INSIDER

Hoge: As Matt Nagy evolves, firing him would be a mistake

INSIDER

When this wacky, weird 2020 campaign began, it seemed that only a season spiraling completely out of control would result in Bears head coach Matt Nagy getting fired.

And for a moment there, it sure looked like it was spiraling out of control.

Coming out of the bye week, the Bears were non-competitive against their biggest rival at Lambeau Field and then blew a 10-point lead in just 42 seconds against the Lions. It was an epic way to lose their sixth game in a row.

Once 5-1, the Bears were suddenly 5-7. In the NFL, that can be enough to get you fired. And I’ll admit, I kept my Monday open just in case.

If there was ever a time for a team to start pointing fingers and pack it in – especially during a global pandemic – that would have been it. But despite all the losing, there was very little evidence that anyone was turning on the head coach. After the embarrassing loss in Green Bay, when Nagy called out the defense that had carried his offense for most of the season, the defensive leaders defended him. And after the collapse against the Lions, everyone showed up to work, stayed diligent with social distancing and started preparing for Deshaun Watson and the Texans.

Later that week, the Bears pounded the Texans 36-7. Mitchell Trubisky even outplayed Watson. And it wasn’t close.

 

Somewhat lost in the depths of defeat against the Packers and Lions were the subtle signs of an offensive turnaround. The Bears averaged 5.4 yards per play against the Packers and 5.8 against the Lions. It wasn’t anything too impressive, but it sure beat the 3.0 yards per play the Bears managed in Nick Foles’ last start before the bye week. Trubisky was moving the ball and playing well, even if he couldn’t avoid the costly turnovers. More importantly, the running game was suddenly working. By the time the Bears beat the Vikings Sunday, Nagy had a comparable version of Gary Kubiak’s offense in Minnesota, which protects Kirk Cousins from his own weaknesses and accentuates his strengths while running through Dalvin Cook.

And now Bears fans are spending their Christmas wondering, what does this all mean? Are the Bears good now? Is Nagy safe?

When evaluating a head coach, it’s important to look at the full picture. Nagy’s 27-20 record (including one playoff game) matters, but it goes much deeper than that and even varies from coach-to-coach. In Nagy’s case, his offensive influence matters more. In other cases where the coach has control over the 53-man roster, personnel decisions hold greater significance. With that in mind, here’s how I would evaluate Nagy on six key categories, ranked in order of importance in his specific situation:

Leadership

The biggest reason Nagy – still only 42 – climbed through the coaching ranks so fast is his positive influence on people – players, coaches, staffers, fans, etc. It’s hard to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about Matt Nagy and that’s why his players love him.

In 2018, Nagy won over the locker room quickly. Even in offseason workouts, it was evident that the players were buying in. By the time the regular season began, it was clear that the Bears were going to be a competent football team and win games. The fact they won 12 games and the NFC North was a bonus.

Obviously the last two seasons have not gone as smooth, but in the midst of a four-game losing streak in 2019 and a six-game losing streak this year, Nagy managed to hold the locker room together. As exhausting as it can be to hear about “culture” on a losing team, it does matter. The fact that Nagy was able to call out the defense for its poor play and not get a negative reaction showed the credibility he’s built up and the respect that he’s earned.

“He came in with the same attitude and the same mindset and the same energy that he did when we was 5-1 and I think that guys took notice of that,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “And when you have a guy like that, you want to win football games for him. You want to play hard for him.”

 

Now Nagy just needs to avoid the long losing streaks to begin with.

Offensive influence

Let’s not bury this one too far down the list. Nagy was brought here to run a high-scoring offense and develop Trubisky. This has turned into an extremely layered storyline with a very blunt conclusion: the results have been poor. Trubisky was benched in Week 3 of this season and the offense only got worse without him -- ranking near the bottom of the league in almost every relevant category.

But this is where things get tricky. Nagy has relinquished play-calling, significantly changed his offense on the fly, re-inserted Trubisky over the quarterback he brought in (Nick Foles) and the offense is suddenly showing major improvements.

“Coach Nagy’s done everything he can to get these wins and to get us back on the winning track,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “Those six weeks were extremely tough for us, but you know, talk about character building. And talk about a coaching staff that never gave up.”

Everyone is wondering why these changes took so long to make and the most important question Bears chairman George McCaskey should be asking himself right now is: Are these changes proof that they hired the wrong offensive mind in the first place, or do they serve as evidence that Nagy is capable of adapting his scheme to fit his players, which every good NFL coach needs to be able to do?

Remember that question, because we’re going to revisit it at the end.

Game management/preparedness

The end of the Lions game was a disaster and there have been some questionable decisions (like not calling timeout to get a crack at a punt return before halftime against the Rams) but overall, I have had very few problems with Nagy’s in-game management. Sometimes we forget how big of an issue this is across the league. Literally every coach makes questionable clock-management decisions, but I have never viewed this as a major weakness for Nagy.

He also rarely challenges a play he shouldn’t (remember how big of an issue this was under John Fox?). Nagy is only 3-of-9 on challenges in three seasons, but many of the misses have come on close calls in key situations where the challenge was still warranted. Amazingly, there’s only been one challenge by the Bears this year and it was successfully overturned. The low volume of challenges is a testament to Nagy not challenging plays he has zero chance of getting overturned.

