On Thursday night at Soldier Field, an offensive coordinator disguised as an NFL head coach will lead players he once struggled to connect with through a game that will remind fans in a passionate football city how lucky he is to still have his job.
Oh, and Bears coach Marc Trestman will be there too.
Cowboys counterpart Jason Garrett, the NFL head-coaching fraternity's face of mediocrity, represents a reality check for everyone in Chicago counting the days until Trestman's firing. They have been counting down in Dallas for years. So begins the final month of Garrett's fourth full season, none of which have ended in the playoffs.
Somehow Mr. .500 survives, giving hope to agreeable head coaches middling along like Trestman. It was last December when ESPN reported the "current expectation" was Garrett would be fired unless the Cowboys made the playoffs. For the fourth straight year, they didn't. Yet Garrett returned anyway.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' surprising decision reinforced two things worth remembering in the context of Trestman and the Bears: 1) a head coach's seat really never gets hot if ownership insists on turning the temperature down and 2) a head coach's willingness to comply can matter as much as his ability to win.
In other words, until Bears Chairman George McCaskey voices a problem with Trestman, everyone else's vocal opposition is just noise. And, a la Jones, as long as Phil Emery remains the Bears general manager — McCaskey should start re-evaluating there, but that's a debate for another day — he will favor a coach like Trestman unlikely to challenge his authority.
When Jones announced he was keeping Garrett under his thumb and on the payroll, he used rationale surely never used when explaining the longevity of Tom Landry or Jimmy Johnson.
"If we don't have him, we don't get payback for all the miscues and losses and criticism of sideline management,'' Jones said.
Naturally, Jones set conditions: He ordered Garrett, a favorite since he was a Cowboys backup quarterback in the 1990s, to demote offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and hire Scott Linehan to call plays. During the 2013 season, Jones already had stripped Garrett of play-calling duties, which, like Trestman, supposedly was his specialty. But a sputtering Cowboys offense in '13 dropped from sixth to 16th in total yardage behind a gun-slinging quarterback, Tony Romo, fresh off a new nine-figure contract that guaranteed him $55 million.
Garrett also struggled initially controlling the locker room, overcoming an NFL Network report his first season that Cowboys players "didn't like him at all.'' Last year, Garrett drew criticism for publicly blaming Romo after a loss. This year, an 8-4 start helped restore credibility and return the Cowboys to relevance, though the prevailing thought around Valley Ranch continues that 2014 is a playoffs-or-else season for Garrett.
"I think it is, I really do,'' former NFL and college coach Dave Wannstedt, now a FOX analyst, told CSN Chicago. "Everybody at Dallas, for a lot of reasons, needs this game. It's huge for the Cowboys.''
The Bears' next big game won't come until 2015, when Trestman likely faces the same playoffs-or-else mandate if the McCaskeys follow Jones' example and embrace the status quo. If so, Trestman would be wise to follow the course Garrett did — via ground, not air.
Only one NFL team ran the ball fewer than the Cowboys' 336 carries in 2013 — a 65-35 pass-to-run ratio. If the Cowboys weren't changing coaches, they had to change philosophies. Remarkably, through 12 games this year, the Cowboys have one more rushing attempt than pass attempt — 365-364 — which enhances a play-action passing game that makes Romo more efficient and helps the defense stay off the field. It's Football 101. Asked Tuesday about a renewed emphasis on the run, Garrett claimed it began four years ago. But, truthfully, it required drafting a third offensive lineman, Zack Martin, in the first round and Garrett committing to an offensive philosophy stressing force over finesse. It also helps to have running back DeMarco Murray, who should register his stiff-arm as a weapon in Texas.
"What we've tried to do is play to the strength of our personnel and that's an important thing for all coaches to do,'' Garrett said.
The lesson exists if Trestman chooses to learn from it. His approach begs for change. Too often, the Bears get too cute. Respected running back Matt Forte was the latest, and loudest, openly to question Trestman's pass-happy game plans. The only rhetoric more telling was Trestman's revelation 48 hours after Lance Briggs went on injured reserve that he had yet to speak to Briggs. The dysfunction was almost enough to forget Trestman indirectly indicting Emery's roster postgame in Detroit by saying the Bears "didn't have the ammunition.'' Almost.
Chaos looms with more losing but winning cures all. The Bears and Trestman either can run away from their problems or do what the Cowboys and Garrett did: Run through them, one handoff at a time.