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Sports Saturday

Matt lament: Oh, to be ’18 again

Nagy was a mastermind in his debut season, but he has lost his mind in the three years since.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
Bears coach Matt Nagy said he was having fun at halftime of the Packers game last Sunday, but Bears fans haven’t been having a lot of fun the last three years.
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

At halftime Sunday night, Matt Nagy told the world how much fun he was having.

The Bears scored more points in the second quarter against the Packers than they had in all but one game this season. For a fleeting moment — before the Bears let their rivals score the next 24 points — the coach could appreciate his team’s all-too-rare spark.

“When you coach and when you play that first half the way we did, that is what it is all about,” Nagy said after the game. “That is why we do what we do. Let’s face it, there have been difficult times this year for everybody — for the players and for the coaches.

“You know what we can be, and when those guys play like that, that is why we do it.”

There was wistfulness in his voice.

There was a time — 2018 — when Nagy’s Bears were fun.

Remember “Santa’s Sleigh” and “Willy Wonka?” How about Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson taking the field as offensive players? Nagy calling “Philly Special” on a two-point conversion with no time left in regulation against the Giants — and the Bears completing the pass?

What about the touchdown celebrations? During the same Thanksgiving game in 2018, running back Tarik Cohen pretended to take a nap in the end zone and cornerback Prince Amukamara pantomimed a Motown song with a backing band. The Bears joyously rowed boats, tossed wedding bouquets and shined shoes, marching to a 12-4 record.

In the three years since then, Bears games have become a someone-please-change-the-channel slog, bogged down by bad quarterback play, a weakening defense and a call sheet’s worth of bad coaching decisions.

Nagy went from a swashbuckling play-caller to a coach who punts on fourth-and-one down by 11 in the fourth quarter. He is all but certain to be fired at the end of the season.

The road from must-see TV to Sunday afternoon background noise has a thousand false steps. None loom larger, though, than the major issues that caused Nagy to stumble the most in the three years since the Bears were last exciting.

The defense rests — and the offense struggles

Nagy’s downfall starts, appropriately enough, with Cody Parkey. When the kicker double-doinked the game-winning field goal in the NFC wild card round Jan. 6, 2019, he created one of the great sliding doors moments in Bears history.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio interviewed for the Broncos’ coaching job — just the fourth such conversation of his storied career — the next day. That night, he took Broncos general manager John Elway to his favorite restaurant, Maria’s Bakery in Highwood. While he ate rigatoni with red sauce and meatballs, Fangio sold Elway on how to make his franchise Patrick Mahomes-proof.

Three days later, he was named coach.

Had Parkey made the kick, Fangio would have still interviewed with the Broncos. But he would have been distracted — and rushed — while preparing for the next playoff game. The Broncos, who had already talked to four candidates, might not have been willing to wait for the Bears’ season to end to name their coach.

Blame Parkey for missing the kick — not for torpedoing the franchise. Nagy was the one who whiffed on hiring a replacement that recaptured Fangio’s magic. As it turns out, the man who ate pasta during a job interview — who does that without fear of spilling? — might have been the Bears’ secret sauce all along.

In 2018, the Bears allowed the fewest points, yards per play and yards per pass attempt in the NFL. The Bears’ 27 interceptions lapped the league — only one other team had more than 18 — and their 36 takeaways were five more than the next closest team.

Fangio took defensive backs coach Ed Donatell and outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley — who would become the Chargers head coach a little more than two years later — to Denver. Much of the team’s institutional knowledge followed him out the door — only one defensive position coach returned in the same role in 2019.

To replace Fangio, Nagy chose former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano — who, ironically, was up for the Broncos’ head coaching job — as his next defensive coordinator. He retired after two seasons and was replaced this season by first-time play-caller Sean Desai. Neither have been able to replicate the Bears’ defensive dominance.

The Bears had the league’s best defense in 2018. When it reverted to being merely very good the next year, Nagy’s offense — and his quarterback — were exposed.

The Bears averaged 26.3 points per game in 2018. Take away the six touchdowns scored by the defense, though, and that number dwindled to 23.4 — which was almost exactly league average.

With a stout defense, the Bears started 22 drives in opposing territory, scoring 57 points. A whopping 15.2% of the Bears’ points scored by offensive players came on those short fields.

General manager Ryan Pace spent the next three years trying to prop open the team’s championship window on defense — but merely made the unit both older and worse. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan’s 2020 contract extension immediately became an albatross. Pro Football Focus grades Alec Ogletree, his backup, as the worst starter in the NFL at any position.

Outside linebacker Robert Quinn figures to be named to the Pro Bowl on Monday. Last year, though, he might have been the most overpaid, underperforming player in football. Safety Eddie Jackson was in the same conversation.

This year, the aging defense finally snapped. Mack and Jackson missed more games due to injury this season than they had in their NFL careers to that point, combined. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks missed 11 games in 2019 and six — and counting — this year after missing only three games in his first seven NFL seasons.

The chronic QB problem

When Nagy had his own job interview, he packed his notes — files detailing what thought about North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky during the 2017 draft process. Trubisky took a private visit with Nagy’s Chiefs before the Bears took him second overall.

For 4 ½ hours at the Raphael Hotel in Kansas City on Jan. 7, 2018, Nagy talked to Pace, chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips about all facets of the organization. Trubisky, though, loomed large.

