The Bears’ 30-27 loss at the Giants was the end of the third quarter of the 2018 season. It also was the beginning of the what projects to be a defining stretch of games for Matt Nagy and his Bears, for the 2018 season, the 2019 season and beyond.
What the Bears (8-4) lost on Sunday, besides their five-game win streak, was a chance to all but finish off the NFC North, with the Lions (4-8), Packers (4-7-1) and Vikings (6-5-1) all losing. The Bears were admittedly lackadaisical coming in, then ultimately paid for it by failing to close out a very beatable Giants (4-8) team despite leading at halftime and being in position to drive for a final winning touchdown.
“It hurts and you never like to lose,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “Shoot, half the guys in this [locker] room don’t even like to lose at checkers. But what I will say is this: we know who we are. We know what level we can play at and we are going to come out next Sunday and do what we do.”
That all sounds good. But what plays out from this point represents a critical stage in the formation of the Bears under Nagy. Because in multiple recent situations similar to this one, the Bears failed to close out seasons that lay within their reach. They never fully recovered, and nor did their head coaches.
Sunday’s myriad trick plays notwithstanding – that’s the sizzle, not the steak – it’s all about closing, and Sunday was not a positive occasion in that regard. More on that shortly.
Close the fourth quarter strong – or else
Nagy’s predecessors have fared poorly in their first seasons in eerily similar final-quarter situations – eerie because those coaches had taken over poor Bears teams which ostensibly should have had no business being as close to good things as they were in their coaches’ inaugural Chicago seasons:
Dave Wannstedt, 1993: Bears begin final quarter of the season 7-5, lose four straight; Wannstedt reaches postseason a year later, never again.
Marc Trestman, 2013: Bears reach 8-6, lose final two with playoffs within reach; Trestman fired a year later.
John Fox, 2015: Bears at 5-6 lose next two (49ers, Redskins) on kicking issues, never recover.
Failing to close out fourth quarters of seasons cost Lovie Smith his job after losing three of his final four from 7-5 in 2011, and losing two (to Green Bay and Minnesota) of his final four in 2012.
Nagy is none of those guys. But how his first Bears team finishes this season, from the best starting point (8-4) of any of the aforementioned, contributes toward establishing the character and culture the way he and GM Ryan Pace envisioned when they got together in this whole thing.
Not an impressive start vs. Giants
Somewhat concerning is the fact that the Bears this season have gone into four fourth quarters trailing – including Sunday – and were able to come back for wins just twice. No one expects Mitchell Trubisky or Chase Daniel to be Aaron Rodgers, but closing is a bar that has to be cleared or Nagy isn’t likely to achieve a whole lot more than Wannstedt, Trestman or Fox.
Against the Giants, “closing” took the form of coming up with critical plays in the final minutes by all three phases: defense (a stop to force a field goal with less than two minutes remaining in regulation); special teams (a Cody Parkey field goal followed by recovering an onside kick); and the offense (turning that recovery into a tying touchdown).
Not closing took the form of failing to put the Giants away early after a Kyle Fuller interception that set the offense up near midfield, Five plays and a 15-yard roughness penalty on the Giants were negated by a second Daniel interception. It took the form of failing to drive for a tying field goal or winning touchdown in overtime. It took the form of defensively allowing scores just before and after halftime.
Failing to close took the form of simply sloppy play, as in fumbling six times (four by Daniel), or wide receiver Josh Bellamy drawing two pre-snap penalties for not being set in time. Maybe the wet conditions figured in there somewhere, but dropping that many footballs, even if the Bears lost only one.
Nagy is an intense individual but rarely vents with vitriol at players during games; he erupted twice on Sunday at his offense. The exact contents of his rants remain sideline confidential, but coaches typically become most incensed at lack of focus or intensity.
“We came out lackadaisical,” conceded running back Tarik Cohen, “so we have to change that around.”
Nagy didn’t appear to stay mad: “I absolutely love this team. I love where we’re at. This is life... are you going to sulk or are you going to pick it back up?”
Consider that an operating theme for this upcoming defining quarter-season.