BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It took too long for the Bears to go live.
At least, that’s my opinion.
Never mind that Matt Nagy uses perfectly reasonable logic when it comes to easing his players into pads before unleashing live tackling periods into training camp practices. Those of us starving for real football wanted to see a collision or two. We wanted to see the running backs and safeties be able to play closer to full speed.
And I know someone who agreed with me: rookie running back David Montgomery. Early in camp, Nagy joked that Montgomery wouldn’t even talk to him anymore.
“He’s so mad that we can’t put the pads on,” Nagy said.
The Bears’ head coach was just following league rules. And once the pads were allowed, he was just being smart before allowing live tackling periods. But last Thursday he warned fans that the next day’s practice was going to be one to watch.
And he was right.
That’s where we’ll start this week’s 10 Bears Things, with “the run” that was months in the making. We’ll also check in on the progress of two 30-plus year-old veterans that are attempting to switch positions, take a look at the interesting way in which Nagy responded to the Bears’ most sluggish practice of camp, and, of course, preview the team’s first preseason game of the year.
1. The Run That Shook Bourbonnais
A big smile came across Ryan Pace’s face when I brought up the run.
Ever since the Bears general manager traded up to draft David Montgomery in the third round, he and Nagy have relentlessly discussed the rookie’s “contact balance” and ability to break tackles.
“David Montgomery breaks a ton of tackles,” Pace said the night he drafted the running back. “I mean … there’s guys bouncing off him left and right. A lot of guys can break tackles but then they’ll lose their balance. He has the ability to break tackles and keep his feet continuing for positive yards.”
Listen: Ryan Pace on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast
Fast forward to last Friday’s practice in Bourbonnais. Nagy finally let Montgomery loose in a live tackling period. And the only people who were unhappy to see it were the defenders that tried to tackle him.
Running to his left, the rookie first encountered Sherrick McManis, the guy who has been on the Bears the longest. He ran him over. Then, after getting briefly tripped up and spun back towards the middle of the field, Montgomery did just as Pace said, keeping his balance before encountering rookie defensive back Doyin Jibowu. What happened to Jibowu was hard to watch because that’s somebody’s son. Having run over two Bears defenders, Montgomery wasn’t done. He kept his feet moving for positive yards and it took at least three white jerseys to finally take him to the ground.
So you can understand why the GM was smiling when I brought this up to him Monday on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast.
“I think when you see a play like that, that’s just toughness, grit and determination on that run, which he shows a lot,” Pace said. “It was good to see. It was good for our team to see, but I think you’re going to see a lot more of it.”
That’s certainly the expectation. Before Montgomery was given the green light to run over his own teammates, he had already shown the other traits Pace and Nagy had bragged about. Smooth route runner. Good hands. Quiet, but someone who leads by example.
The contact balance was the only box left to check. Safe to say Montgomery checked it with authority. And, frankly, his offensive teammates needed to see it. This Bears camp has been dominated by the defense so far. Seeing a fresh face deliver a blow to Chuck Pagano’s unit was uplifting for Nagy’s side of the ball.
“That was a big moment for (Montgomery),” running backs coach Charles London said. “Especially as a rookie, you come into a camp and it’s the first time you’ve gone live, you’ve dreamed of this your whole life and you’re trying to figure out, ‘What’s it going to be like the first time I get hit?’ That’s what it was like for him. And it kind of got the team going. The receivers got going, the running backs got going. Mitch was in there trying to pick him up off the pile. So it brought good energy to the team.”
Even McManis, one of Montgomery’s victims, had to tip his cap.
“As a rookie, he’s doing a great job. He’s not saying much, he’s just in here grinding with us,” McManis said. “He’s asking questions, he’s learning. He’s asked me some questions on special teams, so the respect is all there. He’s just going hard. He’s going hard for the team and I love to see that in the younger players.”
2. A ‘Sluggish’ Day, And Nagy’s Response
Monday was the day.
