Bringing back Matt Nagy to coach the Bears for another season required somewhat of an apology.
Even without a full crowd at Soldier Field to boo the team off the field every other week, chairman George McCaskey had a sense that this wasn’t going to go over well. Maybe he caught a whiff of the fury swirling around Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace on Twitter, or maybe it was simply logical to expect backlash after going 16-16 and getting pitiful offense from a supposed offensive guru.
“The decisions we’re announcing today may not be the easiest or most popular,” he acknowledged before taking a question.
Later, along with a smattering of dubious explanations and repeated use of the word collaboration, he said, “I don’t know, frankly, that a lot of people have confidence in this course of action. But sometimes you have to take the route that you think is best, even when it’s not the most popular decision.”
Nagy was logged on and listening to the Zoom call as reporters grilled McCaskey about the counterintuitive move to retain him as he waited for the heat coming his way. When his turn came, he described McCaskey allowing him to keep his job as an “opportunity,” reflecting that he grasped how close he’d come to getting fired.
It has been quite a plunge for the man who charmed Chicago with positivity and creativity on his way to going 12-4, winning the NFC North and claiming Coach of the Year honors in 2018. It was less than three years ago that the Bears celebrated the division title by toppling the archrival Packers at Soldier Field.
It feels like eternity.
The two seasons since have been disaster-laden in ways Nagy couldn’t have imagined.
He set the franchise low for fewest run plays with seven in a 2019 loss to the Saints, then said the next day he knew the Bears needed to run more and, “I’m not an idiot.” It’s never a good situation when you feel that needs to be said.
He followed that a year later with, “I don’t know,” when asked how his team had fallen off a cliff from winning the division to letting a home game against the Lions disintegrate in his hands as he called two pass plays late when all he needed to do was run out the clock. That was their sixth consecutive loss, a streak spanning nearly two months.
Additionally, Nagy has gone 1-5 against the Packers, scored the seventh-fewest points in the NFL over the last two seasons, been unable to make Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles functional at quarterback and seen the offense dry up to the point that he had no choice but to give up play calling to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, though he promptly reclaimed that role going into this season.
For those reasons and more, Nagy’s future with the Bears is absolutely on the line when this season opens Sunday at the Rams. There’s no way he survives if the string of embarrassments continues. McCaskey demanded “sufficient progress.” No one thinks Nagy has been handed a championship roster, but it’s enough talent for a smart coach to get to the playoffs.
Amid all that pressure and turmoil, the one thing Nagy keeps saying is that none of it rattles him. Improbably, he’s more comfortable now than in any other season. “As calm as I’ve ever been in my life,” as he put it. There’s freedom from expectations, strength from surviving and authentic confidence that he can finally fix the Bears’ offense.
“I got to the summer and you just start thinking about the time that it’s taken to get to where we’re at and how we’ve done certain things,” Nagy said. “We’ve had highs, we’ve had lows and we’ve been calloused mentally and physically.
“And as I started thinking about all of that, and about the people I have around me — the players, the coaches, the support staff — that’s when the calm started happening. And it’s nice to have that. It really is. It’s something that I’m going to continue to stick with.”
If it seems like he would’ve felt more at ease coming off the 2018 season, when the Bears believed they were climbing toward a championship, that’s not the case.
The players bought into the hype, and Nagy probably did, too. When he looks back at the ensuing training camp, when running back Tarik Cohen fired off the word “dynasty,” Nagy regrets that he didn’t do more to keep things level. The 2019 Bears opened with a thudding loss to the Packers and were sunk by midseason at 3-5.
“Everyone’s talking about the Super Bowl, this and that, and that’s the worst thing that could have happened,” Nagy said. “Where I wanted to improve is not [to] listen to those distractions. It means nothing. So we learned from that. That’s where I’ve been able to use these experiences to help me be calm.”
Inner peace is nice and all, but how about that offense?
Here’s the harsh truth about Nagy’s first three seasons: The Bears hired him to be an offensive mastermind and quarterback whisper, but he has been neither. The 2018 offense, when the Bears were ninth in scoring, was a bit of a mirage as Trubisky fattened up his stats against the lowly Buccaneers and the Khalil Mack-led defense carried the team.
Over the 2019 and ‘20 seasons, the Bears were 26th in points, 29th in yardage, 26th in yards per carry and 23rd in passer rating—completely wasting one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Bears lost six games in which their defense allowed 24 points or fewer in 2019 and another four last season. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn 8-8 into 10-6 or better.
While the benchmarks for Nagy to keep his job aren’t necessarily quantifiable, they’re reasonably clear.
He better be right about quarterback Andy Dalton, and nothing will be more scrutinized than his handling of rookie Justin Fields. The running game has to exist. He can’t keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory like he did in that meltdown against the Lions or the hashmark debacle on the last-second field goal try against the Chargers two years ago. He must prove he’s grown from having “failed in a lot of different ways” so far. And when 9-8 will probably be good enough to make the playoffs, he needs to get there.
“I’ve learned a lot, whether it’s on game day or throughout the week or running a meeting — sometimes it’s just how you speak to the players,” Nagy said. “Sometimes that changes, and that’s where I grow and where I learn. How can I get better so that these guys know that I’m doing everything I can on my part to improve, and it’s not just always the players’ fault?”
For all Nagy’s talk about his plan to hold Fields out for a season to prepare him to take over in 2022, he must earn the right to stick around for that. The Bears are betting everything on Fields rescuing them. They’re committed to him long term. They aren’t committed to Nagy past this season.
The biggest puzzle Nagy must solve is his offensive line, which rarely had cohesion as injuries disrupted the unit throughout the preseason and eventually saw presumptive starting left tackle Teven Jenkins undergo back surgery, but there have to be answers in there somewhere. It’s his job to find them. Sam Mustipher went from practice squad to starting center last season. It can be fixed.
“This is part of the game,” Nagy said. “This is just how we have to be built, meaning you’ve gotta prepare for times like this. You’ve got to be able to accept news when it comes certain ways.”
Beyond the o-line tumult, Nagy has everything he has wanted.
Dalton is the capable veteran he helped choose, and Fields is the ultra-talented game-changer he also helped choose. He can’t point to Trubisky’s struggles with mastering the playbook and reading defenses anymore.
Allen Robinson is a three-time 1,000-yard receiver, Darnell Mooney is ascending and Marquise Goodwin is a better third option than any Nagy has had in his Bears tenure.
Tight end Cole Kmet is poised for a big season, and Jimmy Graham can still box out for red-zone catches at 34 as well as anyone.
Running back David Montgomery is coming off a season of 1,508 yards of total offense, and Cohen’s return from a torn ACL gives Nagy his favorite weapon back.
“I really feel great about it,” Nagy said of the collection of skill players he helped craft. “What we have here and how we want to do things... At all positions, we feel really good with where we’re at — schematically, personnel-wise, across the board.”
Nagy felt a swell of confidence when he saw his offensive personnel take the field during offseason practices. He saw plenty of dynamic talent with which to work and not a single headache in the group. And while he might not have the same ferocious defense that helped him in 2018, it’s still very good. Nagy has what he needs. If he can’t make this team viable, it’s on him.