PHOENIX — From “four years of hell” to sudden darlings in the NFL, the Chicago Bears’ remarkable shift to relevance was on full display over four days at the Arizona Biltmore during the NFL Annual Meeting.
It started Sunday with general manager Ryan Pace being named the Sporting News Executive of the Year, which is voted on by all 32 NFL executives. Monday, the entire organization and City of Chicago was awarded the honor of hosting the NFL’s 100th year kickoff celebration in Grant Park before the Bears and Packers start the 2019 season under the lights at Soldier Field. And Tuesday, Pace, head coach Matt Nagy and chairman George McCaskey spent a total of two hours with reporters, answering questions about their impressive roster and how the wins started to pile up once Nagy arrived last year.
It’s not exactly a secret that the league offices and television networks are celebrating the Bears’ resurgence, taking full advantage of one the league’s largest fan bases and always strong television ratings. The 2019 schedule isn’t even out yet and we already know that the Bears will host the first NFL game of the season, travel to London to play the Raiders, and reportedly play the Lions on Thanksgiving again — not to mention other high-profile matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams that will surely end up on national television. The schedule is tough and the spotlight is going to be bright.
Yes, the Bears’ hype train is loaded and it is being partially driven by the NFL. Especially since it is the league’s and Bears’ 100th season. Add in the new facilities at Halas Hall and a young, talented roster that appears to be ready to take the next step, and 2019 might already be the most anticipated Bears season since the late 1980s.
As you might imagine, those expectations were among the many topics addressed by Nagy, Pace and McCaskey this week in Arizona. There’s a ton to get through in this edition of “10 Bears Things” so let’s get going…
1. It Starts With Pace And Nagy
With the meetings over and the sun still shining, Pace and Nagy emerged Wednesday morning in more comfortable attire, ready to get a day or two of relaxation in before moving into their new offices back at Halas Hall. Nagy was in flip-flops while Pace sported a blue t-shirt and sunglasses during a 20-minute chat on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast.
Rarely heard together on interviews, the two detailed their relationship, with Nagy admitting they hang out “a lot” with it helping that “our wives get along really well, which is huge.”
It also helps that they live close to each other and not far from Halas Hall.
“To tell you the truth, I knew it was going to be that way in the very first interview,” Nagy said. “Later that night, he flew Stephanie (Pace’s wife) to (Kansas City) and our wives got to meet. We just had an instant connection.”
Pace pointed to them both having similar backgrounds as a reason for their bond, but it also helps that neither guy carries around a big ego.
“The best part about it is just that (Pace) is real,” Nagy said. “He’s honest. There’s no agenda, there’s no ego, there’s no power trip, none of that. People talk about us being a yin and yang. We offset each other really well, but that’s why it makes it so easy. He’s just a good person and I like being around him.”
When George McCaskey thinks about the relationship between Pace and Nagy, he keeps coming back to the word “collaboration,” especially since the two don’t always agree.
“I think they balance each other out very well. They seem to get along,” McCaskey said. “I told them from the beginning, (they) don’t always need to agree but the general manager-head coach relationship is as important or more important than the head coach/playcaller-quarterback relationship. They need to have vigorous discussion and the sounding of ideas, and when the discussion is finished and the decision is made, they need to move forward together and I think they do a great job of doing that.”
It’s a genuine friendship, with constant texts being exchanged when Pace and Nagy aren’t together. And yes, those texts include personalized Bitmojis. The Bears shared Nagy’s on social media Tuesday and Pace confirmed that he also has one, which Nagy created. Pace showed it to us and Nagy is pretty proud of his work, which depicts Pace giving a fist bump.
“(The hair) is absolutely perfect,” Nagy said. “It is like the perfect wave, the slick. Everything is just right.”
“There’s a lot of gray hair on it,” Pace interjected.
For the full conversation, make sure you check out The Hoge & Jahns Podcast here.
Hoge & Jahns: Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace Join The Podcast In Arizona
2. The Kansas City Connection
The Bitmoji craze that has infiltrated Halas Hall can be traced back to Kansas City, and specifically Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and former Chiefs assistant coach Brad Childress.
“(Reid) is big on bitmojis and he builds himself in a Tommy Bahama (shirt),” Nagy said. “So he has a Tommy Bahama and then he’ll send me a picture of like eating a bunch of cheeseburgers or something. Then I have mine. And I send him back mine. We have fun with it.”
Nagy pulled out his phone and showed Reid’s bitmoji, complete with a Hawaiian shirt and a stack of pancakes. Nagy created his own, sporting his beard and wearing a Bears shirt and hat.
“They don’t have a visor,” he said. “So I got to talk to somebody.”