“Right now, being in the middle of camp, I think the guys’ legs are tired and they’re feeling a little sluggish,” Nagy said. “You always have these days. It’s a matter of when it comes. Today was it.”
Typically, there are a few sluggish days during camp. It certainly wasn’t surprising to see. What was more notable to me was Nagy’s response. Instead of yelling or making the players run sprints as punishment, Nagy grabbed a football and had some fun.
There he was, right in the middle of the Bears’ worst practice of training camp, throwing a 30-yard pass to Javon Wims against Kyle Fuller in 1-on-1 drills. Touchdown.
The second pass to Allen Robinson went too far out of the back of the end zone. Incomplete.
The third was a strike to the post. Anthony Miller hauled it in against Prince Amukamara. Touchdown.
Nagy wasn’t satisfied with the touchdowns though. He was ready to talk some trash after practice:
“Yeah, Prince is getting old and slow so I got him. The other one? I forget, Kyle Fuller? Yeah, he picked me off last year, so we’re going to play that (touchdown) in the team meeting.”
The entire sequence got the crowd going and kept the Bears fighting through a slow practice.
“Losing teams don’t fight through it. We fought through it. So I was appreciative of that,” Nagy said.
A couple hours later, I asked Pace about how his head coach handled the situation and the positive response he got from the team.
“He’s just being him. That’s just how he is. That’s how he is behind the scenes, around us. That’s just how he is,” Pace said. “Today was a great example of him staying on our team and pushing the gas pedal. Today was a day where teams can easily back off. It’s human nature right now to want to back off, and Matt’s pushing them and he’s on to the details. You can hear him talking to different position groups about the details, but also having fun at the same time. I think he just has the perfect blend of that.”
3. Q&A: Sherrick McManis
You don’t see many 10-year veterans switching positions. Amazingly, Sherrick McManis, 31, is one of two Bears over the age of 30 trying to switch positions this late in their career. Offensive tackle-turned-tight end Bradley Sowell is the other (more on him in a minute). Considering McManis is one of the best special teamers the Bears have ever had, you wouldn’t think he would have to change positions to keep his job. But that’s exactly why the Bears wanted him to do it. After signing Buster Skrine and drafting Duke Shelley at the nickel corner position, they wanted to see if McManis could provide depth at safety. If he can, they won’t have to make a tough decision on cut-down day.
Whether or not the switch sticks remains to be seen, but despite getting victimized by Montgomery in last week’s live session, the early returns have been positive, with McManis showing range and getting his hand on footballs. This is the same guy Vic Fangio had a special package for in recent years, periodically using McManis as an edge rusher.
I caught up with McManis earlier this week to chat about the position switch:
So, I’m fascinated by a 31-year-old veteran switching positions. It doesn’t happen a whole lot. First of all, how is it going, and how much convincing did it take?
Not much. I trust the coaches to put me in good positions. I wasn’t sure at first like what was going on, but you know, my whole model since I’ve been in the league is trust the coaching staff that is there and embrace it and buy in. So when they told me I’d be playing a little bit more safety, I took it and, as soon as possible, tried to learn.
Did they explain the motivation behind their thinking?
They just kind of told me, you know, this has kind of been happening my whole career with the Bears. Different coaches. So I look at it as an opportunity, in a way, and it’s a way that also keeps me hungry and keeps me driven. I’m not (Brian Urlacher) because I know one position so well. I’m kind of like a guy that’s learned, really, all the defensive back positions, so you know, I just take it as a challenge and try to embrace it.
So it’s interesting because early on in your career, like most young players, you had to prove that you could play special teams to make the team. Now, later in your career, it’s almost the opposite, where they already know you are one of the best special teamers in the league, but to keep your job security, now you have to learn a different position and show that you can provide depth at the safety spot.
