Bears Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano Deep Dive (Where Chuck Came From)
As a child, I remember being told that trees in a forest all tried to outgrow each other in order to get the most sunlight. It was fascinating finding out the truth, and how the roots of trees bound together to create a harmonious network. If one tree needs help or nourishment, they turn to the network. Relate this to the NFL and the term coaching tree. Head Coaches that have been or are staples in the NFL stand tall and help their understudies grow and the roots to these coaching trees run deep. You constantly see coaches bounced around and still ending up with a similar company. The boldest and most recent example is when Hue Jackson was hired as the special assistant to Marvin Lewis after he was fired from Cleveland. This article highlights the new Defensive Coordinator of the Chicago Bears Chuck Pagano's coaching tree and his success.
Jim Mora was a defensive coach for the University of Colorado from 1968-1973. During his time in Boulder, he became close with the Pagano Family, whose son, Chuck Pagano, was born only a few years prior on October 2, 1960. Mora eventually found his way onto the University of Washington coaching staff for a few years, where he worked with Don James. After Mora's departure, Pagano arrived in Washington as a player. Pagano was a four-year starter, playing strong safety. He graduated in 1984 and was promptly named as an assistant for the University of Southern California. After two seasons at SC, he moved to the University of Miami where he held the same title during the 1986 season. Skip Hall was promoted to Head Coach of Boise State after working for Don James in Washington. Here’s where you can connect the dots from Mora-James-Hall-Pagano. It was a childhood connection that got Chuck Pagano his first paid coaching job. In 1987 he was hired to Boise State's staff, and for the next two seasons, he served as the linebackers coach. Pagano cited that Mora was indeed the key to getting him into coaching (Broncos Legends Podcast Episode 9). During Pagano's time in Boise, he helped groom Scott Russell, Boise's all-time leading tackler, and Erik Helgesson, Boise's all-time sack leader. After Russell's best season in 1988, accruing 164 tackles, Pagano was given another promotion to East Carolina, a Division 1-A school.
At East Carolina, he was the defensive backs coach. Their defense was ranked 81st against the pass giving up 220.9 yards per game, but the ranking is based solely off of total yardage allowed. They had 12 interceptions, gave up a 50.8% completion percentage, and 6.9 yards per attempt. The number one passing defense that year, Kansas State, gave up a 60.9% completion percentage and 9.1 yards per attempt. Teams like Kansas State played in the Big 8 conference facing teams like Oklahoma and Nebraska who rarely threw the ball. Meanwhile, East Carolina was D1-A independent and played teams like Florida St. and NC St. who leaned more on their passing game. Kansas St. only saw 152 pass attempts, whereas East Carolina saw 350 which skews the ranking. Seeing forms of the West Coast offense was beneficial for Pagano. He coached during a transitional period and got ahead of the curve. Also, Pagano coached ECU defensive back Junior Robinson who had an All-American season in '89 with 6 interceptions.
Then Pagano moved to the Big West. He was the defensive backs coach for UNLV in 1990 and became the defensive coordinator in 1991. That year, the UNLV defense allowed a 56.3% completion percentage, had 13 interceptions, but let up 7.8 yards per attempt, along with 27 passing touchdowns, giving them a 91st ranked pass defense. The 1991 UNLV defense as a whole was underwhelming letting up 422 yards per game and 43 touchdowns. After his time in Vegas, he went back to East Carolina, a place he formerly had success.