The fun Nagy can still have with Reid was never more important than after both coaches suffered heartbreaking playoff losses in January. Nagy needed Reid after losing to the Eagles in the Wild Card round, and two weeks later Reid needed Nagy after losing in overtime to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
“We have that 24-hour rule, where as close as we are, you just let everything go down,” Nagy said. “When I was driving home after our game, we broke the 24-hour rule and I just called him just to talk after our game. And one of the first things that Coach (Reid) said was — and this was pretty neat — he was able to see a lot of our games and he saw the growth in our quarterback. That was to me really strong in the fact that he’s telling me what a great job Mitchell (Trubisky) did throughout the year and that was comforting because that was a big part of what we were looking for this year.”
While Nagy was able to take solace in the respect for his quarterback — and that evaluation by Reid should not be overlooked, by the way — Reid’s rebound was a little simpler.
“Coach was down and it was hard. He was so close. And I wanted it so bad for him. You just feel it,” Nagy said. “But as we started talking — we were like 15 minutes into it — and he just sits there and he says to me, ‘Oh, man, we just both need a cheeseburger.’ And that’s him. You know. You can hear him saying that.”
Extra mayo on that cheeseburger too. That’s Reid’s thing.
“Then the next day, he fires me a text message and it’s a picture of the Chiefs’ schedule and he circled it against the Bears,” Nagy said. “And he says, ‘Let’s go Baby!’ So we’re ready.”
3. A Big Change
Nagy wasn’t the only one to see his former head coach lose in heartbreaking fashion that day. The Saints — Pace’s former team — got it even worse, losing to the Rams after a blatant pass interference call wasn’t made in the final minutes.
Tuesday, as Saints head coach Sean Payton made his way to a special 4:15 p.m. meeting that was called, he stopped to talk to Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin to brief him on what was about to go down. In truth, the majority of NFL owners arrived in Phoenix with very little desire to pass a new rule that would make pass interference reviewable, but they underestimated how the coaches felt about it.
“We had to circle the Grand Canyon twice,” Payton said after the rule change passed with a 31-1 vote. The Bengals were the only team to vote against it.
Frankly, it was a Hail Mary. But momentum started to build Monday afternoon after a number of coaches made it clear that they were in favor of making pass interference reviewable and they were going to make sure the 32 NFL owners heard them out. In the Tuesday morning session, compelling cases — including analytical information that showed games were swinging on pass interference calls — were made. Coaches blew off their afternoon golf session and by 4:15 p.m., Payton walked into a final vote with confidence. Sure enough, he — and the other 31 coaches — got their way.
“The biggest thing that we needed to come away with was, last year, with what happened in that game, it was unfortunate, but we can’t possibly allow that to happen again,” Nagy said on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast. “And I think now, with this new rule and proposal that got passed, it shouldn’t happen again. I think that’s why it was a win for everybody.”
Among the owners that needed to be flipped? George McCaskey.
“I was against that coming down here,” McCaskeys aid. “But I talked to some people that I respect and Matt (Nagy) and Ryan (Pace) and Ted (Phillips) made some persuasive arguments. It was a good discussion in the room. There were a lot of evolutions of the rules proposal. Good comments by the coaches. And hopefully we got something that improves our great game.”
Nagy praised McCaskey for being openminded.
“When you talk to George, he’s been in this league a long time, and he started understanding that part of it. And we’re just fortunate that he wanted to be on that side and vote for it,” Nagy said.
As for the rule itself — I don’t see much of a drawback when it’s a coach’s challenge. They only have two challenges and if they want to burn one on a pass interference call (or no-call) then so be it — they just better be right. My concern is more about the final two minutes of each half when these reviews will come from upstairs. There’s just so much contact between receivers and defensive backs, especially late in games, that I just hope these reviews don’t hurt the game. On the other hand, we have to make sure the right team is winning these games, and the owners only passed this rule on a one-year trail basis. We’ll get to see any unintended consequences as they happen.
My guess? It’s only the start of more judgement calls (including roughing the passer) being reviewable.
4. The Expanded Halas Hall
When Pace and Nagy return to Lake Forest, they’ll be moving into their new offices that are ready in the now largely expanded Halas Hall.
“I got a sweet shower too. It’s huge,” Nagy said.
While the offices are ready, the entire project is not yet complete, although everything is still expected to be full-go by the time the team returns home from Bourbonnais in August.
Among the areas that are finished, however, is the new draft room.
“The draft room is state of the art,” Pace said. “There’s a lot of things coming online that are really impressive. It makes you a little nervous because you go into the draft room and there’s a lot of technology in there with digital boards and here we are a month from the draft. Hopefully there’s no power outage.”