Sports analytics company EdjSports does a good job of tracking head coaching decisions based on win probability and other factors. They currently have Nagy ranked 21st this season, but coaches can’t make every decision based off analytics. According to EdjSports, Nagy’s worst fourth down call was punting on 4th-and-8 at the Bears’ own 33 with 2:59 left in the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers. The Bears were down two points and that punt reduced their chances of winning by -7.1 percent. As it turned out, the Bears won anyway, proving that as good as the analytics can be, there’s still an important human element to coaching.

 

The bigger issue for Nagy in this category is the offensive preparedness. The volume and details of his playbook are intense and sometimes lead to mistakes and penalties. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last month, it’s that simplification can be a good thing. The amount of times the Bears have had to call timeouts this season because of substitution errors or being lined up incorrectly has been alarming. And the lack of success they’ve had coming out of those timeouts is even worse. Fortunately, that trend seems to be have stopped in recent weeks.

Staff hiring

Nagy did well to keep Vic Fangio in 2018 and while fans like to rag on special teams, Chris Tabor is a smart special teams coordinator with good schemes to maximize the return game and limit big plays against the Bears. But Nagy’s first offensive coordinator hire – Mark Helfrich – was curious because they didn’t have any history together and it ended up not working out. Nagy also moved on from offensive line coach Harry Heistand after two seasons. Both Helfrich and Heistand are not coaching this year.

The rush to replace Fangio with Chuck Pagano was interesting, especially because promoting one of the assistants could have kept continuity on that side of the ball. As it turned out, outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley would have been a great hire, as he’s leading the Rams’ No. 1 ranked defense this year. Pagano still leads a good unit, but the sharp decline in takeaways and sacks since Fangio left is alarming, especially because most of the core personnel is the same.

That said, Nagy/Pagano retained Jay Rodgers, who might be the best defensive line coach in the league. And from his original offensive hires, wide receivers coach Mike Furrey occasionally has his name mentioned as a future head coaching candidate. The hiring of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and offensive line coach Juan Castillo certainly weren’t celebrated until recent weeks, but suddenly seem to be paying off.

This is honestly a mixed bag and three years probably isn’t enough time to evaluate the development of a staff. There aren’t necessarily any bad hires to point to, but there also aren’t any obvious success stories that have led to an assistant developing and getting a bigger job elsewhere (unless you want to give Nagy credit for the 2018 season getting Fangio his first head coaching opportunity).

 

Personnel

I put this last in the evaluation because Nagy does not have control over the 53-man roster. Ultimately, that is still Ryan Pace’s responsibility. But it still matters because Nagy does have input and they do work together on many decisions.

The Nick Foles trade is the most obvious example. And simply put – it hasn’t worked out.

On the other hand, drafting running back David Montgomery counts as a positive example. Pace and Nagy determined they needed to upgrade from Jordan Howard and they managed to move him for draft compensation before selecting Montgomery, who Nagy really liked. Rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney has also proven to be a good example. Nagy – and especially Furrey – were big influences on that draft selection.

Overall, improvement is needed in this area. It ties into the offensive problems because the personnel hasn’t always matched the scheme. If Nagy returns in 2021, he needs to first decide what he wants to run (and with what quarterback) and make sure his players – especially the offensive linemen – fit that plan.

The conclusion

Let’s go back to the key question previously mentioned: Is the recent offensive evolution away from Nagy’s preferred scheme proof the Bears hired the wrong coach or is it evidence that he can adapt and scheme to his players?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question can only be decided with future results and it needs to be determined if Nagy is willing to commit to the current form of this offense, especially if Trubisky returns with him. Even in a scenario where Foles starts games in 2021, how can Nagy tailor the offense to get better results? And who’s calling the plays?

This is where it’s important to remember that Nagy is still only 42 years old and in his third year as a head coach. Even his play-calling experience was limited before he arrived in Chicago. The offensive turnaround has been remarkable and even if you want to give praise to Lazor because he’s calling the plays, Nagy still gets credit as a head coach for essentially firing himself. After that move was made, I detailed how giving up play-calling could make him a better head coach, and the results suggest that is happening.

But most importantly, the players are still playing for Nagy. Jimmy Graham has played for Sean Payton and Pete Carroll and he had some very poignant and thoughtful praise for Nagy on Thursday:

 

“How they handled that internally and still believe in and still lean in on the players, is special. We’ve been through a lot this season. A lot of learning, a lot of growth at every position, at every turn. It’s a testament to the coaching staff and the players on this team to be able to put that behind you and now get back-to-back wins and go into Jacksonville with complete focus, trying to play for one another, and just trying to keep this dream alive.”

The best head coaches learn to adapt in an always evolving league. The ones that don’t – and stubbornly cling to the schemes and systems that previously earned them success and money – end up getting fired. Nagy might have been on that latter path earlier this season, but the more recent results suggest a significant change.

“With him leading the charge, man, I wouldn't want to play for nobody else in this situation,” Gipson said.

It would be a shame to fire a young head coach only to later realize he was just starting to figure it out before enjoying success elsewhere.

And that’s why the smartest move is for the Bears to bring Nagy back in 2021.

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