It’s been 20 years since Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor was a head coach. And it was a much different situation.
“That was a long time ago. It was a winning season. We got let go at the University of Missouri as a staff and I went to be a small college head coach,” Tabor said. “I learned things from learning how to line the field, to ordering the equipment, to leading a team and handling different situations and it was a great experience.”
That was at Culver-Stockton, an NAIA school in Canton, Missouri, in 2001. The team went 6-5 in Tabor’s one year as head coach before he went back to Division-I football as an assistant at Utah State.
"I got a little taste of that and you know if something ever happens down the road you always feel like you've been prepared by what's happened in the past,” Tabor said.
Well, something happened this week when Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy tested positive for COVID-19 and was stuck at home trying to coach his team virtually. All week, Tabor knew there was a possibility he would be the acting head coach against the 49ers, but didn’t know for sure until Nagy was unable to test negative Saturday morning, ruling him out for Sunday’s game.
The Bears lost Tabor’s debut as an acting NFL head coach, 33-22, but it was very interesting watching him take over the show for a day, especially considering the majority of the fan base has been clamoring for a new head coach since 2020.
Here’s an inside look at Tabor’s day as head coach, including the big decisions he had to make during the game:
Tabor received confirmation Saturday that he would lead the team on game day and spoke with Nagy at length both Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
“He said you’ll put your spin on it. You’ll know what to do. You’ll have the speed of the game,” Tabor said. “I will say this: there’s analytics, and you do listen to analytics and those types of things, but at the end of the day, there’s a gut feeling. You’re going down a river and you have to figure out, are we gonna go right or are we gonna go left? There’s a lot of things that go into that that you can’t come up with the answer on Wednesday or Thursday.”
Nagy was involved in trying to find answers earlier in the week, but he was forced to participate in meetings virtually and Tabor led the practices and in-person meetings at Halas Hall. The special teams coordinator said he was “extremely comfortable” leading the team during Sunday’s game.
“In the special teams world, I have a team meeting each and every day, so leading players, that’s what a special teams coordinator is supposed to do,” Tabor said. “This just happened that you picked up the offense and the defense with it.”
What was different during the game?
A big reason why Tabor was chosen by Nagy as the acting head coach is because special teams coordinators are in constant communication with the head coach during the game and work with the entire roster. A special teams coordinator has to constantly be aware of what’s happening on the field — whether on offense or defense — because he has to prepare the next special teams unit to take the field. Situationally, they are very in-tune with the game at all times.
Because Tabor also had to make head coaching decisions Sunday, a lot of the special teams organization on the sideline fell on assistant special teams coach Brian Ginn.
“My assistant took a major role in the special teams area,” Tabor said. “I was still involved, and we’re still on the same channel and just always trying to be four or five plays ahead during the game. I knew once you got into the game, in the flow of the game, it would lead you to answers that you want to do. Do you want to go for it here? Or just go ahead and take your points here? Those type of things, you know. I didn’t find it hard.”
Key in-game decisions
Like any game, Tabor faced a few key decisions throughout the game as the acting head coach. Here are a few:
Coin toss: Bears win and elect to defer
A week after Nagy opted to take the ball and it backfired against the Buccaneers, Tabor opted to defer. That gave the Bears an opportunity to double-dip on possessions before and after halftime (strategy/importance described here), but they failed to capitalize and only came out of it with a 6-3 edge in points during the entire sequence. The Bears settled for two field goals on their two possessions before/after the half, and allowed a 50-yard pass to Deebo Samuel which resulted in a 49ers field goal right before halftime.
“That was disappointing, because I always call it 2-for-1, and that's what we were trying to play right there, 2-for-1,” Tabor said. “Obviously you want to score with not a lot of time left, zero, ideally, and then you get the ball out and you try to score there and get 2-for-1. We kicked the field goal and they finished off with a field goal. Kind of on par right there.”
3Q: 49ers with a 2nd & goal at Bears’ 2-yard-line — Bears lead 16-9
Moments after allowing a back-breaking 83-yard catch-and-run to Samuel on 3rd-and-19, the Bears still had the opportunity to hold the 49ers to a field goal. On a crucial second down play, the Bears only had 10 men on the field, but Tabor elected not to call timeout. A little play fake, Garoppolo targeted wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in a 1-on-1 matchup, but Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson broke up the pass.
"We did have 10 men on at that time,” Tabor said. “I knew it was gonna be a tight ballgame, and in the second half, those timeouts are gold bricks to me. Sometimes you gotta weigh where they’re at on the field and roll the dice. I elected to roll the dice.”
