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With his job on the line, has Bears coach Matt Nagy made ‘progress’ in 2021?

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields is on the way up and the running game looks good, but how much credit does Nagy get for that? Plus, the team is 3-5 and second-to-last in scoring.

Matt Nagy is 31-25 in four season as Bears head coach.
Matt Nagy is 31-25 in four season as Bears head coach.
David Becker/AP

Bears chairman George McCaskey retained coach Matt Nagy after two dismal seasons on one condition: He had to show “progress” to keep his job beyond this season.

It was a perfectly chosen word because it’s malleable enough that the Bears can contort its definition to fit — or not fit — whatever Nagy does. If rookie quarterback Justin Fields looks like he’s on the right track, McCaskey could decide that alone makes Nagy worth keeping.

The overall numbers, though, are damning, starting with the Bears ranking 31st in points per game at 15.4, which would be their lowest output since 2004. They also average the fewest yards per play (4.4) and are 3-5 with the Steelers and Ravens up next.

When asked about McCaskey’s mandate and what improvement he could point to, Nagy wandered through a reply about “where we’re at right now” and how “you’ve got to win football games — that’s very, very important.”

When pressed to give a real answer, he noted — accurately — that Fields’ outlook is promising and the running game looks -legitimate.

“Now that he’s the starter, what’s our identity as an offense and how has he grown?” Nagy asked after Fields’ best game. “We’ve established an identity in the run game, and now the next part is being able to establish the pass game and definitely get more explosive [and] be able to score more points.

“And while that happens, have the quarterback get better with his decision-making and playmaking. When you watch the [49ers] game play by play, decision by decision, it was a really good game for Justin Fields.”

On both fronts, the question is how much credit Nagy deserves. He might not care now, but it’ll be part of the conversation when McCaskey makes a decision in January.

Fields completed 19 of 27 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown and ran 10 times for 103 yards and a touchdown in the 33-22 loss to the 49ers and looked more comfortable than he has at any point as a pro.

“That was, by far, his best game in terms of his footwork, his rhythm, and he got the ball out on time,” quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said.

Interestingly, that performance came when Nagy wasn’t there. It’s reasonable to wonder if Fields felt a little freer to play as he pleased.

Nagy has certainly helped, but it’s not just him. The Bears have a host of coaches, as well as Andy Dalton and Nick Foles, devoted to developing Fields. And it’s fair criticism to say Fields probably would be further along if Nagy had held a true competition between him and Dalton, with both players getting equal first-team snaps. Instead, Nagy stubbornly committed to Dalton regardless of how much promise and polish Fields showed.

But Nagy could not suppress the growing momentum for Fields to start, making it almost impossible to proceed with Dalton.

Then there’s the running game, which took off only when Nagy again ceded the play-calling to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The Bears are averaging 149.4 rushing yards per game since the switch, second in the NFL during that span.

It would be a stretch to attribute any of that success to Nagy, who has always shown an aversion to running and has often gotten in trouble because of it. The Bears have existed for more than a century, and the record for fewest rushes in a game took place with him as coach.

Ultimately, it would require the most generous definition of “progress” to say Nagy has made some. But it’s only about halfway through the season, and it works in his favor that Fields should only get better. And at his best, Fields offsets everything that’s wrong with the Bears’ offense. If he keeps doing that, it might be enough to save Nagy.