Yeah, I mean, whatever the team needs. That’s how I go about it. I take this time in my career — I feel good. I’m still moving well, so I’m excited to be out here. And one thing I feel like that helps older veteran guys is you gotta be willing to learn. Not just from the older guys, but from the younger guys. They might be rookies, two years, three years, but in my situation, they’ve been playing this safety position way longer than I have. So just watching tape, listening to the guys giving me pointers, I take it and I run with it.
It’s very rare in the NFL to last through four different head coaches. Guys come in, they have their own things that they like and players they ship out and bring in. Why do you think you’ve been able to last through the turnover?
God, most importantly, man. He’s been directing my path and I’ve been keeping my head down and working. I try not to focus on things I can’t control and just trust in the coaches to put me in the correct positions. I never look at a coach like they’re setting me up to fail. So they ask me to play safety, to learn safety, and that’s exactly what I’m doing to help the team.
Well one thing I’ve noticed, and the coaches have pointed it out too, you’ve been punching the ball out. You’ve been active around the ball. You’re always hunting the football it seems like. Where does that come from and how important is that as you try to secure this job?
It’s just a drive in me that’s always been something that was instilled in me since I was young. When I came to Chicago, it was even more instilled by (Charles Tillman). He not only wanted to get picks, but he taught us a better way at punching that ball out. And so when the opportunity presents itself, I try to take advantage of it.
Does the safety position give you more opportunity to do that?
I’m not sure, exactly. I think it possibly may. You may be coming in — it’s not always the first guy in that is trying to get the ball, it’s usually the second, third guy. So it just really depends on when you meet that ball.
4. No More Excuses
Part of the reason why so much of the 2019 season will ride on the right arm of Mitchell Trubisky is because there aren’t many excuses to fall back on. While the overall sample size of Jay Cutler’s Bears career leads to the fair conclusion that he simply wasn’t good enough, there were still valid excuses along the way that help provide proper context of the Cutler era (i.e. his offensive lines struggled, he dealt with a revolving door of offensive coordinators, etc.).
Trubisky is set up for success. Pace has spent four-plus years creating the proper environment for him to develop in — finding the right coach, putting him in a friendly system, surrounding him with weapons, and keeping cohesion on the offensive line.
Even last year, the Bears’ inconsistencies in the running game provided a valid enough excuse for a young quarterback in his first year in a new system. Pace addressed that this offseason by trading Jordan Howard and drafting Montgomery. It was fair to wonder last season if the offensive line was partially to blame for the run struggles, but Pace and Nagy didn’t think so, as they re-signed 30-year-old right tackle Bobby Massie and re-worked the contract of 30-year-old right guard Kyle Long. The only change was moving Cody Whitehair to left guard and James Daniels to center, putting them both in their more natural positions.
The thinking now is that cohesion on the offensive line will help both the running game and Trubisky.
“That stuff is real, man,” Kyle Long told WGN Radio. “It’s like that one group chat you have with your high school buddies that still goes strong. Everybody contributes and everybody knows one another well and they aren’t too afraid to say things. That’s our O-line. I mean, we’re going to be together all day when we leave the field and that’s just the way we rock.”
The remaining question mark is Trubisky. It never comes down to one player and there are always unexpected developments in a 16-game season, but there’s no doubt that the third-year quarterback is in a great situation to experience success.
Cutler certainly never had it this good.
5. Four To Watch
I don’t expect to see many starters — if any — in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Panthers, but here are four players I expect to play and am looking forward to watch.
WR Javon Wims — Nobody on the offensive side of the ball is having as good of a camp as Wims, who seemingly has made at least one eye-catching grab in every single practice. Now he gets a chance to show what he can do in a game situation. Given his success in the preseason last year and in Week 17 against the Vikings, I expect him to produce against the Panthers.
TE Ian Bunting — With Trey Burton (groin) and Adam Shaheen (back) both dealing with nagging injuries, Bunting has surprisingly emerged as a possible backup at the tight end position. The undrafted free agent didn’t provide much production at either Michigan or California, but the Bears seem to think they’ve found someone who was overlooked and could be more dangerous at the pro level in Nagy’s system. In three years at Michigan, Bunting barely saw the field, and 18 of his 29 career receptions came at Cal last year. He didn’t score a single touchdown in college.