It worked, but you can certainly argue the situation warranted a timeout. The 83-yard completion to Samuel on 3rd-and-19 was the biggest play in the game. On the heels of that gut-wrenching play, the Bears desperately had to keep the 49ers out of the end zone to take back the momentum. It's hard to play with 10 defenders on any crucial play, especially at the goal line. Had it been third or fourth down, it would have been inexcusable not to call timeout.
In this case, the gamble paid off. Unfortunately, Garoppolo ran the ball in for a two-yard touchdown on the very next play to tie the game.
4Q: 4th & 1 at 49ers’ 22-yard-line, Bears trailing 23-16
After a short five-yard pass to Allen Robinson on 3rd-&-6, Tabor didn’t hesitate going for it on fourth down, immediately signaling the move.
“I knew if it was the right down and distance we were gonna go for it, yes,” Tabor said.
The acting head coach mentioned “gut feelings,” but in this case, the analytics fully supported the decision too.
The play call actually didn’t work, as the Bears tried to get the ball to Khalil Herbert in the flat. It was covered and the defensive end got upfield, blocking Fields on the boot. At that moment, Next Gen Stats figured there was a 2.3 percent chance of a touchdown scored on the play, but Fields didn’t care. He made a ridiculous move to reverse field and made a handful of 49ers miss en route to the end zone.
Next play: Go for two?
Trailing by one after the touchdown, Tabor could have opted to go for two to take the lead, but there was still 9:43 left in the game, so it was not surprising that he didn’t.
“I did not (consider going for two). We were going to go ahead and tie it up right there,” he said.
It was hardly a controversial decision, but Cairo Santos missed his first extra point since last season, and it seemed like the momentum shifted back towards the 49ers after such a monumental play by Fields. Tabor disagreed though.
“I didn’t think so. At the end of the day, what we said in the huddle was guys we’re going to have to have a field goal to win it,” Tabor said. “So whether the game was tied or you’re down one, we’re still going to need another kick, and that’s football right there. He needs to make that, but at the same time we were going to have to make another play in order to win the football game.”
The defense couldn’t get a stop though and the 49ers ended up scoring 10 unanswered points to secure the win.
What was Nagy’s influence?
Nagy was not permitted to communicate with the team/coaches/sideline during the game, per NFL rules. He played a big role in the preparation — albeit virtually — during the week, but Sunday was Tabor’s show.
“We relayed Coach’s message all throughout the week. Coach is in all the meetings. Honestly, the difference was, he just wasn’t there in person. But he was in the meetings,” Tabor said. “I visited with Coach last night, I visited with him this morning. I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win for him. That hurts.”
Fields said Nagy sent him a “long” and “inspirational” text message Sunday morning before the game. He also said Nagy "texted me after the game and I didn’t see what he said yet.”
The head coach obviously had his usual fingerprints on the offensive game plan, but once the game started, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had full control of the play calling without any input from Nagy on the headset.
Still, questions like why Damien Williams started over Khalil Herbert at running back and whether or not there were more designed runs for Fields in the game will have to wait until Monday when Nagy speaks again. Tabor didn’t have any say over the offensive game plan.
“I don’t have that answer for you. I’m sorry. I’m special teaming it up during the week,” he said.
What does it all mean?
Sunday’s game felt like a lose-lose for Nagy. If the Bears played a clean game and won, Tabor would have received all the credit and it wouldn’t have decreased any of the heat on Nagy.
But a loss didn’t help either. Fields and the offense played their best game of the season without Nagy present, but the Bears are now 3-5 and found way too many ways to lose against the 49ers. Honestly, the biggest problem was the defense — they allowed seven straight scoring drives — and that falls on defensive coordinator Sean Desai.
In the end, Tabor seemed poised and ready for the job. If he’s ever interviewed for a head coaching job in his career, he’ll be able reference the overall experience as a positive one, despite the outcome.
“He had a nice little speech dialed up for us,” Herbert said. “But Tabes, he’s just got a lot of energy, he brings a lot of juice. He does that on special teams, and he just distributed it all through the whole team and brought a lot of energy.”
After the game, Tabor was asked if he was able to soak it all in during the game. In typical head coach fashion, he turned the attention towards the next game.
“Maybe for a second,” he said. “I told myself I’ll enjoy it and look back at the end of the year when the season is over. The focus, you move on to Pittsburgh. They’ll create problems that we’ve got to get handled. Coach asked me to step in. That’s my job and that’s what I wanted to do.”