LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Between Saturday morning dance-offs and the opening of Chicago’s most exclusive night club — “Club Dub” — it didn’t take long for Matt Nagy to be labeled as the “fun” coach.
And yet, he insisted he had a dark side.
“Everybody has a dark side,” Nagy said in December. “Deep down inside — and you can ask our coaches — the coaches know that if I need to, I’ve got a dark side — in a good way … If you don’t, you’ll get run over. You’ll get taken advantage of. And our guys know the difference between having fun and being serious.”
The dark side wasn’t seen very much during a 12-4 regular season, but Chicago Bears fans — and players, for that matter — got a glimpse of the no-nonsense version of Matt Nagy during Monday’s season-ending press conference at Halas Hall.
You see, one of his players crossed the line. And to his credit, Nagy showed the side necessary to succeed as a head coach in the NFL. In a few short sentences, Nagy made it clear that if you turn your back on the team, you will be held accountable.
And that’s where we’ll start a special season-ending edition of 10 Bears Things:
1. Bye, Bye, Parkey
Cody Parkey’s job with the Bears was already on life support after he missed the 43-yard field goal against the Eagles that abruptly ended a promising season, but Parkey essentially unplugged the machine by going on the Today Show Friday.
As reported on WGN Radio Saturday, the appearance occurred without the team’s blessing, and the desperate attempt to paint Parkey as “honorable” for the way in which he handled the missed field goal was not received well by the organization.
Which brings us to Nagy’s response on Monday: “We always talk about a ‘we’ and not a ‘me’ thing, and we always talk as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team. You know, I just, I didn’t necessarily think that that was too much of a we thing.”
All year long, Nagy proved that coaches can give thoughtful responses to questions without revealing strategy or throwing players under the bus. Monday, he also proved that when you cross the team, he’s not afraid to hold you publicly accountable. In fact, the look on Nagy’s face said as much as his words. He was agitated.
A reporter followed up, asking if he thought the Today Show appearance was “appropriate.”
Nagy repeated himself, but in a way that left no doubt about his feelings: “Again, I didn’t think it was a ‘we’ thing.”
General manager Ryan Pace was sitting to Nagy’s left and he had already cast enough doubt about Parkey’s future with the Bears.
“That position is an emphasis for us. We understand we need to get better, get more production out of that position,” Pace said. “(Nagy) talks about it all the time. There’s so much parity in our league, so many close games, the kicker position is critical. We know we need to get better there and it’ll be an area of focus.”
Pace added that “there’ll definitely be competition there” and, later, when asked about balancing guaranteed money with the need to get better, Pace said: “Yeah, we talk about those things but the most important thing is performance.”
The full context of the season matters, even if it wasn’t mentioned on the Today Show. Parkey missed 11 kicks on the year, yet his coaches and teammates had his back to the very end. They consoled him on the field after the “Double Doink” and supported him publicly in front of the microphones and TV cameras in the locker room. That continued the following day at Halas Hall, even when Parkey didn’t make an appearance despite requests to interview him.
And yet, four days later, Parkey was on national television participating in a PR stunt in which Savanna Guthrie named him the “Most Honorable Player.”
Oh, the irony.
2. Hello, Pagano
The Bears moved quickly to replace Vic Fangio, hiring former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator just two days after Fangio accepted the Broncos head coaching job.
“No. 1, I always say this: It starts off with good people and good high character, so that’s No. 1,” Nagy said about Pagano. “Then you get to the second part, the Xs and Os part and everything that we talked about in the interview is really what I enjoy and what I think can be really good with this defense.”
As an aggressive-minded coach, it’s easy to see why Nagy was attracted to Pagano’s style of defense.
“He has an attacking-style mentality,” Nagy said. “He’s aggressive. But yet, as we try to talk about all the time, be calculated too. You’ve got to be smart with it.”
Nagy also pointed out that there is some “familiarity” with the defensive language because Pagano and Fangio worked together in Baltimore.
Pagano is currently in Los Angeles coaching in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, a lower-tier college all-star game, but he and Nagy will continue to work on inevitable defensive staff changes. Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell is a free agent and interviewed for the defensive coordinator position, but has an offer to remain with the Bears in his current position. He could also join Fangio in Denver, perhaps getting a bump up to defensive coordinator, although he wouldn’t call the plays.
