After a year away, Pagano returns to coach league's top defense

Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano speaks to the media after Thursday’s practice at Olivet Nazarene University.

Last season, Chuck Pagano and his family had nobody to root for. He was fired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts after the 2017 conclusion, and rather than jumping right back in the fire as an assistant, he decided to take a year off.

But after that season, he had the itch to coach and his family had the itch to cheer. And when the Bears came calling for the defensive guru Pagano to replace the departing Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s what I do, it’s what I love to do," Pagano said. "Thirty-three straight years and then you don’t have a team, my wife and kids don’t have anybody to root for.

"Now we've got a team again."

That team, the Bears, were the league's best defense, allowing the fewest points in the NFL (283) and also its most opportunistic with a league-leading 36 turnovers.

For Pagano, taking over the reigns is just as much about building off what Fangio and head coach Matt Nagy created as it is implementing his own schemes and ideas.

“It’s a really good deal obviously — the football IQ is off the charts," Pagano said. "Coach Fangio did a great job of building that.

"They built one heck of a roster and again, they’ve put together a group of men and we’ve got depth at all three levels.

"It's been easy to implement and put the scheme together," he added. "We threw a lot at them and a lot’s sticking.”

The leader of that defense, both tangibly and intangibly, has been linebacker Khalil Mack. It was Mack who opened up the first period of starters versus starters action Thursday by tipping and then intercepting a throw from quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Pagano said that Mack's hard-working, blue collar approach to camp every day, even in the lulls of training camp, are the kinds of traits that allow a defense to be as outstanding as the one he coaches.

“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack is what we say," Pagano said.

"If he’s out front and going 1,000 mph, (defensive tackle Akiem Hicks) is doing it, (linebacker) Danny Trevathan’s doing it, (safety) Eddie Jackson’s doing it in the back.

"Everybody else is going, ‘OK, that guy is the number three player voted by his peers in the National Football League and he’s doing that,’ they’re not gonna do anything but give you great effort," Pagano said, eluding to Mack being ranked the third-best player in the league on the NFL Network's Top 100 Players in the NFL list that was released earlier this week.

"That leadership, that accountability, that ownership, it’s phenomenal.”

As a second-year head coach, Nagy has the interesting position of working with his second defensive coordinator in as many years, although that first coordinator was able to produce a stout defennse.

But for Nagy, Pagano and the rest of the organization, last year is exactly that — last year.

"This is a new era for our team and for this season coming up," Nagy said. "Not just the coaches, but these players have higher expectations and I think for them, as long as they listen to what Chuck and his staff are doing, I think you guys are gonna see some pretty good stuff.”

With nine starters, including four Pro Bowlers — three of which were first-team All-Pro selections — expectations are heightened for Pagano's defense.

But that's not something that has him or his players worried.

“We all understand what we signed up for," Pagano said. "Players and coaches, we understand what the expectations are.

"It’s really change the changeable, accept the unchangeable and remove what’s not good.”

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