“I watched film on him from both schools,” Bears tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride told me this week. “You always saw the body control, you always saw his ability to get himself open. I just think it was more the offenses that the teams were running more so than them not trying to throw the ball to him.”
Perhaps no player has more to gain in these preseason games than Bunting.
TE Bradley Sowell — So I teased this earlier and need to deliver on it, but Sowell’s position switch is fascinating because he lost over 40 pounds to become the reliable blocking tight end in Nagy’s offense who can occasionally catch a pass — and not just on “Santa’s Sleigh.”
“Bradley was pounding the table for that just as much as we were,” Pace said on the podcast. “So as we were kind of teetering back-and-forth on doing this, he was the one saying, ‘Let me do it. Let me do it. I’ll show you guys. I make you guys right on this.'”
His first opportunity to show it will be Thursday night.
RB David Montgomery — While Montgomery may end up being the Bears’ starting running back, Nagy has said that he’ll get snaps in the preseason.
“I’m fired up about it. He’s definitely fired up. I’m fired up. He’s really fired up,” Nagy said. “He’s ready to put the pads on, do some thumpin’ and play a real game.”
So I guess everyone is fired up to see Montgomery play.
6. The Opponent: Carolina Panthers
A big reason why Ron Rivera is in his ninth season as the Panthers’ head coach and his 23rd overall coaching in the NFL is because he’s not afraid to adapt. He played in Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. He coordinated Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2. He ran a 3-4 defense in San Diego that ranked No. 1 overall in 2010. And when he got to Carolina, he went back to a 4-3 because it best fit the personnel on the roster.
Now he’s going back to a 3-4 that promises to be multiple.
Something was off with the Panthers’ defense last year as a late-season slide cost them the playoffs. Rivera took over the play calling duties from defensive coordinator Eric Washington in December and went on to change the scheme in the offseason. Washington is still the coordinator, but Rivera will retain the play calling in the new scheme.
As for the personnel, the Panthers added Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin to a unit that already includes Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Shaq Thompson and Eric Reid. While it’s unlikely we’ll see any of these guys Thursday night at Soldier Field, the Panthers could be a sneaky team this year and one the Bears could see in the playoffs. I worry a little bit about the age of some of their stars — and Cam Newton’s health — but if they can stay healthy, the Panthers can give the Saints a run in the NFC South.
Panther to watch: Brian Burns. The 19th overall pick out of Florida State was brought in as an edge rusher in Rivera’s new 3-4 scheme. The Panthers weren’t good at rushing the passer last year and Burns will be relied on to get after the quarterback. He’ll get that chance against the Bears’ backups Thursday night.
7. Quote of the Week
“Sometimes when you draw up the play and you have the O blocking the X and the X is Khalil Mack, that’s a bad matchup for a lot of Os.”
— Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich
8. Tweet of the Week
This has nothing to do with the Bears, the NFL, or even 2019 for that matter. It’s just amazing.
9. Emptying The Notebook
It’s good to see rookie wide receiver Riley Ridley get worked back into practices and Nagy said he was “50-50” on whether or not Ridley would play against the Panthers. Given the lack of practice time so far, there’s no reason to rush it … I found it interesting how quickly special teams coordinator Chris Tabor dismissed the idea that kicking consultant Jamie Kohl would have any say in deciding the kicking competition. It’s pretty obvious Kohl’s job is just to help the kickers make as many kicks as possible. Tabor is running the competition. He, Nagy and Pace will ultimately make the call … This seems like a relevant fantasy football nugget, courtesy of Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey: “I think (Taylor Gabriel’s) biggest thing is he understands his role now and he doesn’t have to fake it. That’s his role — to be a guy on this team that catches 60 to 75 balls this year.” Gabriel caught 67 passes for 688 yards and two touchdowns last season.
