LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Nearly a month after accepting the Chicago Bears head coaching job, Matt Nagy sat inside Chief’s Pub in Lake Forest with his wife, Stacey, ready to watch Super Bowl LII.
There was just one problem. It wasn’t on.
“That happened to be the one (bar) that there was nobody there. It was amazing,” Nagy said. “I actually had to get them to turn on the TV to watch it. It was nice. It was awesome.”
Nagy watched as his good friend Doug Pederson coached the Philadelphia Eagles to a thrilling victory over the New England Patriots. And like everyone else that didn’t have a rooting interest in the Patriots, Nagy got excited when Pederson rolled the dice with “Philly Special.”
“It didn’t surprise me that he did that, but I do remember looking at my wife and saying, ‘Holy hell, that was a ballsy call,’ that was,” Nagy recalled. “Then I said something to the fact, “Yeah, Doug, that-a-boy! I was happy for him.”
Nagy and Pederson aren’t just friends. Their wives are close. Their families are close. And now they’ll coach against each other in Sunday’s Wild Card game at Soldier Field.
But more on the head coaches’ relationship in a minute. First, we’ll start this week’s “10 Bears Things” by taking a look at the playoff game that made Nagy available to the Bears so quickly last January — a game that went a little differently than you probably remember, or at least were told, even by Nagy himself.
1. The ‘Failure’ That Wasn’t
One of the biggest myths in the NFL over the last calendar year is that Nagy cost the Kansas City Chiefs a win in last year’s Wild Card round. After leading the Tennessee Titans 21-3 at halftime, the Chiefs’ offense didn’t score a single point the rest of the game and the Titans came back to win 22-21 on the road at Arrowhead Stadium.
That game was just Nagy’s sixth calling plays for Andy Reid and it made the young offensive coordinator an easy target for the Chiefs’ failures in the second half. The day after the loss, Nagy interviewed for the Bears’ head coaching vacancy and two days later accepted the blame at his introductory press conference in Chicago.
Listen — Hoge & Jahns Podcast: Bears-Eagles, Wild Card Weekend Preview
“For me, that was a failure in my book. I felt terrible for our team, for our organization,” he said.
But was the play-calling really a problem?
I went back and studied the entire game this week and here are some facts to consider:
- While the score was 21-3 at the half, the Chiefs didn’t touch the ball until 6:31 left in the third quarter and the score 21-10. The situation didn’t exactly call for the Chiefs to start milking the clock when they built their original 17-point lead running their normal offense, with Alex Smith completing 19-of-23 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
- The main criticism directed at Nagy was that Kareem Hunt only had five carries in the second half. Completely ignored: Nagy only called 11 plays with the lead in the second half and five of them were runs. That’s called balance. Especially in today’s NFL.
- Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker missed a 48-yard field goal that would have put the Chiefs up 24-10 with 2:31 left in the third quarter.
- The Chiefs’ defense was horrendous in the second half. The Titans had four second half possessions: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, kneel down to end the game.
None of this seems like the offensive coordinator’s fault.
The reason I went back and watched the game is because earlier this week, Nagy said he only regretted one play call from the game. That struck me as odd considering how hard he fell on the sword last January in his first press conference in a new city.
“I think there was one call that I might have wanted back, and it ended up being a call where we lost some yards on a run call,” Nagy said Monday. “I don’t remember the exact situation, but I think there was one call in there that I really felt I could have been better there.”
The guess here is that call was the quarterback option he called on 3rd-and-1 on the Chiefs’ first possession of the second half. Alex Smith didn’t even get the chance to pitch the ball and was stopped short of the first down. Of course, the Titans ended up muffing the ensuing punt, giving the Chiefs new life on that drive. It ended with the Butker missed field goal.
Another scrutinized call was a 3rd-and-2 pass with 11:30 left in the game and the Chiefs leading 21-16. Except the call worked. Tight end Orson Charles was open, he just dropped the ball. And the only reason Charles was the target was because Travis Kelce suffered a concussion in the first half and the Chiefs played the rest of the game without him.
That drive was the Chiefs’ last drive with the lead. But it was only a five-point lead at the time and it was still early in the fourth quarter — hardly the time to go into a shell offensively. Here was the sequence of plays before the Chiefs were forced to punt:
1st and 10 — Smith 5-yard pass to Tyreek Hill
2nd and 5 – Smith 8-yard pass to Albert Wilson
1st and 10 — Hunt 7-yard run
2nd and 3 — Hunt 1-yard run
3rd and 2 — Drop by Charles
So the plays were working. Until a player dropped a key pass in a key moment.
