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Matt Nagy’s best option: Keep it simple

With a makeshift offensive line that will feature three backups against the Titans, Nagy might have no choice. Maybe it will give his offense the foundation it needs.

Matt Nagy is 25-15 (.625) in three seasons as the Bears’ head coach, but his 2020 offense ranks 29th in yards and 28th in scoring.
Matt Nagy is 25-15 (.625) in three seasons as the Bears’ head coach, but his 2020 offense ranks 29th in yards and 28th in scoring.
Matt Marton, AP Photos

It was probably just coach Matt Nagy’s bad luck that Mitch Trubisky suffered a shoulder injury on his one and only play as a wildcat quarterback last Sunday against the Saints. Stuff happens.

But it was a bad look for a coach still struggling to establish an offense halfway through his third season, eliciting a not-unfamiliar admonishment for Nagy: Don’t get too cute.

Nagy presumably was mimicking Saints coach Sean Payton’s use of Taysom Hill earlier in the game. But it only served to illustrate a key lesson Nagy struggles with: Build an offense first, then get cute. Payton effectively uses Hill as a change-of-pace quarterback because he already has a functioning, efficient offense on virtual automatic pilot with Drew Brees at the controls.

Gadget plays and gadget players don’t make a bad offense good; they make good offenses better. Tarik Cohen’s effectiveness withered as Nagy’s offense regressed. Cordarrelle Patterson, a valuable weapon as a running back with the Patriots, is increasingly miscast in Nagy’s offense. He has rushed for 75 yards on 26 carries, just 2.9 yards per carry.

The few times Nagy has tried to throw in a curve, it hasn’t worked. Darnell Mooney’s only rush this season lost three yards against the Colts. Allen Robinson’s only rush, a jet sweep against the Lions, lost one yard.

The flea-flicker against the Panthers was a bust. Not only was receiver Javon Wims well-covered, but quarterback Nick Foles ended up taking a hit as he threw. The Bears were bailed out on the play when the Panthers were called for pass interference — an almost ironic benefit, considering the flea-flicker is designed to produce a wide-open receiver. By being so poorly executed, it actually worked out.

(The flea-flicker worked out much better for Foles in the NFC Championship Game with the Eagles in January 2018, resulting in a 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith in a 38-7 rout of the Vikings. But that was a good offense in a playoff groove.)

Nagy just can’t help himself. Fun, inventive plays are in his football DNA. But with the current state of the Bears’ offense, he’s probably better off doing just the opposite of his preferred M.O. and keeping it simple. Establish a blocking-back-oriented running game and a standard offense that keeps defenses on their heels, then start zigging when the defense zags.

Is it even possible for Nagy to do that? There’s no better time to try than Sunday again the Titans. With a makeshift offensive line that will feature three backups with little or no NFL experience (likely rookie Arlington Hambright at left guard, undrafted free agent Alex Bars at center and converted defensive tackle Rashaad Coward at right tackle), Nagy might have no choice but to keep it simple. Maybe that will give the Bears’ offense a foundation it needs.

It’s worth a shot. In 2000, another Bears offense was in a similar regression under offensive coordinator Gary Crowton — too dependent on timing, nuance and perfect execution. When Crowton left to become the coach at BYU after a 28-6 loss to the Packers, John Shoop took over. The Bears ran the ball 39 times and dominated time of possession (37:10-22:50) in a 24-17 victory against Bill Belichick’s Patriots. It was like a breath of fresh air. The players gave Shoop the game ball.

‘‘Simplifying things and allowing them to play fast is something we’ll do,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘If there’s something that’s too much, then we can’t do that. That’s where it’s question-and-answer from us with the players.

‘‘[Friday] was a long day for us because we had to catch up with some of our other stuff that we missed [Thursday]. But they did a really good job mentally in all three phases. We’ll continue to simplify as much as we can so that we can play fast and play better.’’