LOS ANGELES — Not even a year removed from winning NFL Coach of the Year, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy is getting humbled and learning what it’s like to lose more than you win. And it appears it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
In the NFL, losing carries a different kind of weight. Everything gets magnified. Controversies are hard to avoid. And it’s impossible for head coaches to sound like they have a firm grasp on their program.
Which brings us to the Bears’ 17-7 loss to the Rams Sunday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — an exhibition of underachievement and a lesson in poor communication.
Driving into Los Angeles Rams’ territory for the fourth time in a scoreless first half, the Bears faced a 3rd-and-8 from the Rams’ 37-yard-line. As he has so often in this lost season, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky dropped back and immediately faced pressure as none of his wide receivers were open. Forced to scramble, he used his impressive athleticism to escape to the right. He saw check-down option David Montgomery in front of him, but he also saw cornerback Troy Hill closing fast. Knowing that Montgomery couldn’t get the first down, Trubisky stalled, hoping one of his four other receiving options would work their way open. Unfortunately, three of them were on the other side of the opposite hashmark, and two of them — Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel — stopped moving. Allen Robinson and tight end Ben Braunecker slowly worked their way horizontally near the first down line, but both were covered and neither of them broke deep or came back to the ball as is taught in a scramble drill.
Trubisky eventually ran out of time and conceded the sack as Hill closed and defensive end Michael Brockers finished him off. The play was a microcosm of the lack of help Trubisky received in the loss, as well as the lack of smooth decision-making in his game because a pump fake and run may have at least set up a field goal before halftime.
What wasn’t immediately noticed, however, was the knee Trubisky took from Brockers on the play. Replays showed Brockers’ knee hitting Trubisky in the right hip region, but the contact wasn’t obvious because Trubisky got up after the sack and appeared ready to run a fourth down play before Bears head coach Matt Nagy sent the punt team on the field. Moments later, as Pat O’Donnell punted the ball away, head athletic trainer Andre Tucker could be seen in the background of the TV broadcast approaching the quarterback and checking on him.
“My hip tightened up,” Trubisky said after the game. “I got evaluated at halftime. Something in the hip region where I was just trying to keep it loose.”
What happened after halftime is hard to explain, as Nagy learned twice in 13 hours in two different time zones. To start with, Trubisky looked his best on a 12- play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended with a perfect 14-yard swing pass to Tarik Cohen that brought the Bears within 10-7 with 7:16 left in the third quarter. Trubisky said he was trying to play through the pain and he wasn’t exactly letting everyone know he was hurt.
“I really wasn’t telling anyone,” Trubisky said. “I was just trying to keep playing through it and try to stay on the field.”
You can’t fault Trubisky for trying to gut out the injury and you can’t blame him for wanting to stay on the field considering his future job security might be in jeopardy. Unfortunately, the communication broke down somewhere and it hurt the Bears’ chances of winning the game.
Speaking to the media in Los Angeles after the loss, Nagy said he was made aware of the injury “probably two series before we actually (pulled him from the game).” Since Trubisky wasn’t pulled until the final series of the game, that means Nagy wasn’t aware of the injury until early in the fourth quarter, perhaps late third quarter if we’re being generous.
If true, that means that the starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears was evaluated at halftime for a hip injury and the head coach wasn’t notified. With that puzzling possibility in mind, it wasn’t surprising that by Monday afternoon at Halas Hall, Nagy had a more detailed explanation:
“(Trubisky) has a right hip pointer. It happened on the sack at the end of the second quarter. He took a knee by (Brockers) right into the hip/lower back. Instead of going into the (medical) tent there at the end (of the first half), we did it inside (the locker room) with our trainer. He got looked at, was in some pain but we went through the whole thing, we knew he was good to go.”
It is somewhat understandable for a head coach not to know specifics about an injury immediately following a game, but Nagy’s story changing so drastically is at least eyebrow raising. He mentioned multiple times in his postgame press conference that he needed to find out more details about when the injury occurred. He genuinely didn’t seem to know. That doesn’t jive with the halftime evaluation Trubisky mentioned and Nagy later confirmed on Monday.
“I knew about it,” Nagy said back in Lake Forest. “I knew he had a hip deal but it wasn’t significant enough to not play. But over time the stiffness got to a point where he really wasn’t able to sit on the bleachers, on the bench. That’s when I became aware of it and kept an eye on him for about a series and a half. Even before they scored the touchdown to go up 10, we had already made the decision that we were going to go with Chase (Daniel).”
At a minimum, Nagy was not aware of how significant the injury was, and that likely starts with Trubisky doing his best to hide the pain. Still, if the head coach was aware of a hip issue at halftime, that only raises more questions about the curious “sprint option left” he called on 3rd-and-1 with 3:33 left in the third quarter. The play called for Trubisky to sprint at the unblocked defender and force him to choose between the quarterback and the running back, but Trubisky was unable to execute the play.
“I should’ve attacked the D-end a little more and pitched the ball,” Trubisky said. “I pitched it too early, which is why they made the play.”
The play call was questionable even with a healthy quarterback, but irresponsible with one dealing with a bad hip and banged up left shoulder.
Nagy on Sunday night: “I’ve got to find out more details as to the ‘when’ part (of the injury). But for the most part, I don’t think that effected (the play).”
Nagy on Monday afternoon: “That (play) would be considered probably in the middle of where it was at halftime to what it started becoming when we ended up pulling him because of (the injury). You look at it and you can always look back and second-guess the type of play calls. Even in general without an injury, I still even sometimes to myself wish in that position you’d made a different play call.”
In fairness to Nagy, Trubisky’s unwillingness to come clean about the pain clearly kept the head coach in the dark about the significance of the injury. On the other hand, trainers, doctors and assistant coaches get paid to monitor their players for injuries and make sure they are healthy enough to perform.
“You guys will all see it when you look at the tape in the second half. You’ll see it on almost every play, you’ll notice where it’s affecting him,” Nagy said Monday. “Whether it’s a throw, whether it’s a handoff, you’ll see it, you’ll notice it.”
But if that’s the case, why did it take everyone on the sidelines so long to see it during the game?
There’s still a lot that doesn’t add up, but these are the types of things that happen during disappointing football seasons. For Nagy, very little is going smoothly after an outstanding debut season in which the only drama involved the kicker.
Update: the Bears are still in need of a kicker.
Nagy will be given the chance to dig his team out of this, and he should be given that chance. The Bears won’t be going to the playoffs this year and these are all learning experiences for a young, still inexperienced head coach.
But there are still six more weeks in 2019 that need to be navigated, including two more nationally televised matchups. The Bears are seemingly getting worse, not better, and Nagy needs to halt this alarming spiral in a hurry.
The job just got even tougher.