Coach Matt Nagy put his arm around running back David Montgomery on the sideline after the rookie scored on a seven-yard run that showed almost exactly what the Bears envisioned when they traded up to draft him in the third round — vision, patience, acceleration and a nose for the end zone.
“I just told him, ‘There’s gonna be plenty more of those,’ ” Nagy said.
The Bears’ conviction that Montgomery is the perfect fit for Nagy’s offense — and certainly a better fit than the departed Jordan Howard — since they fell in love with him during the draft process was only heightened by his performance Thursday night in the Bears’ 23-13 loss to the Panthers at Soldier Field.
Montgomery also showed off his receiving skills with a 23-yard gain on a screen pass from Chase Daniel earlier in the touchdown drive. Even in a brief stint, Montgomery finished with 46 yards on six touches — three rushes for 16 yards and a touchdown and three receptions for 30 yards.
It’s only the preseason. And it was done against Panthers reserves (and with Bears reserves). But to Nagy, it was a glimpse of the future that had the second-year head coach stepping on the gas and pumping the brakes on Montgomery in the same moment.
“It didn’t surprise me one bit — not at all,” Nagy said. “I wish you guys could’ve been in the interviews at the combine, I wish you could’ve been in the interviews in my office, I wish you could be in the huddle in OTAs, I wish you could see how he was [Wednesday] night.
“This kid’s DNA is rare. I don’t want to overblow it. He’s got a ways to go. I don’t want to make [him] the next great back in this great organization, but he’s headed in the right direction.”
For Montgomery, it was just a good start.
“It was a great experience for me, just to be able to actually get out there with the guys and be able to show what we got and what we’ve been preparing for,” Montgomery said. “It was exciting.”
There’s much more for Montgomery to do in Nagy’s offense and much more for him to prove. But one play was enough to get people excited.
On first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Montgomery took a handoff from Chase Daniel at the 10-yard line, hesitated at the 9, waited for a block from tight end Bradley Sowell, escaped a tackle attempt from behind and darted toward the end zone, hopping between two defenders at the goal line for the score.
“I just saw open space and ran to it,” Montgomery said.
The excitement of the crowd was palpable. And the response on Twitter was almost over-the-top celebratory — with calls for putting the kid in bubble wrap until Sept. 5 against the Packers. But one endorsement in particular can’t be overlooked. It came from ex-Bears running back Matt Forte, a Pro Bowl-caliber runner, blocker and receiver and the most legitimate model for what the Bears hope Montgomery can become.
“I really like the vision, balance and elusiveness of young @MontgomerDavid,” Forte tweeted.
And then he followed it up with more: “Can’t coach vision. You can have all the measurables, but it’s more important to set up blocks and create plays at RB! And that’s what it seems like @MontgomerDavid can do. I like it.”
Can’t coach vision. You can have all the measurables but it’s more important to set up blocks and create plays at RB ! And that’s what it seems like @MontgomerDavid can do. I like it. #Bears100 #bears #nfl— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) August 9, 2019
I really like the vision, balance and elusiveness of young @MontgomerDavid— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) August 9, 2019
The key now for Nagy is not getting too caught up in the excitement.
“It’s been really steady [progress] and just completely in one direction,” Nagy said. “You can see his arrow’s up. He wanted more carries. I would’ve loved to give him more carries, but you just have to be smart.”
Even in one small — and hardly defining — glimpse, Montgomery gave the Bears the versatility they were looking for when they drafted him. For what it’s worth, Howard didn’t catch a pass in the preseason last year.
Timeout for a necessary disclaimer: This was the opening preseason game against backups — a breeding ground for false positives. Then again, some guys have it, and some guys don’t. And even when you apply the it’s-only-preseason filter, it sure looks like what Montgomery showed is closer to being real than a mirage. He passed the eye test.