Bears

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

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USA TODAY

Bears, Matt Nagy working at work-rest balance equation to pull back from annual injury abyss

The Bears are at rest right now. The weeks between the end of the final minicamp and the start of the “season” that runs from the start of training camp through the final game represent the last time most if not all players will be truly 100 percent until early 2019.

In not too many days the Bears will begin their training camp, upshifting the pace, depth and urgency of formation of the 2018 team. Along with that comes the annual dilemma, not unique to the Bears, of balancing practice and strength training to achieve the football maximum while simultaneously staying within a plan calculated to minimize what has become a Bears curse since the departure of the Lovie Smith staff:

Injuries.

Injuries not confined to camp and practices, but also to creating a landscape that results in minimizing injuries throughout the season. And it is a complex equation that the Bears are trying to balance, one that reaches beyond football and involves complicated factors.

Matt Nagy is putting a small fingerprint of his own, instituting an 8:15 a.m. start time for the vast majority of Bourbonnais practices, “to keep guys out of the heat for the most part,” Nagy said.

Practice limitations have been mandated by virtue of collective bargaining agreements. The quirk for the Bears has been that as practice intensity has been legislated downward, injury totals (using players on IR as an apples-to-apples measure) have risen. The debate then has gone to whether lessened practices in fact saves players or ironically results in more injuries in games because players have not been sufficiently hardened for the intensity spike that games are.

Along with that is the need to truly learn schemes and plays in live action.

“I think football is a game, like many games, that you have to get calloused to,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said during minicamp. “It’s like when we go out the first day of training camp with pads on, and guys are hitting a little bit. You’re going to be taken aback and get mad that the guy just hit you too hard. But then by a week or two later, you’re getting hit like that and don’t even realize it. You gotta get calloused.

“So I do believe, even though you couldn’t prove it objectively or quantify it, I do believe that it’s a problem.”

Do the Bears need to rest more?

Nagy has seen the value of rest. Andy Reid, the head coach when Nagy worked in Philadelphia and Kansas City, is a lofty 16-3 in games after off-weeks during his coaching career. Last year his Chiefs did lose a road game post-bye, but Reid was 4-0 in Kansas City’s other games coming off more than the normal six days between games.

Other than the Bears, the five teams with the greatest number of schedule-created off days in the 2017 season appeared to put the time to good use:

Team Off days 2017 record (*playoffs)
Kansas City 12 10-6*
Buffalo 8 9-7*
Chicago 8 5-11
San Diego 8 9-7
Philadelphia 7 13-3*

A case can be made that recovery days are often as important as the effort days, that athletes perform better after their bodies have had even a brief window to heal. Coaches, too. As one Tour de France cyclist told this writer, people go too hard on the easy days, so they don’t fully recover, and too easy on the hard days.

Two-a-day, padded full-go practices were once the norm. Now consecutive padded practices don’t happen in-season, and even in camp, the objective is not as it once was, to weed out, but to develop. “I think back in the day you could say that it was ‘super-hard,’” Nagy said. “Now I’m not sure you’d consider it ‘super-hard.’”

The correlation between rest and results is far from exact. Marc Trestman was adamant about players getting off their feet after practices, and yet few teams sustained the level of injury, particularly on defense, that his Bears did. Lovie Smith’s practices were in the heat of the days, camp and other, with occasional night practices as prep for night games.

Year Coach Camp practice Year-end IR
2012 Lovie Smith 2/2:30 p.m., 7 p.m. (three) 6
2013-14 Marc Trestman 9 a.m., 3:15 p.m. (three) 6, 10
2015-17 John Fox 9:35/11:15 a.m. 12, 21, 19

Apart from any empirical or other scientific information, anecdotal evidence suggests that rest is a significant factor in influencing outcomes. The most elementary casual indicator is the importance teams, coaches and players universally assign to in-season off-weeks. The break period is utilized for self-scouting, which is going on constantly anyway, but also for getting healthy.

If the cluster of a few days off (players are routinely given the off-weekend plus the preceding day or two to themselves) has some demonstrable physical benefits, then any structuring of normal weeks to build in recovery time stands to reason as a step toward healing during a 17-week stretch that leaves no one completely healthy.

But it’s not that simple, particularly in-season. “They’ll have off on Monday, then be back on Tuesday,” Nagy said. “And with the game-planning, you have to build that in, obviously.”

Positive offseason

At the risk of installing a jinx here, the Bears came through the offseason program without apparent severe injuries, and with key players (Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long, Allen Robinson) being brought along conservatively in their returns from ’17 season-ending injuries. At the same time, the requisite work was put in installing a new offense and reigniting a returning defense.

Training camp and preseason now are next-level intensity, and the Bears lost offensive linemen Eric Kush and Jordan Morgan, receiver Cam Meredith and long snapper Pat Scales in the time frame between the start of camp and the start of the regular season.

The objective moves to another level of managing the balance between preserving bodies for when it matters and getting done the work that has to be covered. Some of that was accomplished with some understandings of historical perspectives.

“I told the guys the analogy the other day, the history of training camp in the NFL where there was no such thing as OTA’s years ago,” Fangio said. “But years ago there were six preseason games and two-a-days for all that time. Then it went down to four preseason games and two-a-day’s. And when I say ‘two-a-days,’ they were two-a-days several days in a row.

“Now we’re to one-a-day’s with some legislated days off in there. These [offseason] practices are those practices that we’re missing that teams from the past had gotten. We view them as very, very important, and our guys have had good focus. So we’re working on the same stuff we always have, but I try to tell them that this isn’t an ‘OTA practice;’ this is a training camp for the guys of yesteryear without pads on.”

