clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How the coronavirus helped Matt Nagy ‘appreciate the preseason’

The coronavirus lockdown has made us all wistful for things we once considered drudgery: riding shoulder-to-shoulder on the L, waiting in line for airport security and, in the case of Matt Nagy, playing preseason games.

New York Giants v Chicago Bears
Matt Nagy coaches the Bears against the Giants on Sunday.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The coronavirus lockdown has made us all wistful for things we once considered drudgery: riding shoulder-to-shoulder on the L, waiting in line for airport security and, in the case of Matt Nagy, playing preseason games.

Yes, the same preseason games that Nagy reserved merely for the bottom half of his roster during his first two years as Bears coach, fearful that his most relevant players would get hurt. The same games he eschewed in favor of back-field scrimmages, claiming they were a more efficient way to get ready for the season.

So, after two weeks of sloppy play and a leaguewide spate of injuries, what does Nagy think of preseason games now?

“I think it does really start to open you up a little bit to appreciate the preseason — at least it does for me,” he said this week.

Except for a thumb injury to backup nose tackle John Jenkins, the Bears emerged cleanly from the carnage of

Week 2. But they saw the league’s most impactful first injury happen along their own sideline when Giants running back Saquon Barkley crumbled after safety Eddie Jackson shoved him out of bounds.

Barkley was one of seven players to tear an anterior cruciate ligament in Week 2, alongside reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa and 2017 No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas, both of the NFC champion 49ers; Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton, a Pro Bowl player last season; and Seahawks linebacker Bruce -Irvin, who has 52 career sacks.

“It seemed just really weird and so freaky that all those injuries happened this weekend,” Nagy said.

Nagy doesn’t know whether they were related to the canceling of preseason games. Veteran safety Tashaun Gipson had a sense.

“These are routine plays that are happening, and guys are done for the season or out for an extended time,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t say that it’s far-fetched to say that us not being able to do any type of football whatsoever up until practically the middle of August wouldn’t have something to do with that.

“I think that’s tough for anybody. This is a rare sport; you just can’t duplicate it. You can’t just get a bunch of guys together and say, ‘Hey, man, let’s go to the local park and play pickup football,’ like the guys in the [NBA] bubble did.”

ACL tears happen at more than twice the rate during a typical preseason than they do in the regular season, said David Chao, a former Chargers team physician who is now an orthopedic surgeon and sports-injury analyst. With no preseason games, he said, “acclimation injuries” — suffered while ramping up physical activity — are being pushed into the regular season. They get more attention because stars play in regular-season games but only sparingly in exhibitions.

There have been 19 ACL tears this year. The last five preseasons, there was an average of 25. The elimination of preseason games, though, means there have been “fewer runs down the ski slope,” Chao said, and fewer chances to get hurt. Add in a small sample size, and Chao said it’s impossible to tell whether the rash of injuries is related to the scrapping of preseason games.

The lack of preseason games this season has smothered the spark — once fueled by coaches, such as Nagy, who treated them as worthy of only second- and third-stringers — for the exhibitions to be canceled altogether.

The question now becomes: How many games should there be?

From a safety standpoint, there’s no magic number.

“It’s like the porridge is too hot, the porridge is too cold,” Chao said. “I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer.”

Soft-tissue injuries —sprains and strains to hamstrings, ankles, calves and quadriceps — are common during a standard training camp and offseason training program. But NFL players were forced to train on their own, not returning to their team facilities until late July. The league allowed for a ramp-up period before players put on pads, but it wasn’t the same.

“In these times, the little things count, the ‘pre-habs,’ the things before the games,” Gipson said. “These things are more important than ever because our bodies are truly getting acclimated to playing in these types of conditions when we’ve been off for eight, 8½ months.’’

Two things kept Falcons coach Dan Quinn up at night during the preseason: tackling and penalties. Players didn’t tackle full-bore at any point during camp, while his assistants were forced to fill in for officials who otherwise would have helped referee practice.

Nagy was particularly sympathetic to first-time head coaches, such as the Giants’ Joe Judge, who didn’t have the preseason as a test run. This year, teams are forced to work out their problems in real time.

When Nagy said Sunday the Bears were “just OK right now,” he said it wasn’t a criticism of his players or coaches, but a realization that they have to work through problems because they didn’t have a preseason.

Nagy began warming to the preseason in March, when he decided to stage his quarterback competition during exhibition games.

“I had a reflection in my own opinion going into this year, not only to toughen us up mentally but physically, and playing guys in the preseason,” he said. “Schematically, it can help you just do your stuff against somebody other than your own team. I definitely think that it’s something that is good for us.”

Maybe next year.