“He has a decision to make,” Nagy said.
Highly regarded outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley will reportedly join Fangio in Denver. The Chicago Tribune also reported that safeties coach Roy Anderson will not be retained. Meanwhile, a source confirmed to WGN Radio that Hall-of-Fame finalist Ed Reed would be interested in a position on Pagano’s staff, but it’s unclear if there is an offer on the table. Reed is also coaching in this week’s NFLPA Bowl as Pagano’s defensive coordinator.
3. Kareem Hunt — Future Bear?
You can officially put the Bears in the mix for Kareem Hunt’s services, which is not surprising considering Nagy coached Hunt in Kansas City in 2017. Nagy said he talked to Hunt “about a week ago” and on Monday, neither he nor Pace ruled out signing the former Chiefs running back.
“Obviously there’s a lot of things off the field that he’s got to take care of,” Pace said. “Matt knows Kareem. I don’t know Kareem. Those things are all going to play out.”
Hunt is currently on the commissioner’s exempt list after a video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel last February. The Chiefs released Hunt on Nov. 30 after Hunt was not honest with the organization about the incident. He cannot play until taken off the commissioner’s exempt list and he almost certainly will face some type of suspension.
“There’s one thing right now with Kareem, and that’s worrying about him as a person. I talked to Kareem, completely wanting to know how he’s doing. We had a good conversation,” Nagy said. “Here’s a kid that I spent a year coaching on offense. It’s a tough situation. I wanted to see, making sure that he’s OK but understanding, too, the situation that happened is unfortunate for everybody. He knows that. The only thing I cared about when I talked to him was literally his personal life, how he’s doing. It was a good conversation. He sounded good. But that’s it. The other stuff, that’s not where it’s at. There’s more to it than the football, so we talked strictly on that.”
Pace tip-toed around the subject a little more than Nagy did, saying: “We’re not even there yet. I mean, I know what he is a as player obviously from watching. Matt knows more about him as a person. We’re not even close to that point.”
Signing Hunt would be the Bears’ first highly-controversial acquisition since they picked up Ray McDonald in March of 2015. That was Pace’s first year as GM and the move backfired, as McDonald was arrested again in April of 2015 and subsequently released. The signing only happened after Fangio went to bat for McDonald, who he coached in San Francisco, and chairman George McCaskey approved the move. That experience will undoubtedly have an impact on whether or not the Bears go down a similar road with Hunt.
“I think every one of those is unique. Each one is different. The circumstances are always different,” Pace said.
On the surface, signing Hunt would seemingly go against the four years of character-building Pace has emphasized in the Bears locker room, but by all accounts — including Nagy’s — Hunt was never a problem within the confines of the Chiefs’ facility.
“As far as the person, with me and coaching him and all that stuff, there were no issues at all,” Nagy said. “He was a really, really good kid. He came to work every day. He wasn’t late to meetings, any of that. So it was obviously a surprise. It’s an unfortunate situation for everybody. We all understand it.”
On the football field, Hunt could provide a boost to the Bears’ offense. He would give Nagy more burst out of the running back position and the production is undeniable, as Hunt lead the NFL in rushing in 2017.
But that doesn’t mean it would be a wise move for the Bears, who would undoubtedly take a public relations hit and risk disrupting team chemistry. It would also put the team in an awkward position with Jordan Howard — not to mention completely backfiring if Hunt gets into more trouble.
And does Hunt even deserve a second chance?
“That’s not for me to decide,” Nagy said. “I will say this, me personally, depending on certain peoples’ situations, I’m a guy that has always been — I was raised that way to give guys second chances, not third chances. Now I’ve learned that from Coach Reid. He’s done that several times with some people, but I will say that every situation is different.”
Stay tuned. This offseason storyline is not going away anytime soon.
4. Trubisky’s Next Step
The pain of losing to the Eagles has not relented. That much was obvious in the demeanor of both Nagy and Pace on Monday. Nagy admitted that he watched the divisional playoff games over the weekend, but it didn’t seem like he enjoyed them.
