clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Play ’em or sit ’em? Bears coach Matt Nagy makes the right preseason call with his starters

What was debatable a year ago is a no-brainer now: While sitting starters is not without a cost, preseason games no longer are worth the risk.

Wild Card Round - Philadelphia Eagles v Chicago Bears
Bears coach Matt Nagy indicated he will limit his starters snaps again this preseason. It’s a league-wide trend.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

More than three weeks before the season opener, Bears nickel cornerback Buster Skrine can’t wait.

‘‘What is it, 23 days? I’m ready,’’ Skrine said after practice Tuesday at Halas Hall. ‘‘This is the time in training camp where it’s like, ‘Ah, let’s just play somebody else.’ ’’

This used to be the time of year in which NFL starters actually would play somebody else. It was kind of the point of playing preseason games. But this is 2019, and the preseason is devolving into a giant evaluation of the bottom half of the roster. The object of preseason games no longer is to prepare your starters for the regular season; it’s to get them to the regular season healthy.

And Skrine, like most players, is good with that. He’s ready to fast-forward to Sept. 5.

‘‘If we had to line up and play tomorrow, I think we would be ready, for sure,’’ Skrine said. ‘‘But every day you’re finding a way you can get better. Coach [Matt Nagy] always preaches that: Find one way to get better every day. I think we do a good job of that.’’

It’s hard to blame Skrine for thinking that, the way the Bears’ defense has hit the ground running from the first day of camp. There’s an excitement that is palpable, even among the players. Skrine’s eyes already are getting big at the prospect of making plays in this defense.

‘‘[This defense] is way better than I thought,’’ said Skrine, who signed with the Bears in free agency after eight seasons with the Browns and Jets. ‘‘I knew they were good. But once you play with them, you’re like, ‘This is solid.’ There’s speed and just a ton of playmakers. You might have one player make a play on one side of the ball, but everybody out there is a playmaker. We all have to compete among each other to see who can make the most plays.’’

But it’s on offense where the debate is more legitimate. Nagy has made it clear his priority is getting to the regular season healthy, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky likely will make only token appearances — if that — in the preseason.

That’s not the way it used to be, of course. Ten years ago, Jay Cutler played 80 snaps in his first preseason with the Bears, including a token appearance in the finale against the Browns, in which he handed off six times and took the rest of the night off.

Still, that was much more work than Trubisky will get. Last year, Trubisky played 40 preseason snaps. Even five years ago, when Cutler was a well-established veteran in the second year of Marc Trestman’s offense in 2014, he played 61 preseason snaps.

Is it the right move heading into an all-important season opener against Aaron Rodgers and the rival Packers? Nagy has earned the benefit of the doubt after he bubble-wrapped his team in the preseason last year and the Bears went 12-4 to end a seven-season playoff drought. His credibility, in fact, is as high as that of any Bears coach since defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

Lovie Smith, come to think about it, actually had better credentials in 2007 — two playoff appearances and a Super Bowl berth — when he said, ‘‘Trust me,’’ after dumping defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Yet he faced much more skepticism (and we were right). But Nagy, even after a shaky playoff performance by his offense, seems to have earned a greater trust.

And you can argue that Nagy’s preseason strategy ultimately was costly. Had the Bears’ starters played more in the preseason in 2018, maybe they wouldn’t have faded in the second half of the team’s 24-23 loss in Week 1 at Lambeau Field. If they had won that game, maybe they would have finished 13-3, gotten a first-round bye, wouldn’t have lost their playoff opener and would have reached the Super Bowl, like the Rams did. We’ll never know.

(And if rookie linebacker Roquan Smith hadn’t held out and played more than eight snaps in the opener, maybe the Bears’ defense would have come up with the stop it needed to win that game. You can play that what-if game all day.)

It’s not much of a debate this season for three reasons: 1) Nagy seems to know what he’s doing. 2) It has become an ‘‘industrywide concept,’’ so there’s no significant disadvantage. 3) It achieves its main objective.

The Bears’ went into last season with only tight end Adam Shaheen out with a preseason-game injury. This year, they are — knock on wood — relatively healthy again. Nagy’s gambit is a new twist on an age-old NFL mantra: If you win the war of attrition, you have the best chance to win the war. It’s hard to argue with that.