What’s it like to fol­low the man? Ask Vince

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - TOP OF THE SECOND - David Haugh David Haugh is a spe­cial con­trib­u­tor to the Chicago Tri­bune and co-host of the “Mully and Haugh Show” week­days from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM-670.

“One of the first things I said was, ‘I know you guys loved Buddy, but Buddy left you.’ ’’ < Vince Tobin, who took over as Bears de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor af­ter Buddy Ryan bolted to be­come the Eagles head coach

Vince Tobin, the man the Bears picked to re­place Buddy Ryan, the fran­chise’s most beloved as­sis­tant coach ever, walked into his first meet­ing in 1986 as the team’s new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and im­me­di­ately made an ad­just­ment.

Line­backer Otis Wil­son had his feet propped up on the lectern where Tobin planned to stand.

“I said, ‘Otis, get your damn feet off my lectern,’ ’’ Tobin, 75, re­called in a phone in­ter­view from his home in Ari­zona. “That was Otis’ way of test­ing me. I knew I’d be tested be­cause I wasn’t Buddy. But he took his feet down and lis­tened. Mike Sin­gle­tary was a big help in that tran­si­tion. It was a unique sit­u­a­tion.’’

It par­al­lels the re­al­ity fac­ing newly hired Chuck Pagano, who re­places Vic Fan­gio — the Bears’ pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor who left Wed­nes­day to be­come the Bron­cos head coach. De­sign­ing de­fenses is one thing. But manag­ing per­son­al­i­ties of ac­com­plished play­ers per­haps poses a greater chal­lenge that will de­ter­mine whether the Bears 2019 de­fense can du­pli­cate its 2018 dom­i­nance.

In 1986, weeks af­ter the Bears won Su­per Bowl XX and car­ried Ryan off the field at the Louisiana Su­per­dome, they faced the same daunt­ing prospect. The Eagles hired Ryan as head coach, and then-Bears coach Mike Ditka wasted no time in hir­ing Tobin, whose brother, Bill, was the Bears di­rec­tor of player per­son­nel.

Vince Tobin was the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor of the Philadel­phia Stars of the now-de­funct USFL — one of his coach­ing pro­teges was an earnest young staffer named Fan­gio — and turned down the chance to fol­low coach Jim Mora to the Saints when Ditka called. For a Bears de­fense among the NFL’s all-time lead­ers in charisma, go­ing from the bom­bas­tic Ryan to the se­ri­ous Tobin was like switch­ing from hard rock to clas­si­cal mu­sic. Even Ryan crit­i­cized Tobin’s hir­ing.

“We were very dif­fer­ent. Buddy ran a dif­fer­ent ship,’’ Tobin ac­knowl­edged. “But Mike never once said, ‘You have to do this or that.’ He never looked over my shoul­der. I had to­tal au­ton­omy and al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated that. The main thing for the co­or­di­na­tor who re­places Vic is to be your­self. You have to re­mem­ber you’ve proven you can coach. You can’t worry about the coach you fol­lowed, no mat­ter how good he was. I couldn’t stand up there and think, ‘Well, Buddy set all the records and now it’s my job.’ There is no way I could have done my job that way.’’

Con­fi­dent in his abil­ity and foot­ball in­tel­lect, Tobin switched from the Bears’ leg­endary “46 de­fense” that fea­tured four down line­men to a 3-4 scheme he used in the USFL. Tobin’s weekly game plans called for fewer blitzes and more struc­ture, per­haps the big­gest ad­just­ment for a group as ag­gres­sive as the ’85 de­fense. His phi­los­o­phy dic­tated the Bears take fewer chances than they did un­der Ryan, which didn’t al­ways sit well with play­ers judg­ing Tobin as crit­i­cally as fans and me­dia did.

“One of the first things I said was, ‘I know you guys loved Buddy, but Buddy left you,’ ’’ Tobin said. “‘It wasn’t me that had any­thing to do with that. We can lament that for a long time or we can pull to­gether.’ We pulled to­gether. … Who­ever comes in for the Bears now af­ter Vic has to be the same way. It wasn’t the co­or­di­na­tor that nec­es­sar­ily made them good. It was the ta­lent.’’

Ta­lent pre­vailed in 1986, when the Bears went 14-2 with a de­fense that en­joyed a bet­ter year sta­tis­ti­cally un­der Tobin. The Bears again dom­i­nated, giv­ing up only 187 points — 11 fewer than they did in ’85. They held 10 of 16 reg­u­lar-sea­son op­po­nents to 10 points or fewer. They held op­po­nents to an av­er­age of 258.1 yards per game with 62 sacks — only two fewer than in ’85.

Bears his­tory sug­gests the de­fense im­proved in 1986, but Wil­son tells a dif­fer­ent story, demon­strat­ing how ac­cep­tance of Tobin came slowly.

“If Buddy stayed we would have won two Su­per Bowls in a row,’’ Wil­son said on WSCR-AM 670. “We went from a dom­i­nat­ing de­fense to just an all-right de­fense. All the ag­gres­sive­ness was gone. The sys­tem changed the way we played foot­ball. We had enough pride that we weren’t go­ing to let it fall apart. We strug­gled to play the way we play as peo­ple. You play with some­body who says we’re go­ing to ‘bend, don’t break.’ Well, I can’t play get­ting punched in my face and then re­act.’’

Tobin’s sys­tem was more paint-by-num­bers com­pared to Ryan’s ab­stract ap­proach, and for­mer Bears safety Gary Fen­cik re­called how Pro Bowl-cal­iber play­ers used to such free ex­pres­sion re­sisted. Fen­cik cited how lim­ited the sec­ondary be­came, for in­stance, by elim­i­nat­ing cer­tain pre-snap cov­er­age checks based on for­ma­tions com­pared to chang­ing on the fly in Ryan’s scheme.

“Vince be­gan to erode the things that made us unique,’’ Fen­cik said. “But we wanted to prove we were great with­out Buddy. Vince in­her­ited a tough po­si­tion, not un­like the guy re­plac­ing Vic. The ex­pec­ta­tions are to main­tain it or take it to the next level, and the tricky part is the dy­nam­ics and per­son­al­i­ties. It’s a vul­ner­a­ble sit­u­a­tion un­til you see re­sults.’’

The Bears ex­pect pos­i­tive re­sults in 2019 from a de­fense ex­pected to re­turn at least 10 reg­u­lars from the NFL’s stingi­est unit. But as coach Matt Nagy ex­pressed af­ter the team’s crush­ing 16-15 play­off loss to the Eagles, ev­ery sea­son in­tro­duces a change in chem­istry. Sea­sons are like snowflakes — no two are alike.

A guy who sur­vived that scru­tiny of­fered some ad­vice for Pagano, a man with whom Tobin can re­late.

“You’ve got to be your­self be­cause you got hired based on your abil­ity to do the job and if you do some­thing dif­fer­ent than Vic Fan­gio, that’s OK,’’ said Tobin, the Bears de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor from 1986-92. “Be your­self. Do what got you there in the first place. If that’s the same sys­tem the Bears fan, great, but if it isn’t, that’s fine too.’’

Asked how hot his seat was from day one, Tobin chuck­led.

“I’m not sure I felt all that much pres­sure be­cause Mike turned it over to me,’’ he said. “Who­ever re­places a guy like Vic or a guy like Buddy has to know he has the full sup­port of the head coach. That takes away any anx­i­ety. I loved Chicago.’’

Even when the feel­ing wasn’t al­ways mu­tual.

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY

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