Too often play-callers take the blame for players failing to execute. So, again, why did Nagy accept the blame so easily?
Well, it may have just been the right thing to do.
After the game, Andy Reid had Nagy’s back, creating some confusion about who was actually calling the plays: “He called the good ones, and I called the bad ones. We’ll keep it at that.”
So going into Nagy’s press conference in Chicago, we didn’t actually know who called the plays. But with Kansas City now in the rear-view mirror, Nagy had an opportunity to take the heat off Reid by accepting the blame. He made it clear that he called every play in the second half.
“That’s a learning situation for me,” Nagy said back on Jan. 9, 2018. “I’ll grow from it, and I’ll learn from it. I promise you that. I’ll use that as a strength here for me with the Chicago Bears.”
And in Chicago — coming off three years of John Fox’s lack of transparency — Nagy’s admission of “failure” was refreshing. Frankly, it was celebrated.
Even if it was completely unnecessary.
2. Nagy Trying To Follow Pederson Again — This Time To The Super Bowl
When Doug Pederson took the head coaching job in Philadelphia in 2017, he wanted to bring Nagy with him.
And there was no way Andy Reid was going to let that happen. He made that clear before Pederson even left Kansas City.
“Andy and I had a lot of conversations,”Pederson said. “And he was like, ‘I think you might get, might have an opportunity to interview here or interview there.’ Philadelphia had come up and right away he said, ‘You’re not taking any of my staff members.’ So he kind of put the kibosh on taking any of his assistant coaches at the time.”
Instead, Reid promoted Nagy from quarterbacks coach to Pederson’s old job — offensive coordinator. It was an easy call, because it wasn’t the first time Nagy was taking over Pederson’s old position.
“When I first got into this league, I was below quality control coach,” Nagy said. “I was the assistant to the assistant, and Doug was a quality control coach. Then he got the QB (coach) job and then I bumped up and got the quality control job. Then he got the OC job and I got the QB job — so we keep following this path.”
Which brings us back to Super Bowl Sunday at Chief’s Pub in Lake Forest, less than a month after Nagy followed Pederson’s path to an NFL head coaching gig and suddenly saw Pederson hoisting a Lombardi Trophy.
“I told (Doug) at the owners’ meetings this past offseason, he got that Super Bowl, right? I’m trying to follow his lead here. He probably doesn’t want to hear that right now, but I want to stick on that path. Ton of respect for him,” Nagy said.
To get that Super Bowl, Nagy will have to knock out the defending champs and one of his mentors on Sunday.
3. Fangio Handles Head Coaching Interest Exactly As Fangio Would
Nagy knows the position Vic Fangio is in this week. Last year, as he prepared for the Chiefs’ Wild Card game, he knew he had interviews lined up with the Bears and Colts the day after the game.
“I had a great conversation with Coach Reid last year at this time and I promised him and told him I’m not going to spend one ounce of energy and time on my interviews throughout the week. I’m not doing that to our team. I won’t do it. And I held my promise to that,” Nagy said.
Typically, coaches prepare for future opportunities during the offseason. Much like general managers always have a short list of possible head coaching candidates ready at all times, coaches keep their own short lists of possible assistants and prepare the ways in which they plan to sell themselves to other organizations.
“If you are prepared for those types of situations, any interviews, that sort of thing, you do all that prior. Meaning months or a year or years prior is when you do it, so that when you get into these times right now, you don’t spend an ounce on it, really. And that’s what I was able to do,” Nagy said.
Of course, Nagy admitted that he had “a late night” after the playoff game cramming for his interviews, and it sure sounds like Fangio will too.
Asked Thursday how much time he has spent preparing for his upcoming interviews with the Broncos and Dolphins, Fangio said: “Zero.”
And what about earlier in the year?
A reporter then pointed out that most people prepare for job interviews.
“Yeah, I really don’t,” the defensive coordinator said, before delivering a classic Vic Fangio quip. “Maybe that’s why I’m here.”
Fangio also claimed that he hasn’t returned a single phone call to prospective employers this week, which is probably true, but you better believe his agent has.
