Whatever happened to Matt Nagy’s bag of tricks?
From Tarik Cohen’s clutch TD pass to Anthony Miller vs. the Giants to Akiem Hicks’ TD run to Nick Kwiatkoski’s two-point conversion reception, the Bears had a blast in 2018 — but a regressing offense has put those ‘‘fun’’ plays on the shelf.
The Bears’ 30-27 overtime loss to the Giants last year was a downer — Mitch Trubisky was hurt, Chase Daniel threw a pick-six, the Bears fumbled six times and the usually dominant defense was shaky. They were fooled when wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Russell Shepard on a trick play.
But the Bears were still in fun mode. Remember those glory days, when first-year coach Matt Nagy was thrilling the nation with inventive ways to produce points and catch opposing coordinators off guard? It seems like a long time ago.
Last year at this time, Nagy was in a groove as the fun coach. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks scored a touchdown on a one-yard run against the Giants. And Nagy wasn’t just adding a fanciful twist when the Bears were cruising to victory. In a crucial moment, with the Bears at the Giants’ 1-yard line trailing 27-20 with three seconds left in regulation, Nagy pulled off a clutch fun play to tie it. Daniel handed off to tight end Trey Burton, who pitched to Tarik Cohen, who threw a touchdown pass to Anthony Miller to send the game to overtime.
Burton. Cohen. Miller. How times have changed.
“We were excited [when that play was called] because we knew it would be a touchdown,” Miller said. “I was glad to be a part of that one. That was a really fun play. Hopefully we pull out more as the season goes on.”
A year ago, there were no limits to Nagy’s fun plays. A week before the Giants game, on Thanksgiving Day against the Lions at Ford Field, Daniel threw a swing pass to Miller, who threw back to Daniel for an eight-yard gain. Subjecting your backup quarterback to an open-field hit — with Tyler Bray waiting in the wings — seemed like an unnecessary risk. But Nagy was on a roll.
A week after the Giants game, Trubisky threw a two-yard touchdown pass to offensive tackle Bradley Sowell against the Rams (that Sowell was more productive offensively as a tackle last season than he has been as a tight end this season is yet another snapshot of the Bears’ regression).
Nagy had so many unorthodox plays last year, it’s hard to remember them all. He opened the 49ers game in Week 16 with a jet sweep to Allen Robinson for a nine-yard gain. Taylor Gabriel gained eight yards on an end-around to set up a short touchdown. Miller had a carry in that game. The next week, Trubisky threw a two-point conversion pass to . . . Nick Kwiatkoski.
The absence of those fun plays this season is no real mystery. You can’t get cute when you haven’t been very good.
“When it comes down to it, we want to have a little bit better execution on our end offensively,” Nagy said, referring to the use of defensive players last year. “Maybe we get back to that here. Maybe we don’t. No. 1, you gotta get down there in that part of the red zone. And when you do, you want to be able to execute with your own guys, too.”
The Bears have yet to have somebody other than the quarterback throw a pass this season. And using wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back — and Gabriel on an end-around here and there — is about as inventive as Nagy has gotten this year.
It’s still in him. Nagy still loves those plays. But the way this season has played out, even he knows that it’s first things first.
“There are times that we do it,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘And there are other times where it might not be with those defensive players like we did last year. If you go back and look, you’ll see there’s some unique stuff going down. And sometimes we just haven’t been down in that area [of the field]. We want to be able to execute with our offense before we start getting into all that other stuff.”