Friday, September 20, 2013

The Chicago Bears are Coached by the Dos Equis Guy

Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman
It’s too soon to write off the Steelers, but nobody in Pittsburgh should underestimate the Chicago Bears. These are not Lovie Smith's Bears. 

This will be a tough game for the Black ‘n Gold. Remember how Mike Tomlin used to describe the upcoming collision of opponents as "two trains on one track"?  Sunday's contest is not that.

This appears to a matchup of one team, the Bears, coming together and on the upswing – and another, the Steelers, that appears to be falling apart and was described mid-week as being in “panic mode.”

Marc Trestman's alter-ego and doppelganger
The Chicago Bears have quietly – if that’s possible in a metro area the size and prominence of Chicago – the Bears have quietly become one of the most interesting franchises in the National Football League. And it’s happened quickly, too, behind the leadership of new head coach Marc Trestman, a Renaissance Man of sorts who is kind of the NFL's equivalent of the Dos Equis guy in the TV commercials -- "The most interesting man in the NFL."

Let’s take a closer look.

Click "Read More" below to read about the Bears and their new head coach Marc Trestman, whose fascinating backstory describes the circuitous path he's taken to become a first-time head coach in the NFL at the age of 57. Read the story after the "Read More" jump/break below. 

Talent? The Bears have it – tons of it. 

Look out, Mike Adams (Steelers’ left tackle)! Lining up across from you on Sunday will be defensive end Julius Peppers.  

And, when Peppers and his cohorts in the Bears’ front seven hurry Ben Roethlisberger, lurking in the secondary will be two of the bigger, more physical and most opportunistic corners in the league – Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

On offense, there’s an energized and focused Jay Cutler, along with star running back Matt Forte, dynamic receiver Brandon Marshall, stud tight end Martellus Bennett and, most importantly, a rebuilt offensive line – a good one, too, even with two rookie draftees manning the right side.
The Chicago defense has been fairly good for a number of years – it was former coach Lovie Smith’s specialty. Offense was a mess, however, especially the offensive line. And, as a unit, the offense lacked leadership, cohesion and identity. Cutler, Forte, Marshall – talented superstar-caliber players not playing to their capabilities.

The Chicago offense needed attention.

Marc Trestman: Kind of like the Don Equis Guy
Bears GM Phil Emery set out to transform the Bears this past off-season when he fired Smith, a longtime favorite in Chicago, and replaced him with the cerebral Marc Trestman, of all people, a man who had been out of the NFL for five years, holds a law degree and is a published author.  

At first glance, Trestman was a curious choice, to say the least. Granted, he has an interesting and varied background, which is not, by itself, what made a surprise choice to lead one of the NFL’s oldest and most storied franchises. 

For one thing, Trestman doesn't look like an NFL head coach. He looks more like an accountant or an actuary than an NFL head coach in the mold of Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano, Jacksonville's Gus Bradley or Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski.  Marc Trestman will never be confused with any of those guys.

Like current Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tommy Clements (Pittsburgh native, former Notre Dame QB and Canadian Football Leaguer), Trestman is a lawyer (University of Miami Law School).  Like Tony Dungy (former Steelers' safety and NFL head coach), Trestman was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota.  In 2010, Trestman authored a book, "Perseverance: Life Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork," and his book has gotten numerous positive reviews.

For the past five years, Trestman has been off the grid, so to speak, as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League, where ex-NFL players and coaches go to ignominious oblivion and irrelevance.

Trestman had previously spent 17 years as an assistant coach in the NFL, including stints as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco, Cleveland, Arizona and Oakland, where he nurtured quarterbacks such as Steve Young, Bernie Kosar and Rich Gannon, all of whom flourished under Trestman’s tutelage.

For all his experience, though, Trestman always seemed a wonky, geeky type – probably too clever for his own good – a sly tactician skilled at drawing up X’s and O’s but hampered by a lack of charisma and, to hear him tell it, a lack of interest in the lives of others.

That all began to change when he went to coach at North Carolina State and began to work with college players – but subsequently got fired after his second season in Raleigh, along with the rest of the staff.

At that point, Trestman reflected on the path that had gotten him to that point in his life. He did some soul-searching and reassessed his priorities and approach to life. By his own account, he transformed himself spiritually and mentally. When the opportunity to become a head coach – never mind that is was in the CFL – he seized it.

His tenure in Montreal was marked by unconventional (by NFL standards) methods. One example: He would mix position meetings – have wide receivers sit in on the running back meetings, and so on, so that each player would better understand how all positions inter-relate and work together for the greater good. 

Perhaps most importantly, he made sure to treat players as people, not as “pieces” or interchangeable commodities.

It worked. Trestman’s teams won two CFL championships, became consistently competitive, and and he was named coach of the year in 2009.  Improbably enough, at the age of 57, he attracted the eye of second-year Chicago GM Phil Emery, who recognized the need for a change in Chicago. Trestman got the job.  It was a bold, and risky, hiring.

Fast-forward to this week. The Bears won their first two contests, and players seem to be buying into Trestman’s approach. Martellus Bennett calls him a "genius" and likens Trestman to Willy Wonka. Even the skeptical Chicago mainstream media has repeatedly praised Trestman's style, approach and candor as "a breath of fresh air." That's the phrase you see over and over again in Chicagoland media coverage.

Trestman, who has long been known as a quarterback guru, seems to have gotten through to Jay Cutler, the maddeningly frustrating enigma of a quarterback with limitless “potential.”  For the past few years, Cutler has been a lightning rod for criticism in Chicago.  His typical body language suggested he just didn't care, and he often seemed listless and aloof.

No more. So far this season, under Trestman, Cutler seems to have a spring in his step and a passion for the game. He’s interested, engaged, and, more importantly, Cutler is on target with his passes – a 68.1 percent completion percentage and a 95.4 passer rating. By comparison, Ben Roethlisherger completed 58 percent of his passes in his first two games with a 74.8 passer rating (well below his norm).

Just as significantly for Chicago, Emery and Trestman rebuilt the offensive line this off-season. Just like Tennessee (Pittsburgh’s opponent in Week 1), the Bears installed four new starters on the offensive line and added a big pass-catching tight end, Martellus Bennett.  So far, the rebuilt line has done a good job protecting Cutler and opening lanes for running back Matt Forte – and, to digress for a moment, wouldn’t it have been nice if the Steelers had drafted him in 2008 instead of Rashard Mendenhall?

So that’s the team our Steelers will be facing on Sunday. Make of it what you will.

One more thing: For what it's worth, here is Trestman's response to a reporter's question at his first press conference as Bears head coach, as recounted by columnist Dan Pompei in a fascinating article in The Chicago Tribune:
Reporter's question: "Based on the pieces you have in place, do you anticipate any major changes by bringing in a new defensive coordinator?" 
Trestman's reply: "With all due respect, they're not pieces. … They are men who love football. And I get that. During my transformation, they will never be pieces again. They are valued people. And thank you for asking the question so I could give that type of answer."

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