From 1992-1994 Pagano served as the defensive backs and linebackers coach at East Carolina University. Steve Logan, who was promoted to Head Coach of ECU in 1992, coached alongside Pagano during Pagano's first stint with the program. The new regime was quickly able to get East Carolina on track. As I stated before, the overall rankings are based on total yardage allowed, which is not the most accurate. Some teams have more games or average more plays on defense during a game. Looking at the statistics in the chart ECU went from letting up 456.7 to 366.8 yards per game, also letting up 12.2 fewer points per game. Another telling statistic is that East Carolina's pass defense gave up 20 touchdowns in 1992 and only 9 in 1994. Their completion percentage also decreased by 6.5%. The most impressive stat is that their run defense went from letting up 253.5 yards per game to 119.4, a 134.1 yard per game difference. Something a Pagano supporter wouldn't want to see was that ECU's defense gave up more yards through the air in 1994 than the previous two seasons. This could be due to the loss of personnel, offenses starting to throw the ball more, and/or even bad coaching. Although stats don't tell the entire story, some numbers cannot be avoided, and Pagano's time back in East Carolina was well spent. I want to add it was extremely difficult to find the scanned hard copies of old NCAA team statistics. (ncaa.org/championships/statistics/archived-football-statistical-rankings)
If you've ever seen the ESPN 30 for 30 film The U Pt. 2, then you can reflect on Pagano's next 6 seasons with a little more nostalgia. When Butch Davis was hired as head coach of Miami University, he set out to bring the University back to the National Championship. As some know, the Hurricanes were irrelevant until coach Howard Schnellenberger took over in 1979, with the mission to win a national title. At the time it sounded crazy, but Schnellenberger's strategy was to recruit the "state of Miami", which yields the most NFL talent to this day. Adding talent and culture to the program, they won the National title in 1983. As the program went on, it became a powerhouse but took a downward spiral in 1993. Butch Davis took over the program after having scholarships revoked, and a depleted roster. Davis was a defensive line coach at Miami when Pagano was an assistant, and with Pagano's recent success he was brought onto Miami's staff. Pagano again coached defensive backs but was also given the responsibility of coordinating the special teams. The loss of scholarships caused the Hurricanes to bottom out by 1997. The defense went from being a perennial top 5 unit to being ranked 83rd. Luckily for Miami, Davis and his staff were working on the underclassmen, developing them into superstars. Phillip Buchanon, Al Blades and first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee Ed Reed were all players developed under Pagano. By 2000 they were 5th ranked defense, and after beating the number 1 and 2 teams in the nation, they were slighted the opportunity to play for the national championship. Although Davis and his staff didn't reach what they set out to do, they did bring the U back to relevancy. Chuck Pagano was a big part of developing what turned out to be one of the most talented rosters in the history of the NCAA.
The Miami turn around also gave Pagano the opportunity to be promoted again - this time to the NFL.
In 2001 Butch Davis was hired as the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns and Chuck Pagano was named the secondary coach, where he spent the next 4 seasons. Throughout their time in Cleveland, the defense was on the better side of average and had one playoff appearance. Pagano had 0 players go to the pro bowl while he was in Cleveland, but the passing defense steadily improved. In 2001 and 2002 they ranked 15th against the pass and improved to 7th in 2003. Although the team's total defense had its worst ranking in 2004, at 24th, Pagano's secondary had its best year; ranking 5th against the pass. After a lack of team success, the Browns cleaned house and Pagano was left without a job.
In 2005 he was brought on to Rob Ryan's defensive staff as a defensive backs coach in Oakland. Raiders Head coach Norv Turner was the offensive coordinator at USC in 1984, the same year Pagano was hired as an assistant at USC. It's quite possible that's the connection is what got Pagano his job in Oakland. In 2005 the Raiders passing defense ranked 18th, and in 2006 it jumped to 1st in the league! There were also 0 pro bowl players in the secondary during Pagano's time there. It's was becoming a pattern that Pagano has been able to put out effective secondary units with average starters. It is a bit deterring knowing that by this point in his career he hasn't developed a pro bowl caliber player in his 6 years coaching in the NFL. It's more deterring knowing that the Raiders selected a defensive back in the first round both years Pagano was in Oakland; although Al Davis could have just been being Al Davis, missing on draft picks left and right. Other than one 2nd round defensive back, the Browns never used more than a mid to late-round draft pick in the secondary during Pagano's time there.
In 2007 Pagano went back to work with Butch Davis in the NCAA at North Carolina, only this time he was the Defensive Coordinator. Pagano ran the same 4-3 defense that he became accustomed to early in his career. Jimmy Johnson introduced his Miami Style 4-3 defense in 1984. It emphasized a one-gap scheme that covered the front and smaller, faster, back 7 to cover the field. As you get into the later years, the NCAA database is able to make a more accurate ranking, taking averages from multiple factors into account, as opposed to total yardage allowed equaling overall ranking. Pagano's North Carolina total defense ranked 35th, giving up 349.75 yards per game. Their passing defense ranked 27th, giving up 207.25 yards per game, and their rushing defense ranked 51st, giving up 142.5 yards per game. After a short stay in North Carolina Pagano headed back to the NFL.
