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Brian Billick: Bears made right call by elevating Mike Tice

NFL analyst former coach Brian Billick says BEars made right choice by promoting Mike Tice offensive coordinator. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

NFL analyst and former coach Brian Billick says the BEars made the right choice by promoting Mike Tice to offensive coordinator. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 12, 2012 3:59PM

Mike Tice seems like an unlikely offensive coordinator. Though he was a quarterback at Maryland, he played tight end for 13-plus seasons in the NFL. And he was a ‘‘point-of-attack’’ tight end whose expertise was run-blocking and pass protection.

By his own admission, he operated almost exclusively inside a ‘‘five-yard box’’ on the playing field. Tice rarely even saw down the field, let alone actually get there himself. In 177 NFL games, he had seven receptions for 20 yards or more. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham had nine in the first five games of this season.

But that image is deceiving, said Fox and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, who coached against Tice with the Vikings and also coached with him in Minnesota under Dennis Green.

‘‘Anybody that has concerns about Mike [shouldn’t],’’ Billick said. ‘‘He’s got an excellent football mind. His analytical abilities — breaking down what you’re facing in terms of a defense. He understands the teaching sequence. I think he’ll do a great job as a coordinator. And I think he’ll give Lovie [Smith] exactly what Lovie’s looking for in terms of what he wants from the offense within the total design of the team.’’

Tice has an outstanding reputation as an offensive line coach, but has never been an offensive coordinator at any level. He has no play-calling experience outside of acclimating offensive coordinator Scott Linehan when Tice was head coach of the Vikings in 2002-05. But Billick, who parlayed his role as the coordinator for the Vikings’ league-leading offense under Green into the head coaching job at Baltimore, where he won Super Bowl XXXV, said that would not be a difficult transition for Tice.

‘‘Not at all,’’ Billick said. ‘‘There’s always the concern that when you take an offensive line coach and expand his duties that there’s a lack of experience of looking down the field and coordinating the back end with the offensive line and attacking the secondary.

‘‘But Mike having been a head coach, has overseen that. So he has done that. This isn’t new to him. [It is] in terms of the physical play-calling, but in terms of orchestrating an offense … and he’ll rely heavily on the people he surrounds himself with to make sure that it is coordinated with what they want to do down the field.

‘‘But designing routes down the field, that’s the easiest thing in football. The really good coordinators in my opinion are the ones that have a more intrinsic understanding of protections and run schemes. Because anybody can draw up a pass play.’’

Billick made his name as a coordinator with a highly rated passing attack. But he and Tice share the philosophy that everything in the passing game stems from the running game and pass protection. In other words, play-calling is one thing, but actual coordination is more important. That will be a strength of Tice’s, he said.

‘‘Too often I see coordinators that think they’re going to dazzle people with these brilliant route combinations down the field and there’s not the proper coordination with how they match up with their protections, what it has to do with the running game,’’ Billick said. ‘‘Yeah, they play-action fake, but there’s not a real integral, interaction between the real running game and the play-action fakes that are legitimate fakes off what you actually do. So at that front end of it is pivotal and Mike is ideally suited to bring that together.’’

That the Bears will hire a ‘‘passing-game coordinator’’ seems like a recipe for disaster with the dysfunctional way the Bears go about their business. But Billick said that is not a big concern. ‘‘That’s one of those [baloney] titles we put out there so we can get coaches to work for us,’’ Billick said. ‘‘Mike will be totally orchestrating the offense.’’

Usually, Billick said, pass-oriented coordinators are asking their running back or offensive line coaches for help. This will be the other way around.

‘‘You hear it all the time,’’ Billick said, ‘‘where the guy that calls the game more traditionally from the quarterback perspective will be on the phone with his line coach or his running back coach, ‘Ok, give me your three favorite runs going into the next series based on what you’re seeing.

‘‘[With] a coach that’s so focused on the running game and protection, it’ll work just a little bit differently. It’ll be, ‘Ok, give me your favorite down-the-field throws.’ Or ‘give me your next third-down package or what we want to do in these situations.’ It’s not that dissimilar. It’s just kind of the flip side of it.

‘‘You have to have input from your entire staff – that’s vital. But on Game Day there has to be that singular voice. And that one will clearly be Mike’s.’’

If not for Billick, Tice’s coaching career might never have started. After he played for the Vikings in 1992 and 1993, when Billick was the tight ends coach, Tice retired and went into private business in Seattle, where he had spent most of his NFL career. But late in the 1995 season, when the Vikings were down to their last tight end, Billick called Tice in desperation and convinced him to come back and finish out the season.

After playing the final three games, Tice asked Billick about ‘‘getting into the coaching thing.’’ Tice helped with offensive line and tight ends when Billick was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1996, then to full-time offensive line coach from 1997-2001.

‘‘When he left, he had other business ventures, but I knew he would miss the game. And I knew he would come back,’’ Billick said. ‘‘I knew when he wanted to get into coaching that he’d make a good coach.

‘‘What I appreciated about Mike was that so often as a player becoming a coach you just figure, ‘What the hell, I know the game, I’ve played it all these years. I’ll just show up and look at a little film and we’ll go play the game.’ Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that and Mike really threw himself into the analyzation of an opponent, how it matched up with what we were going to do with our running game and protection game.

‘‘He became what we call a ‘‘grinder,’’ a guy that will really work the film and do the work that you need to do to make these determinations. He worked with some good people and just kept learning his trade and worked his way up. I think it’s a great opportunity for him to coordinate. No question in my mind he’ll do a good job.’’

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