The Bears wanted to replace John Fox with an offensive-minded play-caller who could mold Trubisky into the most elusive creature in Bears history: a franchise quarterback.

Nagy never could.

Trubisky was an injury replacement for the Pro Bowl after the Bears’ 2018 playoff run but was so bad the following year — he had a passer rating of 83 — that the Bears declined his fifth-year option the following offseason.

The Bears drafted Trubisky in part because they loved his mobility, but he began to run less. He had 20 fewer carries — and, alarmingly, 228 fewer rushing yards — in 2019 than he did the year before. Injuries were to blame — Trubisky tore his left labrum in Week 4 and needed offseason surgery — but so was Nagy’s insistence that his quarterback run only as a last resort.

By 2020, Nagy had grown impatient. He benched Trubisky after he threw a third quarter interception in Week 3 — the Bears were 2-0 at the time — in favor of veteran Nick Foles. Trubisky reclaimed his starting job later in the season, but his play was so poorly thought of around the league that he could only land a one year backup role with the Bills in free agency.

Despite Trubisky’s struggles, the Bears gave Nagy — who had landed the Bears job after tutoring Mahomes — a second opportunity to groom a rookie when they drafted Ohio State’s Justin Fields in April.

Nagy’s handling of Fields was counterproductive from the start. He insisted on veteran Andy Dalton being the unchallenged starter, relegating Fields to taking snaps exclusively with backups for most of training camp.

When Dalton hurt his knee in Week 2, Fields — and his teammates — weren’t prepared. The next week, the Bears posted 47 yards against the Browns, the franchise’s worst offensive showing in 40 years.

Nagy’s quarterback problem is acute and chronic. That four different quarterbacks under Nagy — young and old, tall and short, fast and slow — have struggled in the last year and a half shows that Nagy, like a century of Bears coaches before him, is part of the problem.

Fields has an abysmal 69.3 passer rating this year, while Dalton sits at 79.9. Nick Foles, who replaced Trubisky last year, had an 80.8 passer rating in 2020. Trubisky’s 93.5 last year is by far the best of the group.

The same day he interviewed with the Bears, Nagy spoke to the Colts — and old friend Chris Ballard, the general manager — about their head coaching job. He felt more comfortable with the Bears, though, and ostensibly chose Trubisky over the Colts’ quarterback situation.

He could have coached two likely Pro Football Hall of Famers. Andrew Luck went to the Pro Bowl in 2018 before retiring early the next season. Philip Rivers went 11-5 last season before retiring. Instead, Nagy chose the franchise synonymous with poor quarterback play.

He has done little since to change that perception.

“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” Phillips said in January, not knowing how absurd he sounded. “Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.”

Be you? Who are you?

In the days leading up to the Bears’ double-doink playoff loss to the Eagles, someone asked Trubisky about the team’s -offensive identity.

“I’m not really sure — I think it’s always changing,” he said.

Almost three years later, no one’s really sure.

What is it, precisely, that Nagy’s offense does well?

In the Nagy era, only two teams — Washington and the Jets — have averaged less than the Bears’ 5.03 yards per play. The Bears’ 5.7 yards per pass attempt is the fourth-worst in the NFL during that time period. Their 4.12 yards per carry is sixth-worst.

The Bears’ offensive struggles have spanned two offensive coordinators, two run game coordinators and two quarterbacks coaches — with Nagy as the only constant.

That’s one reason why Nagy’s detached evaluations of his offensive shortcomings — as if he had no control over what happened — are so maddening.

Why did Nagy run the ball only seven times — and throw it 54 times —in a 2019 loss to the Saints?

“I know we need to run the ball more,” he said then. ‘‘I’m not an idiot.”

How did they get blown out by the Browns?

“You almost can’t even make it up — it’s that bad,” he said then.

What about the six-game losing streak that finally ended last month?

“It’s no one’s fault — other than everybody’s,” he said.

It’s been, more than anyone else’s, Nagy’s fault. Since the double-doink game, only five teams have scored fewer points than the Bears.

Running back David Montgomery has been a stabilizing force. But the Bears’ passing attack has been disjointed all year long. In Week 1, Andy Dalton threw the ball 10 or more yards in the air twice. One was incomplete, the other an interception. In Week 13, he threw four interceptions and became the first modern quarterback ever to record two tackles — both on the returns.

In Week 3, Fields was sacked nine times and hit on 15 of his 29 dropbacks. He has been sacked on 12.5% of his dropbacks, the third-highest number for any quarterback with at least 200 attempts over the last 15 years.

Nagy’s offense has been so lifeless that Nagy has fired himself as play-caller — twice — in the last 13 months.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor called plays for the last eight games last season, when the Bears scored 30-plus points four games in a row for the first time since 1965. With Lazor calling plays last year, the Bears scored 5.6 more points per game than they did under Nagy.

Nonetheless, Nagy took back play-calling during the offseason, only to give it back to Lazor after the Browns’ debacle.

“It’s been hard,” Nagy said when he gave up play-calling the second time. “But when I signed up for this job I knew there was going to be times that I go through this kind of stuff. And now I’m getting tested to see where I’m at with this.”

The reality would have seemed ridiculous three years ago when the Bears thrilled the league. Like his offense, Nagy hasn’t passed.