NAGY AT A CROSSROADS

Bears aren’t meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, and the fan base is an­gry. How will the coach re­spond?

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Wiederer

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.

The haunt­ing

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.”

Learn­ing curve

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.

Ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion

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.”

JOSE M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

JOSE M. OSORIO/ CHICAGO TRI­BUNE SOURCE: OX­FORD DIC­TIO­NARY

CHRIS SWEDA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Matt Nagy paces the side­line in dur­ing the Bears’ up­set loss to the Raiders on Oct. 6 at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur Sta­dium in Lon­don.

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