10. Final Thoughts
- About 30 minutes after the Bears announced they will be unveiling statues of Walter Payton and George Halas at Soldier Field on Sept. 3, my phone rang. It was Jarrett Payton. He was so happy he could finally talk about it. Discussions about a Payton statue at Soldier Field go back to Walter’s death in 1999, but Soldier Field has long been considered a place to remember fallen soldiers, not football players. That’s part of the reason why this news is so significant. From my standpoint, it’s OK to remember both. The Bears have been playing at Soldier Field since 1971, long enough that the football team is an enormous part of the stadium’s history — especially since it was already renovated for the Bears and isn’t the same place it was when it was first built. Keeping the history and remembering the original significance of Soldier Field is extremely important, but Payton and Halas rightly deserve to have a permanent spot at the stadium, and it was very cool to hear the joy in Jarrett’s voice after the news came out.
- First, a Twitter exchange involving my podcast partner. Then a reaction.
So the truth is, I was about ready to fire off a similar response about Cutler’s interception-free practice streak in 2015, but then I remembered that he actually posted his best interception ratio with the Bears that year. Of course, then I also remembered that he started the season by a throwing an interception in three straight games and four out of his first five. He ended the year with a three-interception game in a loss to the Lions. So, basically, it all means nothing. It was silly to make such a big deal out of Cutler’s lack of training camp interceptions in 2015 (and I certainly remember talking about it) and it is silly now to overreact to Trubisky’s interceptions this year. And I won’t even address bringing Tom Brady into the conversation. I’m pretty sure Jahns is on the same page here too. Let’s just wait until the regular season starts before we start making conclusions about Trubisky’s progress. Deal?
- I thought Monday’s crowd in Bourbonnais was one of one the best I’ve seen in my nine training camps. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was 8:15 a.m. on Monday. Who wants to be anywhere at 8:15 on a Monday morning? I was expecting to see a smaller crowd when I pulled into Olivet Nazarene University, but nope. The stands were packed and the grass areas were at least five-deep all around the perimeter of the practice field. For a Monday morning, that was impressive.
- The Bears aren’t the only team playing on Sept. 5 with a kicker competition. At Packers camp, former Penn State kicker Sam Ficken is pushing 34-year-old Mason Crosby after Crosby started camp with a calf injury. According to reports out of Green Bay, when they went head-to-head on Monday, Ficken went 5-for-5, while Crosby went 4-for-5. Crosby has played in 210 straight games for the Packers, including 18 playoff games, so I’m not sure I’m completely buying the competition, but it is something to watch before the opener.
- The Bears are really lucky to have Adam Amin calling their preseason games on television. For the second straight year, he’ll call three games alongside Jim Miller. Amin is a friend and an outstanding play-by-play broadcaster. Enjoy it.
- The new Chance The Rapper album is excellent. The Goose Island Cucumber & Lime Radler the Chicago Sun-Times’ Patrick Finley had me try is not.
- I didn’t know Don Banks, but I feel like I did after reading and listening to all the tributes from fellow NFL writers this week. If you cover the NFL, you certainly knew of Banks, and I had great respect for his work at Sports Illustrated, among other places. I frequently either preceded or followed Banks as a guest on The Mike Heller Show in Madison, Wis. (he was a guest for 15 years on that show) and I would make a point to listen to his appearances because he was so good. Banks was in Canton, Ohio covering the Hall-of-Fame last weekend and simply didn’t wake up Sunday morning. It was a stunning death that sent shockwaves through the NFL community and it was certainly a cruel event in the sports journalism world. Banks had just started a new job covering the NFL for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A newspaper hiring a 57-year-old to cover sports in 2019? That simply doesn’t happen any more. But Banks was that good and I was looking forward to reading his coverage this season. Here’s to a very good football scribe gone way too soon.