Minutes after the Bears’ season-ending victory at Minnesota, coach Matt Nagy fidgeted in anticipation of getting back to Halas Hall and starting the mountainous task of fixing a team that once believed it had Super Bowl possibilities.
That win got them to 8-8, but Nagy knew it was meaningless. Anything in the range of 6-10 to 10-6 is mediocrity, and as he put it in mid-December, “That’s not what I’m here for.” Even for an irrepressible optimist, the loftiest thing he could say about this game, and this season, was that he appreciated the players’ effort.
That’s the first thing he told them in the locker room: Thanks for being fighters. To his credit and theirs, there was no indication that anyone checked out other than an uninspired performance against the Chiefs in Week 16. Nagy surely felt they atoned for that by pushing hard against the Vikings.
But the second message, his parting words to the players, was more interesting.
“I hope that all of us understand — players and coaches — that what we went through this year, we need to turn that into a glass-half-full deal and learn from it,” Nagy said, reciting his postgame speech to the team. “If you don’t learn from it, then shame on you.”
There’s no one who needs to heed those last few words more than Nagy.
While some of the Bears’ problems were beyond his control, his fingerprints were all over the 2019 failure. He seemed determined to turn quarterback Mitch Trubisky into something he’s not, he lost the instruction manual for Tarik Cohen, he couldn’t establish anything resembling a rushing attack and he made questionable decisions on the sideline.
It often looked like opposing defenses had a copy of his call sheet.
Firing the offensive coordinator and a couple of position coaches isn’t going to change all that. The No. 1 coaching move the Bears can make is for Nagy to evolve. It’s logical that any play-caller would want to after steering an offense that finished 29th in total offense and scoring.
But the concept of stubbornness vs. reinvention brings to mind something Nagy said a month ago after the offense had long gone off the rails.
“I think that’s a sign of weakness when you just come in and start changing everything, especially when you’ve seen something that’s worked before,” he said. “It’s not broken. Don’t fix it. But tweaks, adjustments, modifications, adaptations, that’s all a part of life.”
A tweak or modification will be insufficient now that the rest of the NFL has cracked his code. Nagy needs a substantive rewrite. It’s not just that this season was abysmal. The Bears have been a middling offensive team since his hiring.
The Bears were ninth in the NFL in scoring in 2018, but subtracting defensive scores and short-field scoring drives that began in field-goal range would’ve dropped them to a pedestrian 22.4 points per game. It’s better than the 17.5 they averaged in 2019, but it still would be in the bottom half of the league most seasons.
The 2018 numbers on Trubisky were similarly misleading, and a closer look suggests Nagy didn’t make as much headway as it appeared on the surface. Aside from his six-touchdown outburst against the Buccaneers, he had an 89.0 passer rating and sputtered in the playoff loss to the Eagles.
In his year-end news conference Tuesday, Nagy said Trubisky is “not far” but hinted that there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I want him to be a master at understanding coverages,” he said. “These defensive coordinators, they have different ways of showing different coverages, and they’re good at it.
“Let’s now . . . understand how defenses are going to try to trick you, and let’s not get tricked. If we do that, we slow the game down, and we get other parts of this offense fixed.”
Getting Trubisky to grasp that, or finding someone else who can, will go a long way. He’s the biggest problem with this offense. But he’s not the only one.
Nagy needs to convince himself to love the ground game. The Bears were 21st in rushing attempts and 29th in yards per carry.
Some of that is attributable to them playing from behind more often than not, but this is a coach who set what is believed to be the franchise record for fewest run plays in a game (seven) and felt compelled to declare himself “not an idiot” when that issue was brought up.
He also bypassed the chance to get closer for a game-winning field-goal try against the Chargers because of all the things that supposedly can go wrong on a run play, then vowed, “I would do it again a thousand times.”
It’s going to be a challenge for someone who makes those kinds of statements to do things differently.
Speaking of which, does anyone believe Nagy when he says it’s not against his nature to run? He’s a former quarterback and has specialized in the position throughout his coaching career. Quarterbacks love to throw. Nagy needs to rewire that part of his brain.
It shouldn’t take much film study for Nagy to realize how vital it is for him to grow. And if he can’t see it, shame on him.