NAGY AT A CROSSROADS
Bears aren’t meeting expectations, and the fan base is angry. How will the coach respond?
verb settle or find a solution to (a problem or contentious matter) “He will try to resolve the issues plaguing his underachieving team”
noun firm determination to do something “If nothing else, he has shown great resolve during a time of deep distress”
Matt Nagy was called to the witness stand Monday afternoon, a co-defendant in the trial that has ruined Chicago’s fall. The people versus the 2019 Bears season.
Specifically, Nagy was summoned to piece together the events of the afternoon of October 27th. On that otherwise beautiful day at Soldier Field, Nagy’s Bears had battered the home crowd’s spirit while inflicting damage to their own playoff chances.
They lost 17-16 to a below-average Chargers team thanks in big part to massive red-zone struggles, two fourthquarter turnovers and a game-deciding field goal that was pulled far enough left to turn a must-have win into a perplexing loss.
Break out the yellow tape. Call the detectives.
Nagy had already been interrogated Sunday afternoon, pressed on his play-calling and decision-making as well as the continued failures of his offense. A day later, he was cross-examined in greater detail, presented with evidence of his team’s transgressions and asked to explain it all.
That conservative and debatable kneel-down with 43 seconds remaining that prevented the Bears from shortening Eddy Pineiro’s last-second 41-yard field-goal attempt?
“Zero reflection on saying I wish I would’ve done something (different) there,” Nagy said. “I would do it again a thousand times.”
That second-quarter first-and-goal slant throw to tight end Adam Shaheen from the 1-yard line? Might it have been better as a fade?
“It’s a possibility,” Nagy said.
And what about the need for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to become much more reliable at making plays?
“There’s that balance of (patience),” Nagy said, “and when is it time where you want to start seeing that type of stuff. I think we’re getting close to that (time). And he knows that.”
For nearly a half-hour, Nagy offered all he could. He spoke with candor, named names when necessary and accepted responsibility for the team’s three-game losing streak.
Even when the court offered him a chance to step down from the stand, the Bears coach waved off the bailiff and volunteered to take as many questions as there were. He went on for 10 more minutes and 14 more questions, vacillating from excitable to confident to agitated to determined.
Then he ended Monday’s session with a blast of pure Nagy energy, proclaiming this is exactly the kind of adversity he relishes.
“You find out who’s real and who’s not real,” Nagy said. “That’s what I love about this. For me, I can handle things myself. I have that in me.”
The 41-year-old Nagy, in his second season as an NFL head coach, made clear he won’t hide from the ambush of criticism or the onslaught of pessimism.
“I kind of enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t want to lose, but it’s like: ‘Hey, let’s go. You’re going to be at a point now where you’re going to test us? Let’s roll. Let’s stick together. Let’s freaking go.’ ”
The resolve in Nagy’s tone was undeniable, his competitive spirit impressive. Still, as the 2019 season has proved, that counts for only so much. Better results are needed. And soon.
So as Nagy attempts to rev his team back up with his personal blend of purpose, persistence and positivity, it remains to be seen whether the Bears will follow like William Wallace’s men in the climactic scene of “Braveheart” or whether it will be more like one of those viral trust fall failures.
Let’s be clear. Nagy has never faced anything quite like this in his football life. Very little in his time as quarterback at the University of Delaware or with the New York Dragons and Columbus Destroyers in the Arena League or during assistant coaching stints with the Eagles and Chiefs could possibly expose him to the kind of pressure and vitriol that accompanies unfulfilled expectations in Chicago.
In a season in which they opened training camp with serious internal talk of winning the Super Bowl, the Bears just went 0-for-October. That hasn’t happened since 2002, when they followed a surprising division championship with a 4-12 free fall.
This city is too scarred by letdowns like that not to have justifiable suspicions it has been bamboozled again.
Here in Week 9, the Bears are in last place in the NFC North and 2½ games behind in the wild-card hunt. Barring a major turnaround, they are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the 11th time in 13 seasons. In the post-Mike Ditka era, they have made consecutive playoff appearances only once, in 2005 and ’06.
None of that history is all that relevant to Nagy, except that it changes the climate in which he must problem-solve. The angry masses are assembling, their displeasure amplifying.
If the Target in Lake Forest has a sale on earmuffs and blinders, Nagy would be wise to fill a shopping cart or two. The outside outrage isn’t getting any quieter, with the harshest of doubters lambasting Nagy’s play-calling, game management and a demeanor some perceive as cocksure.
After the 36-25 loss to the Saints in Week 7, Nagy acknowledged that time is of the essence and that a stay-the-course approach, emphasizing patience over urgency, can be dangerous.