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

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USA TODAY

Putting Bill Belichick’s complimentary comments about the Bears in context

Bill Belichick had plenty of good things to say about Matt Nagy and the 2018 Bears during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Some of the highlights:

 

On the Bears’ season as a whole:

 

“The Bears have lost two games, one on a game when they were in control of the game and another one they lost in overtime. This really looks like a 5-0 team to me, if you change one or two plays. You can say that about a lot of teams, but that’s the league we’re in.”

 

On Mitch Trubisky:

 

“I think he’s done a good job of getting ball to the players that are open or in space and letting them be playmakers. He has a lot of them. That’s the quarterback’s job is to deliver the ball to the playmakers and let them go. I think he’s done a good job of that. He’s a tough kid, which I respect. That’s what we would ask our quarterbacks to do, to make plays to help our team win, to get the ball to the players that are open and in space. It’s not about stats. It’s about doing what you need to do to win.”

 

On Tarik Cohen’s usage:

 

“He plays about a little bit less than 50 percent of the time and he’s in a lot of different places, he’s hard to find. He’s a dynamic player that can run, catch, really threaten every yard of the field from sideline to sideline, up the middle, deep. You can throw it to him, you can hand it to him and he’s elusive with the ball and he’s elusive to be able to get open so the quarterback can get him the ball. Those are great skills to have. Any one of those is good and he’s got several of them.

 

“He’s very hard to tackle. But they do a great job mixing him, not just putting him in the game but who he’s in the game with, what the combinations are and then where they locate him and so forth. There are a lot of multiples. It’s hard. Coach Nagy does a good job with that and he’s a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.”

 

On Trubisky’s 54-yard bomb to Taylor Gabriel on Sunday:

 

“That’s about as good a throw and catch as I’ve seen all year. The execution on that was like 99 out of 100. It was a great, great throw, great route, great catch. There was like a few inches to get the ball in there 50 yards downfield and that’s where it was.”

 

On Akiem Hicks’ impact, who played for the Patriots in 2015:

 

“He’s hard to block. It doesn’t make any difference what the play is, you can run to him and he’s hard to block. You can run away from him, and he makes tackles for loss on the back side. He’s quick and can get around those blocks when there’s more space back there because everybody is going to the front side. He can power rush. He can rush the edges with his quickness. He’s a very, very disruptive player. He’s hard to block on everything.

 

“I appreciate all of the plays he makes. He makes plays on all three downs, against all types of plays, whether it’s reading screen passes or power rushing the pocket to help the ends, to help (Leonard) Floyd and Mack and (Aaron) Lynch rush on the edge. He’s a powerful, disruptive guy. (Eddie) Goldman has done a good job of that. (Bilal) Nichols has done a good job of that too. They have some really powerful guys inside that are hard to block, and they change the line of scrimmage in the running game and the passing game. It really creates a problem, frees up the linebackers in the running game and helps the ends because the quarterback can’t step up in the pocket in the passing game.”

 

On Matt Nagy:

 

“Obviously he's done a great job, as has Ryan with building the team. They have a lot of good players. They have a really experienced staff and they do a great job in all three areas of the game. They're good in the kicking game, they're good on defense they're good on offense. They have highly-skilled players in all three areas.

 

“It's a well-balanced football team that does a lot of things well. Run the ball. Stop the run. Throw the ball. Rush the passer. Intercept passes. Return kicks. Cover kicks. Cover punts. They're at the top of the league in all those categories. Turnovers. Points off turnovers. It doesn't really matter what area you want to talk about, they're pretty good at all of them. That's why they're a good football team.

 

“Coach Nagy and his staff certainly deserve a lot of credit. It's not a one-man band. They're all doing a good job. It's a good football team. I'm sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium this week. It will be a great test for us to go into Chicago and be competitive against them.”

 

While listening to Belichick rave about the Bears, this missive from former Patriots general manager Michael Lombardi stands out:

 

“Whenever Belichick tells the media on Mondays or Tuesdays that he has already moved on to the next game, trust me, he’s not lying. I worked with Bill for five years in Cleveland, and then during the 2014 and 2015 seasons in New England. Belichick treats every game like a Super Bowl; no detail is too small, no possible scenario or situation goes overlooked. I have heard Belichick break down a bumbling Jaguars team as if it was the reigning two-time Super Bowl winner and treat Blake Bortles like he’s the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. Belichick does it with tape to back up his claims, only showing his team the opponent’s greatest strengths. (With Bortles, I swear, he must have used George Lucas to doctor the video.) No Patriots opponent is underestimated or taken lightly — EVER.”

 

One of the myriad things that make Belichick the best coach in the NFL — and maybe the best coach in NFL history — is how he never takes an opponent lightly, and then how he’s so successful at scheming against what an opponent does best.

 

The Bears are undoubtedly better in 2018 than they were in the John Fox era, or when these two teams last met in 2014 (when New England waxed a moribund Marc Trestman side, 51-23). And a lot of Belichick’s points are valid – that throw Trubisky made to Gabriel was outstanding, for example.

 

But Belichick talks this way about every team he faces. And that, again, is part of what makes him the best at what he does.

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

Under Center Podcast: What will we learn about the Bears against the Patriots?

On this week's Under Center podcast, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at how Bill Belichick and New England will attack Matt Nagy and the Bears on Sunday, and if Mitch Trubisky can get to the point where he can reliably lead a late-game scoring drive like Tom Brady is so good at doing.

You can listen to the whole thing here, or in the embedded player below: