The first play Matt Nagy called as head coach of the Bears was Papa Bear Left, a handoff to Tarik Cohen out of the T-formation that the franchise made famous three generations ago. The last play of Nagy’s first drive put left tackle Charles Leno at receiver and tight end Dion Sims at left tackle. The running play produced a touchdown.
In the three games since the opener, Nagy has run trick plays — or, more accurately, trick formations — to try to gain a schematic advantage. Against the Seahawks, tight end Trey Burton took a snap out of the shotgun formation. In Arizona, the Bears ran a goal-line play with four tight ends. And Sunday, the Bears scored on a play they called Willy Wonka, which featured two quarterbacks.
Nagy isn’t trying to be clever. The trick plays keep the Bears’ locker room engaged, he said. He appreciates the ownership players have taken during the week when they know a play might be coming Sunday.
Plus, it’s fun. And fun is good.
“[The plays] have to work, though,” Nagy said. “You have to have success with them. If they don’t have a ‘why’ to them, and you’re just doing it to show that you’re trying to be creative, that doesn’t mean anything.”
Whatever the motivation, Nagy’s clever play-calling is a change in philosophy from John Fox, who treated offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains’ occasional tricks with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“You’ve got to have value with it, and you’ve got to understand that: The concept works, now what are you going to do with it?” Nagy said. “So I think the guys love it. We’ve done that for a while now, and it just spices it up a little bit, it adds a little fun to the process.
“When they work, they’re awesome. When they don’t work, they’re not too awesome.”
At the least, they give opposing defensive coordinators something to worry about.
“I think if you just stay vanilla and you just try to continue to run the same things over and over again, eventually defenses will figure it out and they’ll stop it,” Nagy said. “Adding some creativity to it, some misdirections and doing multiple things from it, it’s hard. It’s hard to defend. So you’ve got to always try to stay one step ahead of these defensive coordinators.”
They lighten the mood during the week. Quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel had a hand in developing Willy Wonka, which they unveiled against the Buccaneers.
“That was a really fun play that we had in practice,” Trubisky said.
Nagy said Daniel couldn’t get his helmet on fast enough to run on the field. At the 3-yard line, Trubisky and Daniel both stood in a shotgun formation. After Taylor Gabriel and Burton took turns going in motion, Trubisky took the snap and shoveled the ball to Gabriel, who scored on a three-yard reception.
The silly name is part of the charm.
“You can sit there and say, ‘Squeeze left, Y left, Zebra right, counter motion, such-and-such, such-and-such’ — then you look up at the clock and there’s 14 seconds on it,” Nagy said. “But you go Willy Wonka and boom, they know it. They remember it.
“It’s crazy how they think, but it works. And when you give them ownership on that kind of stuff, it’s fun for them.”
Quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone sees his players perk up when trick plays are introduced. It makes each player feel more part of the team.
“It’s one of those things when you feel like you’re part of something — specifically something like that — you take an extreme amount of ownership,” he said. “You obviously want guys to take ownership all the time in plays. But if they think they have a little bit of a hand in what’s going on, they want to make sure they’re down to every detail.
“Those guys took it and ran with it a little bit. And you can see the excitement.”