“It almost makes you hurt more when you watch them,” he said. “It’s sickening to be sitting there doing what we did last week. I don’t want that. None of our guys want that.”
And part of the reason why it hurt so much is because the Bears lost in spite of their young quarterback delivering in a clutch fourth quarter moment to get into field goal range at the end of the game.
Asked if there was a moment of Mitchell Trubisky’s season that particularly stood out, Pace and Nagy had the same answer.
“You’re looking for when they hit adversity and how they respond from that adversity,” Pace said. “I think even as most recent as the playoff game. You go down to that final drive and to see how he responded to that environment, I think it’s really encouraging. Just his mental toughness to persevere through those things. I think that bodes well for his future.”
The question actually wasn’t directed at Nagy, but he quickly interjected: “I’ll piggyback. That playoff game, what he did at the end, you go back to your one question about growth and where he’s at progression-wise, you can’t make those up and he did it.”
Nagy was referring to a previous question about what’s next in Trubisky’s development. Both he and Pace delivered interesting answers.
Nagy: “For him, he conquered the next-play mentality. He conquered that. He conquered the steps of 101-progressions. By the end of the year, he was reading (his progressions) 1-2-3-run. That, he conquered. Now, I think level two next year is going to be him really recognizing pre-snap what he’s about to see from these defenses. So, last year he was so focused in on, ‘What we do we do on offense? Hell, I’ve never run this offense before. What does that mean?’ Now, he knows it all and can take that next step of figuring out, ‘OK, here they come. They got a blitz, cover-0. Now, I know what to do, what to check to, I know the protections, all of that.’ That’s going to be the big one for him.”
Pace: “First of all, I think, as you go forward and Mitch gets more comfortable with the scheme but then Matt gets more comfortable with Mitch, too, and I think, that’s what happens with coaches. It’s not just the quarterback. It’s the entire roster. As we go into Year 2, it’s our coaches understanding, ‘OK, this guy does this really well.’ Maybe, it’s a receiver. This receiver does this really well but he’s not really good in this area, so you can kind of curtail the offense to fit their strengths and weaknesses, so that’s going to take place naturally as we go forward. You could just feel the relationship between those two grow. You talk about important relationships in the building. The head coach, play-caller and the quarterback, that’s pretty critical, and we feel strong about that relationship.”
5. Trey Burton’s Injury Was “Real”
The odd circumstances of Trey Burton’s groin injury before the playoff game may be hard to accept, but Pace said Burton indeed had “inflammation in the groin area. All the MRIs, scans show that, so it’s significant.”
Pace referred to it as “a real injury he had to deal with,” but did say they were hopeful Burton would have been able to play against the Rams had the Bears beat the Eagles.
Burton’s past admissions of dealing with anxiety created some speculation that he missed the game for other reasons, but the tight end said last week that he didn’t think anxiety played a role.
“It’s hard to tell where (the injury) came from,” Pace said. “We just know that the thing popped up Saturday morning and he was unable to play.”
6. Staying Healthy
Among the many reasons why the Bears were able to go from worst-to-first in 2018 was the good health of their team. Pace and Nagy overhauled their training and strength and conditioning program last winter and took a generally cautious approach with injuries, starting in training camp.
“We had the fewest players on IR in the NFL,” Pace said. “In previous years, we were up near the top. Same thing with games missed by starters.”
Not only that, Pace said only one player — wide receiver Anthony Miller — needs offseason surgery. That’s remarkable. Miller will have the torn labrum in his right shoulder repaired.
Pace pointed to three factors that contributed to the Bears’ increased health:
- “Signing durable, available players and professional players that take care of their bodies.”
- “A lot of schedule changes that took place. Just how we practice, when we practice.”
- “There’s a little good fortune that comes your way too.”
So can the Bears replicate their good health in 2019?
“It’s tough because I think there is a little bit of good fortune that comes your way, there’s no question,” Pace admitted. “But I think we’re doing things right now that help put us on the right track. I really like where we’re at in the weight room, in the training room and then again what we’re doing with our schedules.”
One thing that will help: The Bears’ new training facilities and locker room are still on track to open by the time the team gets home from training camp in Bourbonnais next August.
