with a win would have secured the NFC North Championship.  The Bears defense relinquished 54 points and the game was never close.

The season ended on an even further ignominious note, as the division title once again was contended in a winner-take-all match against the Green Bay Packers, this time at Soldier Field.  In a closely-contested game, Aaron Rodgers stabbed Chicago in the heart:

There was time left on the clock, and Cutler couldn’t plumb and 4th quarter heroics of his own, hurling an interception as time expired.  As has become modern tradition, the Bears pain is the Packers pleasure.  In 2011 it was for the NFC Championship.  In 2013 it was for the division title.

In spite of the heartbreak, the offense had indeed seen drastic improvement during the 2013 campaign, and while Cutler and Trestman weren’t exactly meshing as beautifully as Phil Emery hoped, there was enough faith in that combination to send Josh McCown into Free Agency and reward Jay Cutler with a seven-year $126 million contract.

Cutler had by that point already become the all-time franchise leader in completions, yards, passing attempts, and quarterback rating.  His 2013 season numbers were solid, thanks in part to playing 3/4ths of a full year, but there was credence that the arrow was pointing up.

For the Bears defense, still mourning the departure of Lovie Smith and the ugly exit of Rod Marinelli, the arrow had not only gone down, it was scraping along the bottom of the graph.

The Bears, even with Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman, ended 2013 as one of the worst defenses in the NFL.  They placed 30th in passing defense and dead last against the run.  Sack totals were among the worst in the league as well.

To their credit, they led the NFL in defensive touchdowns, a Lovie Smith trademark, but losing games with final scores of 40-32, 45-41, 42-21, and 54-11, the waters had become brackish.

Chicago Bears fans, nurtured by many years of defensive prowess, began to severely question if the players on that side of the ball still gave a shit, and if Mel Tucker had any idea what he was doing.

Leaving Randall Cobb wide open for a game-winning touchdown pass will do that.

————-

In part 3, the 2014 campaign is detailed, as lingering heartbreak turns into a molten NFL hellscape.

 

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