For future reference, coaching had nothing to do with the historically bad season the 2013 Bears defense produced.
Not a single defensive player noticeably improved, and no identity ever emerged for a group known for poor fundamentals. But talent and depth deficiencies contributed to the weekly disaster more than coaching. We know this to be true because the Bears told us so this week in announcing the return of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Coach Marc Trestman left Tucker dangling for 10 days before ending any suspense in a news release that called him "the right person to lead our defensive unit.'' Trestman didn't say where. Instead the Bears fired two defensive position coaches whose names are here somewhere, but no fair-minded soul considers Mike Phair and Tim Tibesar responsible for a second-half collapse.
It was Tucker who presided over a unit that gave up nearly 30 points per game and 2,583 rushing yards — 410 more than the NFL's second-worst team. Yet, mercifully, Tucker will get a chance to clean up the hazardous-waste site of a defense he helped create. The Bears figure to stay a 4-3 team rather than a 3-4, which hardly matters unless the defense stops being as charitable as a 501(c)(3) operation.
By blaming injuries and the roster more than Tucker, the Bears clearly put the onus on general manager Phil Emery to do something he has yet to do in Chicago: Prove he knows how to build a defense. It doesn't even have to be a great defense. Thanks to the explosive, expansive offense Emery put together, it barely has to be good. Average will do. If the Bears had been simply mediocre defensively in 2013, they would have won the NFC North. That's the low bar Emery now must make moves to meet.
And yet it looks very far away to anybody familiar with the Bears defense.
Having had nothing to do for six of the last seven NFL postseasons but concentrate on the rest of the field, Bears fans have become experts on what works in the playoffs. They realize teams that win in January, besides having the offensive playmakers the Bears already have, possess impact players on defense. The kind of players the Bears relied on for too long until they got old. The kind of players Emery needs to find via the draft and free agency this offseason to get the Bears where they never have been on his watch — in the playoffs.
Can Emery? History inspires little confidence. The next difference-making defensive player he brings into the fold will be the first.
Of the seven defensive players Emery has selected in two drafts as Bears GM, none can be considered a lock to start Week 1 of the 2014 season — not even 2012 first-rounder Shea McClellin. The McClellin Project will continue with him likely switching positions to strong-side linebacker, where he could compete with Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.
Safety Brandon Hardin was such a miscalculation that Emery apologized during the postseason news conference for using a third-round pick on a guy who was out of football in 2013. Isaiah Frey filled in capably as a nickel back but needs more seasoning. Of all the projects among draftees, Bostic projects as the one most easily salvaged.
On the flip side, Emery has done such a good job drafting offensive personnel that he needs to consider using all seven picks in May on defensive players.
Drafting 14th, that probably means taking the best available defensive lineman — perhaps Notre Dame tackle Louis Nix? — unless Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix impresses the Bears and remains on the board.
The Bears will enter free agency with similar priorities — and the same unproven track record for Emery.
Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd would be a good place to start the recovery, even if it means overpaying at a position of need. If Byrd signs elsewhere, T.J. Ward offers a viable backup plan.
Of the defensive linemen on the market, re-signing tackle Henry Melton at a price that reflects injury and maturity concerns would solve one glaring problem. Seeing how badly end Michael Bennett wants to play with his brother Martellus would address another, whether Julius Peppers gets cut or restructures his contract again.
If Emery fails to respond to the pressure on him, eventually it will fall on the shoulders of Trestman. A year ago Thursday, the Bears hired Trestman. In another 365 days, if the Bears are regretting another playoff berth that got away because of defense, Trestman will face a win-or-else season in 2015.
That's today's quick-fix NFL. Accountability can be shifted, as the Bears just did with Tucker, but it never goes away.