Bears: How Tarik Cohen avoided the rookie wall in his explosive debut season

USA Today

Bears: How Tarik Cohen avoided the rookie wall in his explosive debut season

Tarik Cohen wasn’t surprised by the physicality of the NFL or what it takes to successfully get through the grind of his 17-week rookie season. What he, perhaps, was less prepared for was the fame that’d come with one of the more exciting debut seasons by a Bears player in recent memory. 

“Going out to Wal-Mart, you always gotta take pictures, you gotta sign something,” Cohen said. “I wish it was an area like, sometimes I could turn it off, I could just be invisible, I could go to Wal-Mart and get meat, some paper towels and not be in there for 30 minutes. 

“… I see myself as a regular person, I just want everybody else to look at me the same way.”

What Cohen has done on the field in 2017, though, has been far from regular. He’s the first rookie to have a running, receiving, passing and returning touchdown since Gale Sayers in 1965. He’s the shortest player to throw a touchdown, which he did Oct. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens, since Wee Willie Smith in 1934 (“shout-out to Wee Willie,” Cohen said after that game, “I’m Wee ‘Rik”). He’s carried 84 times for 357 yards with two scores and caught 47 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown, all while providing a spark for a frequently-moribund offense. 

Back in August, a common line of questioning to Cohen was centered around if he could hold up over the course of a 16-game season. It made sense, at least on the surface: Standing at 5-foot-6 and weighing 181 pounds, the potential for Cohen to be hit hard and thrown around by bigger, stronger defenders was there. And those big hits, theoretically, could lead to injuries and missed time.

There’s been none of that for Cohen, who hasn't ever been listed on the team’s daily injury reports during his rookie year. For a team that’s placed 19 players on injured reserve since the beginning of training camp, that’s an even more impressive feat. 

“I think he takes care of his body,” coach John Fox said. “He’s a pretty quick guy. Even though he might be viewed as undersized, he doesn’t experience too many direct hits. I think he avoided that pretty well. His football IQ is good in that sense. He doesn’t put himself in compromising positions. That and I think his mindset has been to take good care of himself. He gets plenty of rest and it’s just being a professional.”

Cohen credited veteran running back Benny Cunningham for helping teach him how to take care of his body during the season. He’ll frequent the ice tub and get off his feet as much as possible, and for Cohen, off days are off days. Not only has that helped keep Cohen physically fresh, but mentally, he hasn't hit a rookie wall either. 

“(I try) to give him as much advice as possible about how to stay healthy, how draining it can become,” Cunningham said. “But I feel like he just has a genuine love for the game and you can see that every practice, every game — win or lose, his attitude and mentality, it stays the same.”

The Bears identified Cohen’s work ethic when scouting him, and figured his explosive playmaking ability could translate to the NFL level when they picked him in the fourth round of April’s draft. But Cohen’s blown past expectations like a defender trying to tackle him in 2017, and the Bears can see him growing with Mitchell Trubisky as a big part of their long-term plans.

“He practices really hard and brings a lot of energy and passion to the game,” Trubisky said. “He’s got the right mentality to play this game. His attitude is probably what’s going to carry him the farthest. His ability alone, catching the ball, running the ball, is special, but his attitude is what’s going to separate him. His mentality, no matter who’s up against him, is that he’s going to be successful and beat the man across from him.”

Of course, the more success Cohen has, the more times he’ll be stopped in Wal-Mart or wherever to interact with fans. All those in-person interactions have been positive, Cohen said, and not strange — “Just taking pictured in the frozen food section, holding sausages and stuff.” Cohen figured his diminutive stature makes him stick out, too. 

“They see a little grown man,” Cohen said. “There’s only one little grown man in Chicago right now.”

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller sports Bears uniform at NFLPA Rookie Premiere

Anthony Miller has quickly become a fan favorite on social media. He has the confidence and swagger found in most top wide receivers and it comes through on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Miller was one of 40 players in attendance at the 2018 NFLPA Rookie Premiere where he not only learned about the business and marketing side of football, but also suited up in his Bears gameday uniform for the first time. Of course, he shared the moment on Twitter:

Panini America, a sports collectible company, snapped a picture of Miller with fellow rookie receiver Calvin Ridley (Falcons) and quarterback Mason Rudolph (Steelers):

Miller has become something of a standout for the Bears despite not playing a single snap. He's expected to have a big role in an offense that has several new pieces and roles that are up for grabs.

Miller will compete with former first-round pick Kevin White and free-agent addition Taylor Gabriel for reps opposite Allen Robinson. Miller has the necessary skill set to play as both an outside receiver and in the slot which should give him an even greater opportunity to be on the field quite a bit.

The Bears first three draft picks are all vying for starting jobs in 2018. Roquan Smith (first round) is a lock to start next to Danny Trevathan and James Daniels (second round) will start at guard. Miller should make it three-for-three in a draft class that could end up the best of Ryan Pace's tenure.