Pace, Nagy and McCaskey were all in agreement though — the players are really going to benefit from the new digs.
“When you walk in there, it’s a game-changer.” Pace said. “Just when you see the whole thing, it takes your breath away. But when you look at it from a team perspective, that facility was built with what makes our team better, not just all the flash and stuff — it’s really nice — but what makes our team better. When you think about the training room and the weight room and the hydra-works, the locker room, the recovery room, it’s going to maximize our players. I think it’s going to be a situation where they don’t want to leave.”
Last year, with the construction going on, the weight room had to be relocated to the Walter Payton Center, which meant the players had a five-minute walk — sometimes in the cold — just to go lift.
“The biggest change from last year to this year is going to be our guys don’t have to walk to the weight room. Everything is right there,” Nagy said. “That saves, when you’re setting the schedule, that saves five to 10 minutes.”
Of course, the feature that might get the most eyeballs is the new virtual reality field, which will help the entire team, but most importantly, the quarterback.
“We have an indoor field that is 30 yards deep, normal size, and then we got like a 30-foot virtual reality that goes the width of the field,” Nagy said. “So guys can go out there and we can simulate a blitz or whatever we want. We can line guys up and it’s amazing what they’ve done. Everything is brand new. We just to got make sure now that they don’t get spoiled.”
As for McCaskey, he gets to move into the head coach’s old office, although he’s going to lose the big whiteboard wall.
“They’re taking out that whole wall,” McCaskey said. “They want more natural light to come in so they’re making that a glass wall. So the famous whiteboard, at that location anyways, is going to be retired. But there are white boards all over the expansion.”
Last year, as Nagy preached the importance of building a foundation, the Bears managed to go 12-4 despite dodging construction all over Halas Hall. This year, with the Super Bowl top of mind, they’ll have every resource available to them. The timing couldn’t be better.
5. Safety Swap
One of the more intriguing developments during NFL free agency was what happened at the safety position. The market for safeties was much larger than many predicted — including the GMs themselves. Former Bears safety Adrian Amos was a beneficiary, earning a four-year contract from the Packers that could be worth up to $36 million.
“The first thing for Amos is it’s almost one of those deals where you’re proud,” Pace said. “You know you draft a guy where we drafted him and to see him grow as a player and the contract that he got, awesome for him. So when that happens we’ve got to be ready to respond, right?”
The Bears responded with one of the more surprising deals of free agency, nabbing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for one year and just $3.5 million. That was a stark contrast from some of the other safety deals that were out there.
“This was one of the first free agency (periods) where I felt like players really wanted to be here and you could feel it right out of the gate and Ha Ha was really one of those guys,” Pace said.
The fit was perfect. The Bears needed a replacement for Amos and Clinton-Dix wanted to play with his former college teammate at Alabama, Eddie Jackson. Plus, at just 26 years old, Clinton-Dix was willing to sign a one-year deal with the opportunity to earn a big contract next year after playing on a stellar Bears defense for a season.
“It can be a win-win for both sides,” Pace said. “Because the agent and the player can say, ‘Hey I want another bite at the apple if I play well,’ and sometimes it’s financially advantageous for us too. And hey, let’s just be honest, usually on these one-year deals they are very motivated and he has the right makeup and character to come in and play well. He fits well into the defense and obviously the familiarity with Eddie Jackson, I think that helps a lot too.”
As for the fit in the defense, while Clinton-Dix and Jackson have similar styles, Pace thinks it’s going to work out well.
“We’re excited about Ha Ha’s skill set. He’s obviously got good ball skills, he’s rangy, we feel like he’s interchangeable,” Pace said. “We feel like he can play free or he can play strong so combining him with Eddie just gives us some flexibility. But the key thing is Ha Ha really wanted to be part of this.”
6. Destination: Chicago
Pace mentioned at the NFL Combine in February that he really felt like free agents were going to want to come to Chicago this year. As it turned out, that was definitely the case.
“To be honest, sometimes you can be in a position where guys just flat out don’t want to be there,” Pace said. “Or if you want them, you have to grossly overpay. And this was a situation where guys really wanted to be here. And I think it just speaks to our culture, it speaks to Matt, it speaks to the direction we’re heading. And that was a good spot to be in.”
Winning helps, but there’s no doubt that Nagy’s influence on the team — and his emphasis on having fun while winning — helped. Buster Skrine specifically mentioned seeing the Bears dancing in the locker room and celebrating touchdowns and interceptions on ESPN as a reason why he wanted to come to Chicago.
