Bears coach Matt Nagy embracing his return to the playoffs
The biggest underdogs of the NFL’s wild-card round, the Bears aren’t on a clear upward trajectory. But a victory Sunday might change that.
Bears coach Matt Nagy wanted his team to appreciate what it had accomplished — but also the sting of what it hadn’t — after Cody Parkey’s kick hit a defender’s fingertip, the left upright and the crossbar before bouncing onto the turf of a hushed, heartbroken stadium.
‘‘I want them to feel it,’’ a somber Nagy said, sitting in the bowels of Soldier Field after the 16-15 playoff loss to the Eagles two years ago this week. ‘‘I want our coaches to feel it. . . . It’s OK to let it hurt a little bit, but we’ve got to use this now to be better.’’
The Bears never did get better.
They went from 12-4 in 2018 to 8-8 in 2019. With a mandate to improve — chairman George McCaskey said he wanted to see whether the 2020 Bears were closer to the 2018 or 2019 vintage — they finished 8-8 again but backed into the playoffs.
Two seasons removed from being named NFL Coach of the Year and one month after he faced legitimate questions about whether he would be fired, Nagy seems to be on solid footing entering the wild-card playoff game Sunday at the Saints.
The biggest underdogs of the wild-card round, the Bears aren’t on a clear upward trajectory. A victory Sunday, however, could change that narrative.
‘‘The first year, you go 12-4, you win the division, you get to the playoffs and it’s new to a lot of people on that team,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘And then last year, the way it felt when we weren’t in it, and this year to be back in it. So to be able to have a chance to be in the tournament, in that dance for two out of the three years, is what these guys worked for.
‘‘Did we want to have a better year? Absolutely. Did we want to win the division? Absolutely.’’
They didn’t. They lost six consecutive games, then won three in a row against teams that combined to win a quarter of their games this season. They fell to the rival Packers by 19 last week but sneaked into the playoffs when the Cardinals lost.
‘‘It’s like a bittersweet type of thing,’’ outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. ‘‘Obviously, our goal wasn’t to go 8-8. Obviously, our goal wasn’t to lose and do this, do that and rely on another team to get to where we want to be.
‘‘But we are in a position to do some things now. They let us in.’’
No one pretends the regular season was a rousing success. But making the playoffs guarantees the debate about Nagy’s achievements, which staffers will return and whether quarterback Mitch Trubisky deserves a new deal have been delayed — at least for a week.
Nagy isn’t apologizing for making the postseason at 8-8. While some coaches refuse to watch the playoffs once their team’s season is over, he couldn’t ignore postseason games on television last season.
‘‘I watch it,’’ he said. ‘‘I just don’t want to watch it because I want to be there. So last year, when we weren’t in there, it wasn’t any fun, and you feel like you’re missing out on a party. We want to be a part of that party, and we have a chance right now.”
Particularly in the NFL’s most bizarre season, anything can happen. That’s how Nagy wants his players to think, at least.
‘‘It’s crazy how you can play all these months, put in all these practices, all these meetings, and it comes down to basically three hours,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Whoever plays better in those three hours, you can forget the record.’’
With a victory, Bears fans might.
‘‘I thought I was going to be back [in the playoffs in 2019], but things didn’t go that way,’’ left tackle Charles Leno said. ‘‘That was last year. We’re here now.’’