“We’ve got to figure out how we turn this thing around,” he said. “But you run out of time too. You know? So every week that goes by? Every week matters.”
After Sunday’s meltdown against the Chargers, Nagy again acknowledged the big-picture consequences.
“With every one that you keep losing, human nature is that it hurts all of us,” he said. “It hurts everybody involved, everybody who likes the Chicago Bears or everybody who plays for the Bears. It pulls at you. I just need to make sure that I lead them the right way.”
Nagy often references his time with the 2015 Chiefs, a group that went 42 days between its first and second victories but somehow rallied to turn a 1-5 start into an 11-5 playoff season.
“I’ve seen how it goes,” Nagy said, “when you’re resilient and you share resolve as a team and as a family. We understand that everybody outside (is upset). It’s a frustrating time right now. You have to accept that. We accept it. But we can’t dwell on it. We need to make sure we focus on — as rough as three losses in a row is — how do we rally?”
‘The same energy’
Internally at Halas Hall, there remains steadfast belief that Nagy is the right leader to guide this team out of the current storms. From the day Nagy was hired, general manager Ryan Pace has openly admired the coach’s natural leadership skills and knack for knowing how to press the right buttons during a season’s ups and downs.
Nagy arrived in Chicago with a welldeserved reputation for having terrific people skills, a combination of charisma, confidence and openness that allows him to connect easily with players and coaches.
His detail-oriented nature, creativity and collaborative approach were also offered up as strengths that would help unlock the offense.
And to be fair, his 15-8 record is the best mark by a Bears coach through 23 games in the Super Bowl era. Keep in mind, in the half-decade before Nagy’s arrival, the Bears lost two-thirds of their games, posted four consecutive last-place finishes and enjoyed only one three-game winning streak — a 3-0 start to Marc Trestman’s first season in 2013.
Nagy hasn’t even reached the halfway point of his second season and already has led the Bears on winning streaks of three, four, five and three games.
In 2018, Nagy’s spirited nature and think-big belief fueled the Bears’ breakthrough and all the peripheral fun that came with it. The successful gadget plays. The freedom to concoct creative celebrations. The vibe inside Club Dub.
Now his leadership is being tested in a much different way, with a struggling team coping with unmet expectations and widespread weaknesses in a city that can’t take it anymore.
To that end, left tackle Charles Leno has appreciated Nagy’s consistency.
“Every day he’s coming in with the same energy,” Leno said. “He’s not fazed or shook about this. He’s the same person every day, and that’s the type of people we have in this locker room.”
Added receiver Allen Robinson: “Coach Nagy has experience being around good teams and experience being in tough situations. He’s been around the league for a while. He understands how to change a mood or change that tone. And being pessimistic doesn’t get things done.”
Again, though, all of that counts for only so much when several of the biggest reasons Nagy was hired — enlivening the offense and developing franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky at the top of the list — haven’t produced successful results this season.
In seven games, the Bears offense has topped 300 total yards only once (388 against the Chargers) and scored at least 20 points only twice (24 against the Redskins and 21 versus the Raiders).
Trubisky, meanwhile, ranks 28th in the league in passer rating (81.4) while averaging a paltry 8.7 yards per completion.
Each week, it seems, Trubisky offers more damning evidence that he is too erratic and too easily rattled to attain high-level success. Those struggles, fairly or not, reflect on the quarterback-minded coach who was brought in to bring out the best in Trubisky.
Nagy has been openly critical of Trubisky’s errors all season but has also had to simultaneously strike an optimistic and reassuring tone. After Sunday’s loss, for example, he highlighted the five completions Trubisky hit for more than 20 yards against the Chargers and celebrated the quarterback’s clutch 11-yard scramble to set up the final field-goal attempt.
“In a crucial time, he made plays,” Nagy said. “And you’re seeing a trend with that. When the times matter, he’s stepping up in those moments at the end of the game.”
That argument likely won’t sway most of the Chicago area’s 9.5 million jurors, who will quickly interject that that final moment of Mitch magic came only after he committed two inexcusable fourth-quarter turnovers and missed an open deep shot to Taylor Gabriel with 9:39 remaining that even Nagy acknowledged was a gamewinning play unfulfilled.
“You hit that touchdown? With the way our defense is playing, you hit that and it’s close to being the dagger,” Nagy said.
Instead, Trubisky misfired, fumbled on the next play and the Chargers converted those gifts into a go-ahead touchdown drive.
The Bears’ NFC North title and Nagy’s NFL Coach of the Year award in 2018 shouldn’t be discarded as meaningless. They stand as reminders of how rapid and remarkable last season’s re-emergence truly was.