“It is rewarding,” Nagy said. “That goes back to when you have the ‘Club Dub’ and you have the ‘Boom!’ and you have these different things that with media nowadays, everybody gets to see. To our family here in Chicago and to our team, it’s about having fun, and we do a great job of keeping that balance of knowing business and fun and what the difference is. But when you hear that, and those guys say that, that just goes to show that these guys are seeing that and they want to be a part of that. And that gives us an advantage in something like free agency.”
That’s an advantage the Bears certainly didn’t have in the past.
7. The Kicking Elephant
With all the good vibes coming the Bears’ way right now, their kicker position still remains a very unresolved issue. And it isn’t lost on Nagy.
“Obviously the elephant in the room — not the elephant — we missed the kick, the ‘double doink’ everyone’s talking about, we missed it, so that’s a big emphasis to get that right,” Nagy said. “So how do we do that? We go about trying to find out who the next guy is on our team. And both of these guys, neither one of them has that experience, right? That’s a huge question mark.”
Nagy was referring to Redford Jones and Chris Blewitt, the only kickers on the Bears’ roster right now, neither of which possess any NFL experience. At this point, it’s clear that the Bears are going to do everything they can to find the next up-and-coming young kicker without spending big money on a veteran.
“What if you have a guy on your roster right now that, and I’m going to go to Kansas City for example because I was a part of that team, that’s the next Harrison Butker? What if you have that guy?,” Nagy said. “Everybody else says, ‘Oh, no one knows who these guys are and they never kicked in a game,’ but hell, I never coached in a game last year. Last year was my first time ever being a head coach. Somebody needs an opportunity.”
He’s not wrong. Many kickers, like the Chiefs’ Butker, emerge out of nowhere. Heck, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker only received one offer as an undrafted free agent and he might be the best kicker in the league. Even Robbie Gould was signed as a free agent and cut by the Patriots before the Bears signed him.
Right now, the Bears are especially intrigued by Blewitt, who kicked at Pitt from 2013-16, but did not kick in the NFL in 2017 or 2018. The thinking is that many kickers get better after they leave college because they get more specialized coaching. That may be the case for Blewitt, who converted 55 of 79 field goals at Pitt and 198 of 204 extra points.
“We had heard through (special teams coordinator Chris) Tabor and a handful of guys how well (Blewitt) was doing in these kicking circuits and kicking schools,” Pace said. “He was kind of their top guy. So we brought him in along with five or six other guys and right away he just clearly separated himself. Just the power and the pop in his leg is what jumped out in the workout. And you could feel his confidence and all those things are there, too. Let’s just go ahead and add him and increase competition there.”
The competition is just getting started. And there’s a good chance it goes all the way through training camp and the preseason.
“I want to do everything I can — we’ll make sure that somehow, without having 70,000 screaming fans at Soldier Field and kicking it in Soldier Field, that we’re going to put pressure on them,” Nagy said. “And we’re going to make it so they kind of tighten up a little bit, as much as you can.”
He’s even open to bringing the helicopters back.
“Well that’s actually not a bad thought. Yeah, put the helicopter up there. That’d be good,” Nagy said.
8. O-Line Switch?
In what has now become an annual offseason tradition, there’s once again chatter about moving Cody Whitehair from center to guard. He has played both positions well at the NFL level and seems to be in line for a possible contract extension before the start of the regular season.
What might be different this year is the idea that second-year lineman James Daniels might be better at center rather than left guard, where he played last season.
“We’re kind of in the middle of that right now, looking at how they played at those particular positions — not just those two, but everybody,” Nagy said. “And so we’re going to stay open to that and if we feel like it’s going to be better to switch somebody we’ll do that, and if we don’t then we’ll stick with where we’re at.”
One person who will get some say in the matter is Trubisky, who has good chemistry with Whitehair and went to bat for his center in preseason last year when Whitehair was having snap issues. Of course, Daniels was just a rookie at the time and Trubisky was in his first year in a new offense, so it made sense not disrupt the chemistry with Whitehair. Daniels had a solid rookie season at left guard, but it’s worth looking at the combination that will maximize the play of the entire offensive line and perhaps make the running game more productive. Keep an eye on this story during the offseason and even in training camp.
9. In Trubisky, He Trusts
While Trubisky still takes random shots from analysts across the country, it’s probably more worthwhile to listen to what Nagy is saying about his quarterback. And Andy Reid’s endorsement certainly carries some weight too.
But asked Tuesday what gives him the most optimism about his quarterback, Nagy had a quick answer.
“The Eagles game.”
