Trestman remains ultimate unknown for Bears

NFL's most unorthodox offseason hire team's biggest question mark

They aren't used to lining up for a Canadian import in Bourbonnais, unless it's a bottle of Molson at T.J. Donlin's.

But ready or not, Bears summer home residents, here comes Marc Trestman to Olivet Nazarene University to begin his transition from the CFL back to the NFL.

Ironically or alarmingly, depending on your perspective, the last time Trestman coached in an NFL training camp also marked the last time the ONU campus welcomed a new Bears head coach. It was 2004, and hamstrings were snapping like bad tempers as Bears players adjusted to Lovie Smith's track workouts disguised as football practices.

Down in Miami, Trestman was dealing with his own controversy as the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach. Running back Ricky Williams abruptly had retired, citing then-head coach Dave Wannstedt's decision to promote Chris Foerster to offensive coordinator over Trestman as a reason. When the Dolphins' season ended even worse than it began, with a 4-12 record that resulted in the coaching staff getting fired, Trestman explored several NFL jobs — including one with the Bears — before joining North Carolina State.

So began the second phase of a circuitous career that eventually found the longtime assistant fulfilling his goal of becoming a head coach with the Montreal Alouettes. Five successful seasons in Canada that included two Grey Cup titles impressed Bears general manager Phil Emery enough to lead to the league's most unorthodox offseason hire.

Of all the moves the Bears made, none piqued more curiosity or loomed any larger than hiring Trestman after nine years away from the NFL. In terms of successful CFL coaches changing leagues, did the Bears land the next Marv Levy, as Trestman supporters swear, or the next Hugh Campbell, who was 8-22 as coach of the Houston Oilers in 1984-85 after winning five Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos?

Even now, seven months later, it seems odd a 10-6 team that narrowly missed the playoffs would allow its season to be framed by a question raised by such an unproven, unusual hire. A sure thing, this isn't, Chicago. Any faith is mostly blind. The only thing I can promise about Trestman's first season as Bears head coach is that an open mind will be necessary. Everything else about the next six months looks too iffy to assert.

Jay Cutler enters a contract year that will determine how long the combustible quarterback — learning his fourth system in five seasons in Chicago — remains a Bear. Charles Tillman, the best cornerback in team history, likewise begins what could be his final year in blue and orange. Middle linebacker D.J Williams embarks on the daunting task of replacing a legend for an aging defense that will miss Brian Urlacher's presence. Expensive left tackle Jermon Bushrod arrived to stabilize an offensive line behind which Cutler has been sacked 113 times since 2010.

Yet when the Bears practice for the first time Friday, nobody will warrant watching closer than Trestman, the professorial-looking head coach purported to be a "quarterback whisperer.'' Nobody reporting to Bears training camp has more to prove in 2013.

The Bears got rid of Smith after a solid but unspectacular nine-year run in search of a fresh start at Halas Hall. They replaced him with a head coach more authentic than accomplished.

Before anybody gets a fair chance to evaluate Trestman on his highly-respected offensive schemes, inevitably personal style will command more interest than professional substance. As NFL head coaches go, Trestman is polite to a fault. He speaks softly and with sincerity. His interests in people he meets extend well beyond the first-down marker.

From the way Trestman talks to the way he looks, everything about his body language screams erudite. The cerebral head coach comes across as the anti-Ditka, a football Phil Jackson without the ring collection who lets his head overrule his heart.

That likely makes Trestman a fascinating Saturday night dinner companion. Whether those same qualities make him effective on Sunday afternoons remains to be seen. More than anything, the unknowns about Trestman temper optimism.

The Bears will take the field Sept. 8 against the Bengals with more overall talent on the roster than the team that beat the Lions in Week 17 on Dec. 30. Like many NFL teams every year, the Bears have ample reason to believe they can make a run into the playoffs if everything comes together. How quickly it does depends largely on Trestman, a notion several Bears veterans have expressed privately if not publicly.

Fans will watch, media will judge, but the most important constituency Trestman must impress beginning Wednesday sits in the Bears locker room.

When the players fully buy into Trestman as an NFL head coach capable of making an impact and worthy of respect, it will be easy to tell — and even easier to agree.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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