Per league rules, Fangio can’t interview with any teams until after Sunday’s game. If the Bears win, he’ll have to squeeze the interviews into an already short week with the team playing in Los Angeles next Saturday night. He then wouldn’t be able to take a second interview with a team until after the Bears’ season is over or until the bye week before the Super Bowl, should the Bears make it that far.
For what it’s worth, Nagy is very pleased with how Fangio has handled the situation.
“From the talks we’ve had and me just seeing where he’s at, he’s just been completely focused,” Nagy said. “Every time I walk into his office, man, he’s grinding. He’s got that remote in there and he’s just writing stuff down and grinding with stuff for the game. I appreciate that.”
4. Jackson Inches Closer To Return
The Bears got a big boost Thursday when Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson returned to practice for the first time since spraining his ankle against the Packers on Dec. 16. He was limited in practice, but there is still optimism inside Halas Hall that Jackson will be able to play, even if he is not 100 percent.
Right guard Kyle Long was given the day off, but it was just a rest day. He will play Sunday and it is both his goal and the team’s goal to have him play the entire game. Wide receivers Allen Robinson (ribs), Taylor Gabriel (shoulder/ribs) and Anthony Miller (shoulder) are all dealing with soreness, but practiced in full for the second day in a row.
Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch still has not returned to the practice field since injuring his elbow on Dec. 16 and his status for Sunday is in doubt.
5. 2019 Schedule Is Daunting
Before we take a closer look at the Eagles, let’s actually take a look further ahead into 2019 at next year’s schedule. Have you seen the opponents?
Perhaps the best part of the NFL is that the league does such a good job of maintaining parity, which is why there are teams that go from worst-to-first every year, just like the Bears did in 2018. Part of that is because when you finish in first place, you play two other first place teams from your conference that weren’t already on the schedule.
That means in addition to playing the AFC West and NFC East next season, the Bears will also play the Rams and Saints. So here’s a look at the non-NFC North opponents next year, with a thought or two attached:
at Los Angeles Rams — This will be a playoff rematch if the Bears beat the Eagles Sunday. Could it be played in London or Mexico City? The Rams will host one of the international games in 2019.
vs New Orleans Saints — Getting this one in December instead of September would help.
vs Kansas City Chiefs — If the Nagy vs Reid showdown doesn’t happen in February, it will go down next season at Soldier Field for sure.
vs Los Angeles Chargers — A loaded home schedule continues with the other team from L.A.
vs Dallas Cowboys — Yeah, so, the six-game primetime limit is definitely going to come into play next season.
vs New York Giants — The Giants should be better. Another candidate for primetime.
at Oakland Raiders — The Raiders are currently homeless for 2019, which means this one could be played internationally if the Rams game is not.
at Philadelphia Eagles — Whatever happens Sunday, revenge will be a factor when these two teams meet for the fourth straight season.
at Washington Redskins — Worst press box view in the NFL, here we come!
at Denver Broncos — The Bears vs Vic Fangio? Insert *thinking* emoji here.
And this doesn’t even take into account the six divisional rivalry games. What a schedule. If the Bears were to make it to the Super Bowl in February, it’s possible they would have rematches next season against every single playoff opponent with the Rams, Saints, Cowboys, Chiefs and Chargers all possibilities in the next month.
Of course, circumstances will change between now and the fall, but the Bears are going to be very popular with television executives next season. And repeating a 12-4 regular season record won’t be easy. Especially if Fangio is standing on a different sideline.
6. The Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
OK, back to what matters this weekend. The Eagles have won three games in a row and five of their last six to salvage a playoff spot in what was looking like a disastrous Super Bowl hangover. This isn’t the same team as last season, but Philadelphia has caught fire at the right time and the Nick Foles magic is real, even if it is hard to explain.
Foles has found comfort with former Bear Alshon Jeffery, who still high-points the football at an elite level and will pick up tough yards after the catch. The Rams couldn’t stop Jeffery on Dec. 16, as he caught all eight targets for 160 yards. Foles has been dangerous with the deep ball, also finding Nelson Agholar for an 83-yard touchdown against the Texans a week later. Fortunately, the Bears aren’t prone to the deep ball, but Eddie Jackson’s ankle will be tested Sunday.
“We can’t let them get behind us because this guy does have a big arm and he does like to throw the deep ball,” Fangio said. “If (Foles) sees it, he will throw it. That’s his mentality, that’s Doug’s mentality. So they will do it. And a big part off this game will be how we defend the deep balls.”
Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert stress defenses as pass catchers and rookie linebacker Roquan Smith will be tested in coverage. The good news is that the Eagles’ offensive line has been prone to leaks, and while they did a nice job with J.J. Watt two weeks ago, Jadeveon Clowney was all over that tape. Look for Leonard Floyd to have a few splash plays with Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks getting the bulk of the attention.
On the other side of the ball, Fletcher Cox is playing at an incredible level right now, but the Bears had an answer for Aaron Donald last month and getting Kyle Long back is big. While the Eagles shut out Washington last week, Philadelphia’s defense isn’t what it was last year and it’s certainly not on the same level as the Bears’ defense.
7. The Pick
Bears 24, Eagles 13
The Eagles’ 30-23 victory over the Rams in Los Angeles on Dec. 16 saved their season and has some Bears fans nervous. It was a great win, but they got a lot of help. The Rams had three terrible second half turnovers and still had a shot at the end zone as time expired. The Eagles also built their lead in that game while Todd Gurley sat out the bulk of the third quarter with a knee issue.
The point is, if the Bears play that poorly, they’ll be in trouble too, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that will happen. At home, it’s hard to fathom the defense having major issues, even if Foles manages to pull off one or two magical plays downfield. And Trubisky has been completing over 75 percent of his passes with no interceptions over his last three games. Even if he makes a mistake or two, the Bears’ defense proved against the Rams it can win a tough game in spite of Trubisky.
I also expect the Bears to playing with a lead. The Eagles were dead last in the NFL this season with just 41 first quarter points. The Bears were seventh with 85. Nagy is not in Kansas City anymore. It’s hard to imagine him witnessing another second half playoff collapse with this defense.
8. Quote Of The Week
“We played a great regular season. Now the postseason is what you are going to remember … let’s go ahead and put a stamp on this thing.” — Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan
9. Tweet Of The Week
I actually think this is a pretty good idea and could be pulled off.
10. Final Thoughts
Back in Week 1, I made ten random NFL predictions in this column, so now it’s time to take a look back at the smart predictions and hold myself accountable for the stupid ones:
“Bill O’Brien will emerge as 2018’s Coach of the Year after the Texans win the AFC South” and “Nagy is going to be in the conversation.”
This one looked terrible after the Texans got off to an 0-3 start, but O’Brien did a great job as Houston rebounded to win their division. As it turned out, Nagy wasn’t just in the conversation. He’s probably going to win it.
“Either the Ravens or Bengals will return to the playoffs as a wild card team. I can’t decide which team it will be, but either Marvin Lewis or John Harbaugh will work some magic to earn another three years. I’m leaning towards the Ravens.”
There’s still some question about whether or not Harbaugh will get that extension, but the Ravens not only made the playoffs, they won the AFC North.
“Drew Brees will be a legitimate MVP candidate and maybe even win it.”
The argument between Brees and Patrick Mahomes is a good one. Both are deserving. My guess is Brees wins it because he hasn’t won one yet.
“Mike McCarthy will not be the head coach of the Packers come January.”
As it turned out, he only made it to Dec. 2.
“NFC Playoff Teams — East: Eagles, North: Vikings, South: Saints, West: Rams, Wild Cards: Falcons, Bears
AFC Playoff Teams– East: Patriots, North: Steelers, South: Texans, West: Chargers, Wild Cards: Jaguars, Ravens”
I’ll take eight out of 12, but not including the Chiefs was an odd decision.
“Don’t be surprised if Packers cornerback Josh Jackson wins Defensive Rookie of the Year.”
Jackson ended up playing a good amount, but the Iowa product didn’t have the immediate impact I thought he’d have.
“Joey Bosa is my pick for Defensive Player of the Year.”
It’s hard to win DPOY when you miss the first nine games of the season. Hey, he still put up 5.5 sacks in just seven games.
“The Seahawks will finish last in the NFC West.”
By far my worst prediction of 2018. Pete Carroll did a tremendous job with this team this season. It would not be surprising to see the Seahawks upset the Cowboys on Saturday.
To Be Determined
“The Rams will win the Super Bowl. They have the deepest roster and I believe Sean McVay is going to be a really good head coach in this league for a very long time. Who will the Rams beat in Atlanta? I’m going with the Patriots as the boring pick.”
Still alive on this one. Let’s get this tournament started already.