The great unknown: Matt Nagy ready for Bears debut with QB Mitch Trubisky
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Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” column appears in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Matt Nagy can’t stay away from his quarterbacks. He reminds himself that he needs to as the Bears’ head coach — that every player in every position should see and hear him.
But the Bears’ quarterbacks meeting room — located in the middle of a long hallway at Halas Hall just after the wide receivers’ room and before the defensive position rooms — beckons him. Quarterback is part of Nagy’s identity as a player, coach and person. It’s in his blood.
Quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray, who have known Nagy since he was a young QB coach for the Chiefs in 2013, see a coach who’s naturally drawn to the position that matters most.
“He’ll step in because he misses it,” said Daniel, the veteran backup. “He misses the quarterback aspect of it, but he’s got a whole other level of things to think about out there. It’s been fun, though, when he stops in. He’ll get back into the nitty-gritty of quarterbacking with us.”
Sunday night is Nagy’s regular-season debut as a head coach. For the first time, everyone will get to see what he has built for quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Fittingly, his debut comes against the rival Packers and one of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation, Aaron Rodgers.
The great unknown
Eighteen passes. With five preseason games at his disposal, that’s all Nagy decided was needed from Trubisky, who’s entering his second season but his first in Nagy’s offense. Trubisky completed 11 of the 18 passes for 94 yards, a touchdown and a preseason-ending interception in Denver on Aug. 18.
By sitting Trubisky and other starters against the Chiefs on Aug. 25, Nagy opened himself up to additional criticism. If Trubisky and the rest of his offense flounder at Lambeau Field, his choices will be questioned.
But Nagy has made all decisions with an unflinching confidence. A “no regrets” mantra has taken hold at Halas Hall. Nagy is not his mentor, Andy Reid, who fielded the Chiefs’ starters against the Bears’ top reserves at Soldier Field.
“He’s his own guy,” said Bray, who’s on the practice squad. “He’s turned this into his thing. It’s not Coach Reid’s team. This is Matt’s team. He’s done a good job of doing it his own way.
That has created some big unknowns for the Packers in the opener. They can scour tapes of the Chiefs (with Nagy) and Eagles (with coach Doug Pederson) , but the Bears still are a different story. The Bears have a wild card in offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, an expert in run-pass options after eight years in Oregon’s “blur” offense.
During a conference call last week, coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers were focusing on Nagy and Helfrich’s “utilization” of their players. He estimated that 30 to 35 percent of Week 1 matchups involve looks a team hasn’t been able to scout yet.
Nagy might double that. Receiver Allen Robinson hasn’t played in a year; Anthony Miller is a rookie. Tight end Trey Burton is a full-time starter for the first time. And rumor has it running back Tarik Cohen will play everywhere.
The truth is, no one besides the Bears knows what to expect from Nagy’s offense.
Trubisky will have his struggles this season, to be sure, but the Bears’ offensive brain trust believes it’s building an attack that’ll work well now and in the long run. Nagy said the blending of run-pass options with Reid’s West Coast system has formed a trust between him, quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone and Helfrich. Ragone is the lone offensive holdover from former coach John Fox’s staff.
“I know where we’re at,” Nagy said. “I feel good about that.”
Many moments with Mitch
The in-between moments of the day — during special-teams work, a water break, a walk back to the locker room or a passing in the lunch room — are where Nagy and Trubisky catch up.
“He’s just always constantly talking to Mitch about what he sees,” Daniel said. “He’s his play-caller. It’s the head coach and quarterback. They want to see things the same exact way.
“[Nagy is] always talking to us. ‘Are you seeing this the same way, or how are you seeing this?’ ‘Do we need to add more?’ ‘Do we need to take away more?’ It’s been a good relationship.”
In their partnership, Nagy, a former college and Arena Football League quarterback, understands exactly what Trubisky is facing and feeling.
“He knows what we go through on a daily basis,” Bray said. “He knows what it’s like to stand in that pocket when everyone is coming at you and having to throw the ball. Everything that goes with playing the QB position, he understands.”