7. Fifth Year Floyd
One item you can cross off the to-do list: Pace confirmed that he will pick up Leonard Floyd’s fifth-year option, locking him up as a Bear through the 2020 season.
While Floyd’s sack total (four) actually decreased for the second straight year, he was undoubtedly a much better player and managed to play in all 16 games for the first time in his three NFL seasons. Floyd was really good against the run and started to become a consistent threat as a pass rusher after shedding the club on his right hand early in the season. He suffered a fracture in that hand during the preseason and it limited him into October.
8. Improvement From Within
With no first or second-round draft picks and only a projected $20 million in cap space to work with, this will be a much different offseason for the Bears.
But it shouldn’t mean they won’t get better.
Given the youth on the Bears’ roster, there should be a lot of improvement from within. Of course, that starts with Trubisky, but extends to the 2018 rookie class. There’s no safer bet to a have a breakout 2019 season than linebacker Roquan Smith, who isn’t getting enough credit nationally for his strong rookie season.
“It was huge to watch him just kind of flourish, especially in the late part of the year,” Pace said. “You talk to Roquan and you can just feel him, no different than any player, just feeling comfortable in the defense. So now he’s not thinking as much, he’s just playing with his instincts, and he’s playing fast. And you guys know Roquan. Those are his greatest strengths, his instincts and his speed. So the sky’s the limit for him. It’s just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he’s going to be, especially in the later part of the season.”
The Bears can stomach not having a 2019 first round pick because they essentially got a year’s advance on the pick with Khalil Mack. Of course, it’s the same situation with their absent second-round pick, which was sent to the Patriots for Anthony Miller in last year’s draft. His development will be key to justifying that move, as he has the skill-set to be an outstanding wide receiver. Left guard James Daniels and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols also had promising rookie seasons and should improve.
Now that the Bears are firmly inside their competitive “window,” the continued development from within is crucial to sustaining success. No league builds parity like the NFL and resources dry up as your roster gets better. The best way to combat that is by drafting well. This spring, it’s critical Pace hits on his mid-round picks, which he has a shown a knack for doing.
“There was a draft in 2012 in an organization I was part of,” Pace said, referring to his time with the Saints. “We didn’t have a first-round pick. We didn’t have a second-round pick. But we had a third-round pick, and that was Akiem Hicks. There’s ways for us to nail this offseason even when the resources are a little bit more limited.”
Of course, Hicks didn’t really pan out until he left New Orleans and found success in a 3-4 defense. That’s when Pace signed him as a bargain free agent. Either way, it shows that there are ways for Pace to continue to be successful building the roster.
9. Antonio Brown? Not likely.
Pace was asked a tricky question Monday about Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and technically left the door open to that kind of acquisition.
Reporter: “If Player A became available and he had the same track record as Antonio Brown, would you have interest in going after that player?”
OK, but don’t count on it. For one, the Bears don’t have the draft capital to acquire Brown after trading for Mack. Also, while there would be obvious questions about signing Kareem Hunt, it’s possible Hunt would still fit in the culture Pace/Nagy have created if he is a good teammate. Brown doesn’t seem to fit that mold.
Bringing this whole column full-circle: remember that “we” vs “me” thing Nagy was talking about with Cody Parkey? Which category does Brown fit under?
It’s not happening.
10. Final Thoughts
As I do every week in this space, I’ll provide some final thoughts, but this time I’ll keep them focused on the future of the Bears, which is still very bright.
Monday’s press conference reaffirmed what we saw all year: Pace and Nagy make a great team and they still have this franchise pointed in the right direction. Whether or not they win a Super Bowl will depend on the continued development of Trubisky, but I’ve personally never felt more confident in the leadership of the Chicago Bears, which is saying something after years and years of disappointment.
Nothing is guaranteed, but the pain of losing to the Eagles will continue to drive the front office, coaches and players. It’s only been a week, but the swift action to land Chuck Pagano and the strong, no-nonsense response to Parkey’s Today Show appearance are an indication that Pace and Nagy aren’t messing around.
Fans should be very exited about the future. It’s a fun time to cover the team. And that won’t change in the offseason. 2018 is in the books, but 2019 is just beginning. Put your seatbelts on.