INDIANAPOLIS — Asked how the bitter end to the Bears’ season was motivating his quarterback, Matt Nagy started talking about the team’s sickening loss to the Packers in Week 1, and how it drove his players throughout the season. Then he saw a familiar face in the crowd.
Doug Pederson, whose Eagles eliminated the Bears from the playoffs, was watching Nagy answer the question this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. The two coaches are friends, but the metaphor — the Eagles haunting the Bears — was not lost on Nagy.
“Hopefully we can use that loss to Philly — Ironically, Doug is over there waving to me — as motivation,” Nagy said.
Entering their second year, the Bears’ coach and quarterback Mitch Trubisky can use the losses to drive them. They can use the film to determine what needs fixed. And they can use the comfort level with each other to, they hope, take the offense to new heights.
The best thing about a freshman is that he becomes a sophomore. That’s true of the Bears’ pairing, even after Nagy was named the NFL’s top coach and Trubisky made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in their first year together.
Year 2 is when the leap happens, the manifestation of familiarity between a quarterback and play-caller.
“I don’t know if what I say, if words can really put that in perspective,” said Rams general manager Les Snead, who witnessed coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff reach the Super Bowl in their second year together. “It’s like anything, right? If you’re speaking a language, if you’re trying to learn Spanish, it’s good to be in Year 2 of Spanish, instead of doing French that year. Anything you do in life. Experience, being in the same routine, system things like that. What ends up happening is you go from thinking to actually reacting. And that’s really good in our league.”
When Trubisky watches film on his own this offseason, it’s actually of him. Last year, the Bears used old Chiefs tape to show what they wanted in Nagy’s system.
He has a library — both of film and experience — from which to draw.
“He now knows, ‘OK, when we ran this play and I see this defense, this is what I could have done differently.’ ” Nagy said. “Or, ‘This is what I did really well.’ ”
Nagy said the next step is reading defenses better. To show how little time Trubisky has to make the right calls, Nagy rattled off the quarterback’s responsibilities once the 40-second play clock starts: call the play in the huddle, glance at the defense, make sure the Bears’ alignment and splits are correct, identify the middle linebacker, send a player in motion, watch for the safety rotations, change the blocking scheme at the line of scrimmage, and make a throw.
“There’s a lot that goes on,” Nagy said. “He can now get better at the other part of that — seeing what the defense is showing. Once we get to that point, I think what you’ll see is you’ll see the ball out a little bit sooner. You’ll see him being able to make more plays. But that takes time. That’s not something that just happens in the first year.”
Having teammates familiar with Nagy’s system will help.
“They now all know now what’s going on on the offensive side,” Nagy said. “So now we can start playing ball. That’s what I think we’ll ultimately be judged on.’’
Nagy said last offseason was like a flight simulator. The coach tried to get his quarterback to digest the new playbook as quickly as possible — before training camp even started.
In retrospect, Nagy said, it might have been a mistake.
“The amount of stuff that we threw at him within the offense — right, wrong or indifferent, we challenged him,” Nagy said. “Probably over the top a little bit.”
This offseason is different. Rather than teaching a system, the Bears can focus on which plays work within it, and why.
“Now we’re at a point where we kind of know a little bit of the direction of what we like and what we don’t like,” Nagy said. “Now that enables us to get better at the things we like, throw away the things we don’t like, which all in all is going to end up really helping out our players.”
Nagy admitted that, at this time last year, there were players on the roster who he simply didn’t know. Now he can list the strengths and weaknesses of each one. That will inform not only how the Bears attack free agency and the draft, but also how Nagy designs plays.
“We just know how each other think,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “I think just being on the same page with him, connecting with him on all these evaluations. We share a vision on a player. Him, especially as the offensive play-caller, I think it just increases our odds so much when we both have ownership in the decision.”
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach thought Nagy handled the Bears’ playoff loss with class, but he knows how frustrated his college friend can get.
‘‘I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls late at night after games, and — he’d probably tell you differently — some funny stories,” Veach said. “But I think he’s done a great job. It’s a big city, it’s a big market, there’s a lot of eyes on him. And I think he’s handled all that in stride and done a great job.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid had the same thoughts.
“My expectations don’t mean much, but I thought he did a heck of a job,” Reid said. “I’m a big Matt Nagy fan. . . . I’m his biggest fan. So happy for him. He works like crazy.”
Like Nagy did last year, Reid made the playoffs in his first season with the Chiefs. Reid went 9-7 in his second year, the only season in his six with the Chiefs when he missed the playoffs.
Nagy said Reid taught him that there’s a “drastic difference” between Years 1 and 2.
“But I think the biggest thing that he taught me was just for me to stay the course, you know?” Nagy said. “And that goes into different seasons.”
The Bears’ goal in Year 1 was to build the foundation and to earn the trust of players — and even fans.
It’s time to back it up.
“Now that I feel like we’ve got that full trust from the players and the people within the building, now we have to maintain it,” Nagy said. “And so the hunger that was in our players’ guts and what was in their eyes when we talked and I met with them individually, you can’t make that up. They’re ready. They’re ready to get back at it. And I think now it’s hard to stay where we’re at, being 12-4. We’re 0-0 now.
“So that’s going to be my biggest challenge as the head coach — to make sure that there’s no complacency and our guys realize now that we’re now the hunted.”
More than any other offseason move, Trubisky’s growth will help the Bears continue to separate themselves.
“Matt is more familiar with Mitch and what he’s comfortable with,” Pace said. “Mitch is naturally going to get better at things with reps and experience. We all smile when we talk about going into the offseason and them spending more time together.’’