Trubisky described facing Rodgers for the first time as “a cool opportunity” and said opening at Lambeau will be a special night for him.
“It creates a great opportunity for this team,” he said.
Win or lose, Nagy knows one game doesn’t mean much in the long term. It’s one game in a long season that kicks off what the Bears hope will be a long stay for Nagy. And Nagy has said since he was hired that it will take Trubisky years to handle everything on offense.
But win or lose, Sunday also is the start of what the Bears believe to be their turnaround. After practice Friday, Nagy conceded it’s a tone-setter.
It’s why his visits to the Bears’ quarterbacks room is vitally important.
“He’s been pretty chill — just been focused on the task at hand,” Daniel said. “Obviously, it’s big for him because it’s his first game ever as a head coach. We’d love to come away with a win against a rival like Green Bay.”
From timeouts to challenges to scheduling, the Bears’ five-game preseason helped Matt Nagy get a feel for his entire game-day operation as a head coach.
But offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich also got a feel for what it’s like to coach in the NFL. The five exhibitions were his first games at the pro level after spending his entire coaching career in the college ranks, including eight years at Oregon.
“The games were a lot faster, a lot less plays,” Helfrich said. “Just the lapsed time of the game is a lot different. But it’s football. It comes down to the same stuff.”
Still, Helfrich needed to experience the differences.
“I love preseason games,” he said. “They’re a little weird when the result isn’t the most necessary measure of everything. But we got a ton done. We experimented with a bunch. I think we found out what some guys are, [what] we have 100 percent confidence in, and some of the other stuff we may have thrown by the wayside. We covered a lot of ground.”
Keeping Cohen busy
Nagy has big plans for running back Tarik Cohen in his offense. But those plans won’t limit Cohen on special teams. He’s still the Bears’ best returner.
“He can change the game,” special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “And he’s an intelligent football player.”
Last year, Cohen returned 26 kickoffs for 583 yards and 29 punts for 272 yards and a 61-yard touchdown. He also had 15 fair catches.
The Bears view punts, in particular, as another opportunity to get the ball in his hands.
Tabor compared Cohen to Chiefs star Tyreek Hill, who handled punts and kickoffs as a rookie but only fielded punts last season as he developed into a game-changing Pro Bowl receiver for Nagy’s Chiefs offense.
“[The punt return is] a dynamic play,” Tabor said. “It’s a player [Cohen] that’s quick and fast out in open space. It’s another opportunity for him.”
Q: Why not start James Daniels?
A: Why not trust offensive line coach Harry Hiestand? The Bears’ hiring of Hiestand was roundly praised for a reason: He’s one of the best offensive line coaches in football. If he doesn’t think Daniels, who’s only 20, is ready to start as a rookie, then Daniels isn’t ready. Daniels should take over at left guard for Eric Kush in time, but that’s time that Daniels needs when it comes to understanding blitz pickups and more. Bears coach Matt Nagy trusts Hiestand, and fans should, too. “Harry has a good feel for him, has a real good relationship with him,” Nagy said.
Q: With the Bears not showing much of their offense in the preseason, how confident are you in receiver Allen Robinson to return to his pre-injury form?
A: Good question. The Bears have been very mindful of Robinson’s recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. But he’s now a year removed from the injury. The best play I saw from Robinson came during the Bears’ joint practices against the Broncos. He made a leaping catch over a defender in the corner end zone during a red-zone drill against the Broncos starters — a good sign.
Q: It feels like Taylor Gabriel is rarely discussed. Though he’s our No. 2 receiver, where do you think he’ll rank in terms of targets?
A: Fantasy football question? Got it. Gabriel hasn’t been discussed much because he missed part of the preseason with a foot injury. But Nagy still has a big role for him. That said, Trey Burton, the all-important “U” tight end in Nagy’s offense, should lead the Bears in targets this season. Gabriel, Robinson, receiver Tarik Cohen and running back Tarik Cohen will see plenty of action, and they all should produce in some capacity. But there’s only one ball for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to spread around.