Coach Matt Nagy knows the Bears have to run the ball better.
But he also suspects that some fans’ concerns have nothing to do with the team’s performance on the field.
“You know, I think the biggest thing right now is you get into all this fantasy stuff that everybody’s doing, and I think their emotions get a little bit tied up into that,” he said Friday. “I just want to win games. That’s all I really care about.”
With an 8-3 record, he can speak with moral authority on that topic. Nagy is not beholden to convention, even if it means having backup quarterback Chase Daniel throw 37 times in the Bears’ 23-16 victory Thursday against the Lions.
“Running the ball is important, but I’m not going to run the ball just to say — and make people happy that — we ran the ball,” he said. “That’s not what I do. So we’re going to do whatever we think we have to do for the best matchup and whatever works for that week.
“If it’s running the ball 50 times and that’s the way we’re going to win, I’ll run the ball 50 times. If it’s running the ball five times and that’s how we’re going to win, I’ll run the ball five times.”
He came closer to the latter in Detroit. Even with Daniel starting, Bears running backs carried the ball only 11 times and gained 34 yards. Jordan Howard, the nominal starter, had season lows with seven carries and 13 yards. Running backs Tarik Cohen and Taquan Mizzell each scored a touchdown — on catches.
Nagy ran empty formations — with no running back — to spread defenders out and give Daniel a cleaner look at the defense. The 6-foot Daniel, a spread quarterback in college who lacks Mitch Trubisky’s height to see over linemen, liked the look.
The strategy was reminiscent of the last time the Bears played the Lions on Thanksgiving. On Nov. 27, 2014, then-coach Marc Trestman had the Bears hand the ball off seven times. Veteran Matt Forte, perhaps the most respected player in the Bears’ locker room at the time, tied a career low with five carries and gained only six yards.
Trestman’s Bears lost 34-17, and he was fired at the end of the season. Nagy won the game against Detroit, in part, because he decided the running game wasn’t a battle he wanted to fight against the Lions, who held the Panthers to 56 rushing yards the week before.
“Stating the obvious, and I’ve been saying this all year: We’ve got to figure out how to get better at the run game,” he said. “But I’ll say this, going into [Thursday] against that defense and what they do, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. So sometimes that’s how it goes. And that’s OK.”
But only to a point.
Nagy will use the team’s three-day weekend to try to find ways to fix the running game. It has been an ongoing battle all year — a result of personnel as much as scheming — and not something the Bears will fix overnight. Nagy won’t be afraid to throw more in the name of winning, but the balance has to tilt back a little toward the ground game, right?
“Now we have this little bit of a break,” Nagy said. “So it’s a nice little time for myself and the staff to reflect, ‘OK, how do we give ourselves the best opportunities to run the ball better?’ . . .
“You have to be able to run the football inevitably. You can’t be one-dimensional.”