Commentary

He fits the bill

Former Buffalo head coach Fewell could be right addition on Bears staff

Updated: January 12, 2010, 12:09 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

As glamour hires go, the expected appointment of Perry Fewell to the Bears' defensive coordinator position has about as much appeal as a quality control guy.

[+] EnlargeFewell
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesBuffalo running back Fred Jackson said Perry Fewell is an in-your-face motivator.

That's because the perception is that whoever gets the job will be, in effect, neutered.

Smothered may be more like it. To wit, the new coordinator will be operating under '09 defensive coordinator and still head coach Lovie Smith. He will be on the same staff as '08 defensive coordinator (and Smith's close friend) Bob Babich, and assistant head coach/defensive line coach (and another Smith confidante) Rod Marinelli.

The new man will also be coordinating the same defensive system that Smith ran and has made clear will not change. And like the new offensive coordinator, he will come into a situation in which anything short of a playoff appearance -- and maybe even with a playoff appearance -- could signal the departure of Smith and his staff.

But all that taken into consideration, Fewell should not be written off as someone who would have no influence on next season's defense and overall results.

Fewell would be the Bears' fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons, but familiarity with his new team should ease the transition considerably, as he has already coached Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher when he was in charge of the Bears' defensive backs in 2005. That team also included Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and Israel Idonije. In addition to working under Smith with the Bears that season, Fewell also was the defensive backs coach on the St. Louis staff in 2003 when Smith was the defensive coordinator.

Fewell, 47, who interviewed with the Bears on Monday and is the leading candidate, also has been courted by the New York Giants for the same job, but would like to put himself back on track for a head-coaching position after serving as such on an interim basis in Buffalo. Presumably, the best thing he can do at this point in his career is be associated with a successful team.

Though that eluded him in Buffalo, under trying circumstances and with an offense that was the third worst in the league, Fewell did a better-than-admirable job with the Bills' defense. The Bills were 19th in total defense and 16th in points allowed, but more importantly, the defense kept the team in every game but two.

Fewell would be coaching the same 4-3 defensive strategy he had in Buffalo, so it's not like he would have to stifle his own style. With Fewell's experience, there is no reason to think Smith would not hand over all play-calling responsibilities.

And with his own clout after an albeit brief go-round -- finishing the season 3-4 -- as Buffalo's interim head coach, Fewell's authority on the defensive staff should be secure.

"A good head coach hires a good coordinator who he has confidence in, then stays out of it," said one former assistant coach. "Even a defensive head coach hiring a defensive coordinator, you let a guy do things his own way. Everyone has a different style of coaching, but it doesn't mean it's right or wrong. It's the end product that counts."

Fewell has proven he can work around deficiencies. In 2007, the Bills had the most injuries in the league, and even though they ranked 31st in yards allowed, they were 18th in points allowed and fourth in red zone efficiency. In 2008, with a healthy if not overly talented defense, the Bills ranked 14th in yards allowed and were fourth in the red zone again despite another horrendous season from the offense.

This season, the Bills started nine different players at linebacker, lost four defensive starters for much of the season and had the 30th-ranked offense. With that, they were second in the league in pass defense and second in takeaways, normally a Smith staple.

"It's nothing that's going to wow Chicago fans," said one Bills observer, "but he really did milk the most he could out of a limited arsenal."

Surely, Fewell will benefit with a healthy Urlacher returning. But one of the big questions will be whether Fewell can motivate, a component thought to be lacking after the departure of Ron Rivera. But Bills players said that was a strength of Fewell's.

"I like Coach Perry," said running back Fred Jackson. "I like what he did for us in the short time that he was our coach. I liked the way that he approached the game and how he was an in-your-face motivator type of guy."

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams also was complimentary.

"I think Perry did a good job," Williams said. "You look at the [season finale against Indianapolis, a 30-7 Bills' victory]. Somebody asked me about playing the Colts' backups and I said, 'Well, who were they playing?'

"We'd have been really happy to have our backups in. We had guys playing that weren't here at the start of the season. On defense we had five guys who were considered starters at the start of the year who weren't playing. ... So I think Perry did a pretty good job managing the team."

The Bears can use Fewell's influence in the secondary, as well as some of the performances he got the last time he was here.

In '05 under Fewell's direction, Vasher finished fifth overall in the league in interceptions with a career-high eight, and Charles Tillman tied for 11th with five. Both Vasher and safety Mike Brown were named to the Pro Bowl for the first -- and only -- time that season, and the Bears were fifth-ranked in the league in passing defense, allowing just 179.5 passing yards per game and tied for second with 24 interceptions.

They were also No. 1 in points allowed (12.6) and No. 2 overall in total defense, allowing 281.8 yards per game. A Bears' defense under Perry Fewell may sound the same, but it isn't likely to look the same.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.