MOBILE, Ala. — The slate is never going to be wiped clean, but if the Bears are entertaining the idea of switching to a 3-4 defense, this is the time.
It sure looks like they are headed that direction after new coach John Fox, who historically has been involved with 4-3 defenses, hired Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, winning a two-team battle for his services by beating out the Redskins, who have a long track record of getting the coaches they pursue under owner Daniel Snyder.
At Fox's introductory news conference Monday, he said he was open to different possibilities on defense, probably because he knew there was a chance to land Fangio, who quickly emerged as the Bears' No. 1 candidate. Fangio has a top-notch resume and spent the last four seasons with the 49ers, whose defense ranked No. 1 against the run, No. 2 in scoring, No. 3 in yards allowed, No. 4 in takeaways and No. 6 against the pass during that span.
Unfortunately, the Bears' depth chart on defense doesn't look quite like that of the 49ers, who had five first-team All-Pros and nine Pro Bowl performers under Fangio. But that's what makes a change possible right now. The Bears need so much new personnel on defense, they can go any direction.
Converting to a new scheme will give the franchise a needed break from the past. Lovie Smith's defenses were so good for so long the expectation was the tradition would carry on under former coordinator Mel Tucker even if the talent level wasn't the same. Having Tucker try to run Smith's defense in 2013 was ill-fated from the start. You can maintain some of Smith's core beliefs — running to the ball and prioritizing takeaways — but make a total departure from the Cover-2 scheme he brought with him from Tampa Bay by way of St. Louis.
Special teams can directly benefit from a change in the defensive scheme. A typical 4-3 team is going to carry six linebackers on the 53-man roster (the Bears have gotten by with five at times). A 3-4 team will carry eight and sometimes as many as nine linebackers. Because reserve linebackers are core special teams players, that gives the special teams coordinator more options.
If the Bears are indeed headed in this direction — and the sooner their scouts know what to be on the lookout for the better — there aren't a lot of matching pieces in the front seven. Defensive end Jared Allen is guaranteed $12.5 million this season, more than any player on defense, and he's a non-fit for a 3-4 scheme. Trading Allen, who turns 33 in April, will be virtually impossible with that contract, but he could be used as a rush end on third down. It's not ideal, but a transition is going to have some complicating factors, and reducing Allen's playing time could make him more explosive in passing situations.
Defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, the second-round pick last year, could fit a three-man front. But tackle Will Sutton, a third-round pick, figures to be out of place. There were some interesting opinions regarding Lamarr Houston, who is recovering from a torn ACL. One former Bears assistant said he believes Houston would be best as an outside linebacker, pointing out that he wasn't too far over 260 pounds this season. Others peg him as an end in a 3-4 scheme but acknowledge he'd have to bulk up.
Defensive end Willie Young is coming off a 10-sack season and he's also difficult to project in a 3-4, although it might not be an issue as he is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 16. If you're wondering about the prototype, think 6-foot-4, 285-pound Justin Smith, the 49ers veteran.
A 3-4 scheme would give former first-round pick Shea McClellin his best chance yet of breaking through as an outside linebacker. Christian Jones might also fit best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he's probably not headed from undrafted status to stardom in a 3-4. Just like the roster is short on linemen, the Bears have a scarcity of linebackers.
Fangio and Fox possess intelligent defensive minds and know ultimately it's about putting the players they have in the best position. The Bears could easily be in a position where they use a variety of fronts. Fangio puts great value on players who give him flexibility, so you could certainly see hybrid looks.
One thing was evident before Fangio was hired: The Bears need personnel upgrades on defense. Now that he's onboard, it provides some clues for what lies ahead, but in the end any good coach will tell you it's not about X's and O's as much as it is Jimmys and Joes.
The Bears need more Jimmys and Joes to run any scheme well.