There was something odd and unexpected about the Bears’ ground game in the season opener: It existed.
Coach Matt Nagy talked all offseason about learning lessons and adapting, and mostly that meant committing to run the ball. Then he backed it up. The Bears ran 28 times against the Lions at an average of 5.3 yards, and Nagy resisted the impulse to bail on it as he did last season.
The third quarter, when the Bears fell behind 20-6, presented the perfect test of whether he would panic. He did not. He remained steadfast with four consecutive running plays — gains of 10, eight and two yards by David Montgomery and a three-yard run by Tarik Cohen.
“Everybody thinks attacking and being aggressive has to be through the air,” Nagy said. “But there’s a lot of ways to be attacking on the ground.
“I wanted to make sure . . . that I was always evaluating where I was as a play-caller and where I could get better. The patience to know that you do need to run the football is important. . . . I’m trying to get better in that area. Hopefully last week is a little bit of a start.”
That’s uncommon humility from a coach, and it’s a sign that Nagy is improving.
His staff has emphasized being self-critical at halftime. The Bears want to be restrained enough not to abandon something that is working just because they’re losing, but sensible enough to admit when it’s time for the “alternate” game plan. Last week was a case of the former.
“As you can see,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, “we were still in a position where we felt like we could play our game.”
The Bears had six runs and six passes in the third quarter before they had no choice but to go to the air in the fourth. They ran 44% of the time overall, which was impressive considering they trailed most of the game.
Establishing an offensive identity has been tricky for Nagy, but the opener signaled he might be on the cusp of finding one in the running game. He’ll try to continue that Sunday against the Giants, who allowed 141 rushing yards against the Steelers in Week 1.
Proving to themselves and future opponents that they can run effectively will loosen things up for the Bears in the passing game, too. With Mitch Trubisky taking more snaps under center and the ground game working, everything about Nagy’s offense becomes less predictable.
He was too desperate to see straight last season. The most glaring example was the game against the Saints spiraling out of control and the team setting a franchise low with seven runs.
That prompted the most famous quote of his career.
“I know we need to run the ball more — I’m not an idiot,” he said the next day.
It’s never good when you feel the need to express that.
But the Bears had three other games, including one after that declaration, in which they ran 18 times or fewer. They finished 21st in the NFL in rushes (24.7 per game), 29th in yards per carry (3.7, their worst since 2007) and 27th in rushing yards per game (91.1).
Nagy’s challenge was turning that around without much financial flexibility to change personnel. His solution was threefold: his own growth as a play-caller, a better offensive line led by new coach Juan Castillo and the trio of Montgomery, Cohen and converted wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield.
Their three skill sets looked like a good fit in the opener. Montgomery ran 13 times for 64 yards, Cohen got 41 yards on seven carries and Patterson had four rushes for 19 yards.
That’s the template for how Nagy wants to operate the running attack, and he hopes the volume of carries will rise if the Bears have a lead more often. But this is a promising start.