After a 5-11 2007 season, Brian Billick was fired and John Harbaugh took over. Rex Ryan was the defensive coordinator and wanted to be a head coach, but wasn't offered a job. Without being offered a promotion to head coach, Ryan's contract prevented him from leaving Baltimore to be a Defensive Coordinator somewhere else. Chuck Pagano was hired onto Rex Ryan's staff as a secondary coach in 2008, where he held that title for 3 years. Pagano was working under another son of the legendary coach and 1985 Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan; this time it was Rex. Rex uses a hybrid of his dad's 46 defense, a 3-4, and 4-3 defenses. It uses a nose tackle as the anchor, and the defensive line plays a two-gap scheme. The Corners are in press-man coverage and linebackers and safeties are used to disguise zone coverage and blitz regularly. The defense you saw from the Chicago Bears in 2018 was born from this, but not rooted in it. Vic Fangio, the former Bears Defensive Coordinator, was a part of the staff that was rolled over from the Billick to Harbaugh eras in Baltimore. Fangio learned under Rex Ryan as a linebackers coach alongside Pagano. The 2018 Bears ran the same base front, with similar disguised coverages, and minimal blitzing.
When Pagano arrived in Baltimore, he was surrounded by more talent ever before, and a familiar face: Ed Reed. By this time, Reed was an all-pro and the Ravens defense was stacked. Their 2007 failure would be short-lived, finishing the 2008 season 11-5 and the Ravens defense was back, stronger than ever. They went from the 24th ranked defense to 3rd and Pagano's secondary went from 20th to 2nd. The defense continued to thrive over the next few years, but Pagano's secondary underachieved, falling in the rankings to 21st overall. Pagano had to be doing something right. When Rex Ryan left Baltimore in 2011 to become Head Coach of the New York Jets, Pagano was promoted to Defensive Coordinator. Pagano's promotion led to Fangio's departure, taking the Defensive Coordinator job at Stanford working under John Harbaugh's brother, Jim. Pagano and Fangio are linked by coaching together, but Fangio also coached for Jim Mora, the man who gave Pagano his start. Pagano adopted Rex Ryan's defensive style as a coordinator and kept the Baltimore Ravens train running in 2011. As a Bears fan, you can only hope he can do the same replacing Vic this year. In 2011 the Ravens defense was ranked 3rd overall, and the secondary was back in order, ending the season ranked 4th against the pass.
All it took was one year as Ravens Defensive Coordinator for Chuck Pagano to be named Head Coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. Although Pagano spent most of his coaching career using a 4-3 base defense, he brought the 3-4 he learned in Baltimore with him. The major difference between Pagano and Ryan's 3-4 defense is that Pagano is willing to use corners in both man and zone coverage. He has also shown similarity to Fangio by playing one corner in press coverage and one in off coverage. You saw this with Prince Amukamara pressing the line of scrimmage and Kyle Fuller off the line, accommodating both players skill sets. By 2013 it looked like Pagano was back at it again, taking a defense from bottom dweller to the top ten in two years. Most importantly, as a Head Coach, he was winning. The Colts went 11-5 from 2012 to 2014 and won 3 playoff games. He even had two pro bowlers in Vontae Davis and Mike Adams. Then things slowly began to unravel. They went 8-8 the following two seasons and lost both pro bowlers during that time. In 2017 they went 4-12 which ultimately led to Pagano being fired. He was able to get his defense to dip into the top ten for a season but ended up being 30th overall his final year in Indianapolis.
After a year off, Pagano has been itching to "get back on the grass" and is glad have the weight of being a Head Coach lifted off his shoulders, getting back to coordinating a defense. Looking back on Pagano's coaching career, you see more positives than negatives. He has made contributions to a number of teams on the defensive side of the ball. All of Pagano's opportunities came from his first two non-paid assistant jobs. Jim Mora, Butch Davis, and Norv Turner were three of the main components to Pagano starting his career, but the roots of a coaching tree run deep. He is even tied to the Chicago Bears legend Buddy Ryan. Who knows how Pagano will do as the Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator, but you have to hope he'll bring a little bit of Buddy with him.