Pagano Strives To Bring Even Better Out Of Bears D

Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano
Photo credit Chris Emma/670 The Score
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- After 33 consecutive seasons as a football coach, Chuck Pagano found himself in 2018 coming to grips with not being on the sidelines for the first time in seemingly forever. He was fired as head coach of the Colts in early January 2018, and the right opportunities passed him by for the time being. It was all so different.

So began the year-long sabbatical for the 58-year-old Pagano, who enjoyed the marriage of his youngest daughter, crossed the Masters off his bucket list and worked as an NFL consultant. But for all the enjoyment that came from this time, he also experienced boredom. Pagano often rode a Peloton bike three or four times a day and ran errands to keep himself busy.

Pagano missed the game of football and was hopeful for the right chance back in. He got that when Vic Fangio left his post as Bears defensive coordinator to become the Broncos' head coach. Pagano was hired to fill Fangio's vacancy and now is charged with leading the league's top-ranked scoring defense -- and he gets to return to the sidelines once again.

"Thirty-three years in coaching and then sitting out last year, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be back on the grass," Pagano said. "And at such a special, special place.

"I feel like the luckiest man in the world right now."

As Fangio's head coaching candidacy became more clear, Bears coach Matt Nagy stated he had a contingency plan in place. He interviewed defensive backs coach Ed Donatell on Jan. 10, shortly after Fangio was introduced in Denver, and then brought Pagano in the next day. Pagano interviewed on a Friday morning and was hired by that night.

Just as Fangio was, Pagano has been handed full autonomy of the Bears defense. He has been hiring his own assistants, with defensive line coach Jay Rodgers the lone defensive position coach returning. And Pagano will now be tasked with carrying over the success of the defense from 2018, one that also led the NFL with 36 takeaways.

"He has an attacking style, mentality," Nagy said of Pagano last week. "He is aggressive. But yet as we try to talk about all the time -- be calculated, too. You’ve got to be smart with it. But he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s been in this league for awhile. He’s had a lot of success. 

"The more we talked, the more I felt that this is a really good, perfect fit for us. Just really looking forward to it and excited for it."

In his lone opportunity as head coach, Pagano directed the Colts to a 53-43 mark in six seasons and led them to the postseason in each of his first three seasons. He inspired the nation during his first season in 2012 by beating leukemia and returning in time for the playoffs. Pagano is now six years cancer-free.

The professional challenge became great in Indianapolis as franchise quarterback Andrew Luck dealt with shoulder complications that sidelined him for the entire 2017 season. The Colts finished 4-12 and fired Pagano after those six years together.

He has no intentions of becoming a head coach again.

"I was a lot better coach when '12' was under center than I was when he wasn't, and that's well documented," Pagano said. "He probably got me a few more years than I may have deserved. My wife's going to kill me for saying that. She says, 'Don't say that.' I just keep it real."

The realness that Pagano brings is only one of the familiar traits the Bears may come to recognize from their four seasons with Fangio. Pagano has been lauded by players for the way he relates to them on a personal level, all while demanding their best. That's only part of the equation.

Continuity is the key for the Bears defense, and it's something Pagano is committed to maintaining. Like Fangio, Pagano has run a 3-4 defense during his time as a coach but with different terminology. He plans to adapt many of the terms and concepts that Fangio brought to the defense so there's no drop-off in production.

After all, the Bears allowed only 17.7 points per game last season and have the youth in place for it all to improve. As Pagano put it, "I’d rather put a lot of it on me instead of 53 guys."

"We're not going to try to jam a square pegs into round holes," Pagano said. "There is a ton of talent here. They’ve built one heck of a roster. They’ve built one heck of a roster on defense. There’s impact players at all three levels. We’ll always do the best that we can to put them in the best possible position to be successful and play to their strengths. So there’s going to be a lot of carryover.

"The standard is the standard. They’ve been playing great defense here for a long, long time. Last year was no exception. So again, for us to just throw everything out and start anew, that would not be very smart on my part."

After accepting his new job, Pagano traveled to Los Angeles last week to coach in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. During his flight west, Pagano began studying in detail his new players and their collective success. He texted with some and noticed a common theme: "We can be better. I can be better."

The greatest change Pagano will bring to the Bears is a beginner's mind -- something Hall of Fame basketball coach Phil Jackson once offered to all-time great Michael Jordan. Pagano himself used to relate this to Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis in Baltimore. 

Pagano wants the Bears defense to refresh the way their new coordinator did after his first year away from football. Together, they're striving for more.

"Our vision for this defense is to be the best," Pagano said. "Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely. It's going to be very, very difficult and a huge challenge but one we will be up for."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​​