What the Bears are getting in Matt Nagy as a head coach is a colossal unknown. He’s a first-time head coach, promoted to a job he’s never done before. My own experience: You can evaluate a rookie draft class in less time than you can a rookie head coach. It didn’t take all that long to watch Leonard Floyd in a training camp pass-pro drill to know the young man could rush the passer (and that Shea McClellin or Dan Bazuin couldn’t), or that Cody Whitehair was an NFL offensive lineman (and that Josh Beekman or Bob Sapp weren’t).
Usually it takes a little longer with a head coach. Not always, of course. More than a few observers knew very, very early on that Marc Trestman was not an NFL head coach, that there was a weird….something….going on there, which players, particularly veteran players, most emphatically knew from the first time Trestman met with the assembled team. Conversely, the underlying assumption with John Fox, given his coaching curriculum vitae, was going to work out in the form of a turnaround, even after a first-year collapse. And Fox was a 27-year veteran.
All of which should temper expectations for Nagy as he takes over leading a team that has lost 45 games in the last four seasons and is the only NFC North team without a winning season in five years.
But all that aside: To invoke a favorite dramatic/theatric bromide: Action is character. And for the Bears right now, that projects as a huge deal.
The reason is the whole quarterback thing. Nagy hasn’t been a head coach and he was only a full offensive coordinator for one year (he was co-coordinator with Brad Childress in 2016). But he has been apprenticing under Andy Reid his entire NFL career, and Andy Reid knows quarterbacks. And they win for him.
No matter how they’re acquired. Reid was involved in drafting Donovan McNabb, signed a post-prison Michael Vick, and traded for a previously pedestrian Alex Smith, who not coincidentally had the best year of his 12-year NFL career last season with Nagy as offensive coordinator and calling plays the last part of the season. Nagy didn’t fully “coach” McNabb or Vick (he was a lower-level staff assistant), but he certainly did Smith, and he was intimately involved in Reid and the Chiefs trading up last draft for Pat Mahomes.
Nagy also spent an entire pre-draft day with Mitch Trubisky and came thoroughly impressed, to the point of holding onto his notes on Trubisky, which he just happened to have handy when he interviewed with general manager Ryan Pace.
The point is that Nagy knows both how to coach quarterbacks and has been around a great NFL coach (Reid) who has an elite record of success with veteran quarterbacks and took McNabb from a pup to arguable Hall of Fame levels.
Most important, Nagy was very clear and didn’t hesitate identifying the single most important element in quarterback success, beyond the obvious of leadership.
“They all had a coach that believed in them,” Nagy said on Tuesday. “I’m not saying that that’s the case [in Chicago, with quarterback problems that have spiraled to epic lows the past several years]. But what I’m saying is that those guys that you just named [had that].
“That’s why there’s a common theme with coach Reid. He has a method to his madness of just showing those guys that he believes in them. And then what happens is, they understand that he believes in him and they work on their weaknesses and they try to get better, they ask questions, they all have different ways of learning.
“But words don’t do it justice. You have to come in and sit in the QB room and listen to how coach teaches to those guys and the questions that he asks. He doesn’t do all the talking. He lets them give feedback. So over time that grows and it makes them become a better player and then in turn over the next 10 to 20 years, you get results like that.”
That’s the coaching mindset and overriding methodology Nagy brings to the Bears and Trubisky, who was at Halas Hall Tuesday to meet his mentor (actually, his real “mentor” was Mentor High School, but you knew that).
Being a lower-level assistant to a legendary coach and dealing with established veterans is one thing, though. But Nagy, not coincidentally, comes with some very recent developmental work with a rookie in Mahomes.
It is the composite experience – vets and a rookie – that makes Nagy intriguing as a quarterback-whisperer-in-waiting.
“[Mahomes] made me adapt as a coach,” Nagy said. “I had Alex in 2013, ‘14, ‘15, ‘16 and now ‘17. So what happens is we do different things with the playbook, we tweak different things with his footwork, I know how he works, he knows how I work. I might tell him he’s doing something because we had that relationship.
“Whereas with Patrick it was different. He was coming in as a rookie but that was good. It kind of brought that out of me where it was, listen, he doesn’t know the concept of this play – ‘flanker-drag-Texas-Y’ – he doesn’t understand that, whereas Alex can do it in his sleep. So it made me a better person and made me a better coach.”
Whether that plays out at the head-coach level is what the next couple of years will be about, and it will take that kind of time, if only because quarterbacks are perhaps the one position where it actually can be difficult to genuinely assess right from the get-go. Trubisky had the look of having “it” as a quarterback from the outset of training camp, but then, so did Jay Cutler once.
But Nagy was a quarterback, in high school, college and the Arena league. He DOES know how a quarterback thinks, sees, develops, all the rest. And he knows what’s required of himself as well as of his young quarterback.
“Trust, No. 1,” Nagy said. “He has to trust the quarterback coach. And the quarterback coach has to trust him. That goes for the system and the philosophy.
“Honesty. You have to be able to be honest. The quarterback needs to know when he’s doing something wrong or how he can get better. The coach needs to understanding when he’s not teaching something the right way or he sees something wrong, he’s got to be able to admit to his mistakes.
“The other part would be – and sometimes this gets neglected – is over-communication. That’s all part of the honesty and trust, which you’ve got to communicate. And when you fail to communicate, there’s gray areas. And when there’s gray areas, then bad things happen.”