DETROIT — Even after a victory that felt more meaningful, and a locker room celebration that felt more “authentic,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy offered an honest admission:
“We know it was really hard there in that four game losing streak. That was hard but we talked about a silver lining. We still don’t know where that silver lining is.”
It’s not the first time Nagy has mentioned his search for a silver lining during a trying year that has left the Bears at 6-6 with a quarter of the season left to play. And that’s why it seemed notable that even after quarterback Mitchell Trubisky lifted the Bears to a 24-20 comeback victory on Thanksgiving, Nagy was still looking for something more meaningful to emerge from from a four-week stretch that has featured three victories.
Perhaps that’s because the Bears still have four games remaining against teams currently holding playoff seeds. And because he knows Trubisky can’t feast on the Lions the rest of the season. Much more needs to be proven.
But what if the silver lining from 2019 ends up being… Matt Nagy?
While most of Chicago and many across the country have seemingly turned on the 2018 NFL Coach of the Year, there are signs that Nagy will emerge from this disappointing campaign and go on to have many more successful years with the Bears. After all, his team has won three of its last four games after a four-game losing streak derailed their legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
To fairly analyze Nagy’s work in 2019, we need to divide his job into three parts: Nagy the team leader, Nagy the game-planner, and the Nagy the game day coach:
1. Nagy the team leader
Throughout the Bears’ four-game losing streak, Nagy preached the need to stay together as a team. And all evidence suggests that happened. Players insisted they trusted Nagy’s message and the locker room at Halas Hall remained mostly calm and upbeat. There was little finger pointing and almost no drama.
Over the course of a month, Nagy dealt with plenty of adversity — all of which is common for NFL head coaches, but none of which he had to deal with during his first year in Chicago. Consider that from Sept. 29 to Oct. 27, Nagy faced the following:
- A personal issue for Roquan Smith that caused him to miss a game and play poorly in two others.
- A significant shoulder injury for his starting quarterback.
- A trip to London in which the Bears lost and Nagy was criticized for leaving late in the week.
- A devastating injury to Akiem Hicks that altered the makeup of the Bears defense.
- A missed game-winning field goal against the Chargers that still lingers as the most crushing loss of the season.
The Bears’ locker room felt like a ticking time bomb in late October and early November. No one would have been surprised if a fight broke out or if players started publicly turning on Trubisky, especially after the Bears managed just nine yards of offense in the first half in Philadelphia.
It almost seems hard to believe that there was no fighting, or at least a shouting match or two. Perhaps there was and a story will trickle out after the season, but none of it is public to this point and that’s a testament to the strong hold Nagy maintained on his locker room.
2. Nagy the game-planner
Trubisky’s 338-yard, three touchdown performance in Detroit felt meaningful not only because the polarizing quarterback made some incredible throws, but also because he went through his progressions and consistently made the right decisions. On his 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesper Horsted, Trubisky correctly identified the “alert” built into the play and knew Horsted had outside leverage in his one-on-one matchup. Trubisky then delivered the accurate throw. Then, on the game-winning touchdown toss to David Montgomery, Trubisky accepted the fact that the Lions took away his primary read and eventually got to his third progression, a safe, short throw to his running back when the Bears were already in game-tying field goal range. Trubisky looked calm and confident, even after taking two shots to the head and throwing a bad third quarter interception.
“That’s growth for Mitchell, getting through progression one, progression two and making plays happen,” Nagy said. “I think that’s what I’m probably most proud of.”
All the sudden, Trubisky has stacked four solid performances together, accounting for a quarter of the season. But coinciding with the recent growth of the quarterback is the recent growth of the man in charge of the offense: Matt Nagy.
It has been a slow process, but Nagy does seem to be learning from his mistakes earlier in the season (i.e. a franchise low seven rushing attempts against the Saints). But in recent weeks, we’ve seen Nagy adapt his game plans to take advantage of Trubisky’s strengths — more play-action, more moving pockets and more tempo.
Consider these numbers, courtesy of ESPN: In Trubisky’s first nine games of the season, he averaged just 5.1 passing attempts per game off play-action. His completion percentage on those throws was 61 percent and he threw for a total of 287 yards. In just his last two games, Trubisky has averaged 15 passing attempts off of play-action, completing 73 percent of those throws for 292 yards.
There still appears to be some conflict between how Nagy wants his offense to be run and what Trubisky can realistically do, but Nagy the game-planner is slowly adapting.
3. Nagy the game day coach
If this was a report card, the “needs improvement” box would be checked here. While the Bears managed to win again Sunday, the game was littered with undisciplined mistakes. And that’s been a story all season — substitution errors, alignment problems, wrong routes, and endless penalties.
For the most part, Nagy delegates a lot of in-game coaching to his coordinators and assistants. Considering he’s running the offense, that’s fine. He trusts Chuck Pagano to run the defense and Chris Tabor to run special teams. And he does get involved when he needs to, like when he could be seen having a lengthy chat with Tabor after the Bears had 12 men on the field on an extra point against the Giants.
But the reality is that Nagy also spends a great majority of games with his head buried in his play card. While substitutions are being made, he’s relaying the plays to Trubisky. And when the headset shuts off at 15 seconds, he’s usually looking ahead to the next play, while briefly looking up to see what happens on the field.
None of this is a criticism. It’s just what’s happening. While he’s looking at his play card, he’s missing other things that are happening around him, which puts a lot of responsibility on his staff to identify problems and make corrections. There’s no better example of this than the apparent miscommunication of Trubisky’s hip injury in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
It’s pretty clear that Nagy intends to be the play caller for the foreseeable future, but that also means he needs to button up the game day operation around him. Should the Bears get eliminated from playoff contention, it wouldn’t hurt to spend the final game or two letting someone else call plays while he gets to the bottom of some of the mental errors plaguing his team in all three phases.
For example, why are there so many substitution errors and alignment problems? Sunday the Bears came out of one timeout with only 10 players on the field and another with an illegal formation on a fourth down play that probably should have been stopped for delay of game too.
It should be pointed out that Nagy is still relatively new at this. He just completed his 29th game as an NFL head coach. And remember, he only called offensive plays for a handful of games in Kansas City. He’s still learning.
Admittedly, that can be hard to accept in the middle of a 6-6 season that started with dreams of a Super Bowl. But as much as the future success of the Bears hinges on the development of Mitchell Trubisky, it also hinges on Nagy emerging from this adversity-filled season as a better head coach.
There are signs that it’s happening. And that sure sounds like a silver lining.