But those accomplishments mean little to this current plight. And right now, Nagy must respond to demands that he show immediate and significant growth.
That starts with earning credibility as a game-planner and play-caller, categories in which it is fair to say Nagy remains unproven. He has grappled with how to commit to the running game, how to find balance on offense with a unit that enters November still seeking an identity.
Nagy also must prove he is trustworthy as a game overseer, that he is capable of making the proper calls when quick, shrewd decisions are needed in critical moments.
To that end, his clock management at the end of the first half last week is open for criticism. At the end of a stretch in which the Bears had 12 goal-to-go snaps from inside the Chargers 10 and couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, the offense wheezed its way to the intermission.
Nagy chose to run on second down from the 1 with 25 seconds left. David Montgomery was stuffed for no gain, and a spike was needed to kill the clock with 1 second left.
Asked about that sequence, Nagy was self-critical, admitting he wished he had called a different play.
“I’m good with the run,” he said. “I don’t like the run I called.”
He was pressed on why he didn’t throw there. An incompletion would have allowed for one more pass instead of a spike before a half-ending field-goal attempt.
“That’s a very valid point,” Nagy said. “Without a doubt.”
At best, that response was a confession of clock mismanagement. At worst, it was an indirect sign that the coaching staff’s trust in Trubisky is shot.
Then, of course, there was that fateful and much-talked-about kneel-down in the final minute, with Nagy so worried that his offense was in danger of fumbling, taking a significant loss or committing a penalty that he remains stubbornly dug in against anyone who suggests he should’ve attempted to gain a few more yards.
“I’m very, very comfortable knowing what I did,” Nagy said. “I’m very, very comfortable knowing that if I’m in that exact situation again, at that same yard line, I’m going to do the same thing. You got me?”
As for what went wrong with the Bears not using their planned kneel-down and final timeout to position the ball exactly where kicker Eddy Pineiro wanted it? Nagy took the witness stand again Wednesday and talked in circles about the “clear communication process” the Bears have for those situations.
He did not, however, explain why the Bears didn’t make the extra effort to get the ball to where Pineiro wanted it, insinuating only that he made an executive decision that his kicker should be fully capable of connecting from that distance.
“The communication between all of us was that from 41 yards, he was going to make that kick,” Nagy said. “And he didn’t. We understand that. And he feels as bad as anybody. Whether it’s on the right hash, the middle or the left hash, he wants to make it and he didn’t.”
Before Nagy stepped down, the facepalm emoji was trending across Chicago.
‘We’ve got this, Coach’
The Bears now head to Philadelphia this weekend for their latest opportunity to bounce back. The last time Nagy’s team boarded a flight at O’Hare, it was 3-1, coming off two thoroughly dominant victories and destined for London to begin a relatively friendly three-game October schedule. At that point, it seemed even average play from all three phases could propel the Bears into November at 5-2.
But then October happened and life came at this team fast, and now Nagy has his first major crisis to manage.
Asked Wednesday what within this team is sturdy enough to provide stability through the tumult, Nagy pointed to the focused and solution-oriented mindset he feels from many of his players.
“I have players coming up to me who are telling me, ‘We’ve got this, Coach,’ ” Nagy said. “That’s all I really need, which is cool.”
Robinson, for one, remains a full believer in the potential of Nagy’s offense.
“I think I can speak for a lot of people. We’re in position to make plays,” the veteran receiver said. “Plays just aren’t being made. We just have to execute better.
“I don’t ever feel like I’m not in position to make plays. The things that we prep throughout the course of a week for certain situations in the game, we’re getting the looks and the opportunities we want. We just have to execute.”
This current three-game skid is uncharted territory for Nagy in this role and in this city. He understands it’s a different kind of adversity.
“This is the way I look at it: This is a learning tool for all of us,” he said. “For myself included. Big time. So how do we use this to make us tougher for the rest of the season and the rest of the way?”
Nagy has always believed in positive energy, in a forward-looking, chin-up approach. He routinely reflects on his first game as Bears coach, a 24-23 loss to the Packers in which his team blew a 20-point second-half lead. Nagy was convinced immediately that the Bears would be able to convert that heartbreak into motivational fuel and resolve. Just as he is convinced now that these tough times won’t last.
“Somewhere,” he said Wednesday, “this is going to make us better. I just don’t know when it’s going to come. I believe that the players coming up to me and telling me, ‘Coach, we’ve got this. We’re good. We feel good,’ I love that. And that keeps me going.”
Matt Nagy paces the sideline in during the Bears’ upset loss to the Raiders on Oct. 6 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.