Matt Nagy brings critical QB-action skillset to Bears where it is needed most

Matt Nagy brings critical QB-action skillset to Bears where it is needed most

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.”

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?


Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.