“No, you know what I liked about it? At the end of the game, taking the team down in that situation. He made those couple of big throws there to give us a chance on a big stage. I already knew all year long … I can tell you how much he grew mentally. The huddle procedure, calling the play, at the line of scrimmage, making the ‘Mike’ ID, making the checks, flipping it. All that. With that he did awesome. We have a little wordy offense at times. And he aced it.
“And then for him to put it on the field. Midway through the season, beginning of the season, we talked about next-play mentality. He conquered that. He had a couple games in there where he’d be the first to tell you that he felt like he could have played better. And he was hanging onto previous plays. He got by that. So all that growth, he is so excited to get in there.”
Still, there were times when it seemed like Nagy was protecting Trubisky with his play calls, especially after a three-interception game against the Rams in Week 14. But after that, Trubisky didn’t throw a single interception the rest of the season, and when there was no choice but to open up the offense in the second half against the Eagles, Trubisky looked dominant on a playoff stage. Now, Nagy appears ready to let his quarterback spread his wings.
“There might be some times this year where I say, hey, just take this series.” Nagy said. “In OTAs or training camp, ‘Hey, call this series right here. I’m going to let you run the show.’ I couldn’t do that last year because he didn’t know what to call. This year, he’ll be able to do that.”
10. Final Thoughts
— Nothing Pace or Nagy said this week made it sound like they are any more committed to Jordan Howard. In fact, Nagy pretty much confirmed the trade talks, despite saying that Howard still has a role on the team. At this point, it still sounds like the Bears are open to moving Howard and it would not be surprising if he is playing for a different team in the fall.
Update: The Bears traded Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night. The Bears will receive a conditional 2020 draft pick in return. The pick is a sixth rounder that could turn into a fifth round pick, depending on the conditions. That might not seem like a lot, but it actually makes sense. I explain why in a new column here.
— With so much time this week spent on the new pass interference replay rules, some of the other rule proposals were pushed aside. The Chiefs’ proposal to change overtime was tabled until May, but hopefully it gets serious consideration. The Chiefs want both teams to get a possession in overtime, which isn’t a surprise after Patrick Mahomes didn’t get to touch the ball in OT in the AFC Championship Game. I’m on board with that, but I would also like to see the coin toss ditched. Why is this coming down to a coin? Just let the home team decide possession at the start of the game and in overtime. It makes a lot more sense, especially when a team earns home field advantage in the playoffs.
— I had heard Monday that the new onside kick proposal — which would give teams one 4th-and-15 play from their own 35-yard-line to retain possession — was getting some serious consideration. By Tuesday, it had been voted down, but it’s possible that was a result of pass interference getting the bulk of the attention. I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear about the 4th-and-15 “onside kick.”
“The percentages of getting an on-side kick are so low (with the new kickoff rules), so let’s figure out a way to try to get the ball back and that’s one way,” Nagy said. “It’s unique, it’s different, and if it’s going to make the game better, I’m all in.”
— A look at what’s next: While the Bears will turn their full attention to Pro Days and draft visits, we’re only 18 days away from players reporting to Halas Hall for the offseason program. Nagy said he expects every player to be there and it sounds like wide receiver Anthony Miller (shoulder surgery) will be the only player who is limited.
— Wondering where Khalil Mack was during the Super Bowl? According to Nagy, Mack was in the gym working out.
“I know that for a fact,” Nagy said. “That’s pretty good to have that … All the other accolades and everything, he wants a Super Bowl.”
— Stay tuned for a major uniform announcement, which will be part of the Bears’ 100th season celebration. McCaskey said the announcement could come as soon as next week. At this point it’s unclear if this is just an alternate uniform or something the Bears plan on wearing all season long. The style is anyone’s guess, so here’s one guess: when Nagy was describing the aesthetics in Halas Hall, he made of point of saying, “I love the stripes. I love the stripes that we have. I want stripes everywhere.”
— As for McCaskey, he’s the one who mentioned the “four years of hell” at the top of this column.
“We put our fans through four years of hell and they stuck with us and they were rewarded to some extent last year,” he said. “A lot of people have told me I can’t remember when I had so much fun watching the Bears.”
Pace joked on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast that those four years of hell left him with some scars. Those scars might be healing to some extent, but they won’t be gone until the Bears get the ultimate prize — which also is apparently what it will take to get McCaskey to attend “Club Dub.”
“First of all, I have not been invited,” McCaskey said. “And if I were invited, I would decline. To me that’s a players and coaches thing. (But) I would go down there for a Super Bowl victory. I wouldn’t dance. But I would go down there.”
I don’t believe him. And neither do Nagy and Pace.
“I think we might be able to persuade him a little bit,” Nagy said.
Consider it one more goal for the 2019 season.