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Sports Saturday

Matt Nagy’s self-scouting mission

After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the Bears’ fourth-year head coach took stock of himself in the offseason and came to the realization that he was part of the problem: “I need to coach better.”

Bears coach Matt Nagy is entering his fourth season.
After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Matt Nagy is 28-20 in three seasons as the Bears head coach — and 0-2 in the playoffs.
Paul Sancya/AP Photos

It was an offseason of introspection for Bears coach Matt Nagy.

For three years, the first-time head coach has had any number of excuses for disappointments that have put him on the hot seat entering the 2021 season. The bad break of the double-doink that cost a playoff victory. A running back that didn’t fit his offense. A “franchise” quarterback he didn’t draft. A substandard offensive line. A slew of injuries.

And decisions made responded to those issues: Cody Parkey was cut. Jordan Howard was traded. Respected offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was fired. Mitch Trubisky was not re-signed.

But in the first three days of training camp, Nagy has made it pretty clear that he put himself on notice. Every day, Nagy has pointed — directly or indirectly — to his own failures and lessons learned during his first three seasons that helped put him in the spot he’s in.

On Tuesday, he acknowledged that directly.

“I’ve failed in a lot of different ways in my first three years as a head coach,” he said. “I shouldn’t say fail, but I’ve learned things . . . so for me, those failures [are] chances for me to learn. I’m trying to make myself better.”

On Wednesday, it was an emphasis on practicing harder and faster and with a greater sense of purpose.

“That emphasis is going to be on a different level than what you all have seen in three years here with me,” Nagy said. “But that’s where I talk to you guys like, ‘How can I get better?’ I don’t think I was good enough in my area at being a head coach and overseeing practices and the tempos of practices. It’s going to be different this year.”

And on Thursday, it was a question about Robert Quinn expressing frustration with his 2020 season that led to Nagy pointing the finger at himself.

“There’s a lot of accountability from these guys,” Nagy said. “They’re frustrated, too, with how things went last year. They’re not making excuses. They’re just saying, ‘You know what? I need to play better.’ It’s the same thing for us. I need to coach better. If we do that, we’ll be better in general.”

Despite all the focus on the quarterbacks, there might be no greater truth than that — Nagy needs to self-upgrade if this thing is going to work, and he seems to know that. Last year’s 8-8 season, despite a playoff berth, forced Nagy to look at himself as part of the problem.

“For sure, without a doubt,” Nagy said. “We talk about players being competitive — my family will tell you, I’m probably more competitive than most people. And when you go through last year, in a lot of ways that’s a struggle. That’s hard.

“We all want to be the best team in the NFL. We have the best city of fans that support us. But when you go through that, it’s hard, and so you’re able to reflect. You get away from the season, you think, ‘Where can I get better? How can I be a better coach?’

“And I take that very seriously. It’s humbling. There’s humility involved in that. You’ve got to be open with your players. You’ve got to show them that you’re not perfect, that you can be better. And now you get another chance to do it together. So just as much as they’re motivated, trust me — I’m motivated, too.”

While it’s easy for critics on the outside to see Nagy’s faults, it’s a little more difficult for Nagy to see his own faults from the inside, especially from such a lofty position of authority. That’s where Nagy’s own support system — that very likely includes Chiefs coach Andy Reid — helped him get a fresh perspective on his role in the Bears’ issues.

“I rely a lot on my peers; I rely a lot on my mentors,” Nagy said. “I talk to a lot of different people — not just leaders in [football] but in other professions. It’s nice to listen to stories from other people in similar roles that have gone through similar situations and circumstances and how to handle it. And you know if you can’t get through these failures and accept where you can get better, you won’t succeed, and you’ll be gone.”

Since he rode the wave of a fabulous defensive performance in 2018 and looked like an inventive offensive coach ready to take the Bears’ offense to the next level, Nagy has struggled in almost every facet of managing the offense. He failed to develop Trubisky. He struggled to outfox opposing defensive coordinators. He just looked out of sync and consumed by the immense challenge of turning a bad offense into a good one.

The frustration was never more evident than during Nagy’s “I’m not an idiot” moment in 2019, when his offense had a franchise-low seven rushes while Trubisky — after missing nearly two games because of a shoulder injury — threw 54 passes in a loss to the Saints.

Nagy bristled at criticism after that game. But his defense exposed the problem — he knew he shouldn’t have run only seven times in that situation, but in the moment, he was unable to prevent it from happening. Managing a game is not easy. Experience matters.

The next week, Nagy responded to the criticism by rushing 38 times — the second-most rushes under Nagy at the time — in a loss to the Chargers. But the week after that, the Bears rushed four times in the first half against the Eagles — and 18 times overall — in a 22-14 loss, and the offense was as off-kilter as ever. The Bears ended the season with 395 rushes and 580 passes and finished 29th in total offense in the NFL.

Committing to the run — and play-calling in general — has been problematic for Nagy throughout his three seasons. Last year, he gave up play-calling after a three-game losing streak dropped the Bears to 5-4, with the offense 29th in total yards and last in rushing.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor took over, and the Bears rallied late in the season with Trubisky at quarterback — but most of that success came against defenses ranked in the bottom five in the NFL.

Nagy will resume play-calling duties in 2021, hoping that he learned from the experience of not calling plays.

“When you struggle like we did last year, and you go through that funk . . . it’s not fair to just look at the players and say, ‘Ah, the players aren’t doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s not the play calls,’ ” Nagy said. “We were in a funk, and it needed to be done.

“At the same time, I do have a lot of belief and confidence in myself and the way that I’ve learned when to call plays at certain times — personnel-wise, formations, motion shifts. All that stuff.”

The 2021 season will be all about — or mostly about — Nagy’s ability to learn from his mistakes. Play-calling is a big part of that. But not the only part.

“Even schematically, it’s relying on trusting in your coaches that are in between series of plays in the game,” Nagy said. “I think we got better. We got better in communicating on the sideline in between series. So now this year, I need to be able to do that and use that. And then communicate with the quarterbacks and make sure we’re all seeing the same stuff.”

It remains to be seen if Justin Fields has a magic wand that energizes the Bears’ offense. Until then, with Andy Dalton starting, the Bears are in the same situation they were in last year with Trubisky and Nick Foles — it’s up to Nagy to build an offense that gives his quarterback the best chance to succeed. Now we’ll see how well he learns.

“I look forward to just trying to not talk about it, but show it and do it,” Nagy said. “It just feels easier being my fourth year now. I know where I struggled. I know where I’ve been stronger at things. And now I get a fresh, clean slate to get in there and try to do it. I accept that, and I look forward to that.”