Final thoughts: Matt Nagy adds another wrinkle with Bradley Sowell at fullback

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Final thoughts: Matt Nagy adds another wrinkle with Bradley Sowell at fullback

If 2018 has proven anything to the NFL, it’s that Matt Nagy isn’t shy about putting big dudes in places you usually don’t see big dudes in this sport.  
Case in point: During last weekend’s season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, 6-foot-7, 312 pound backup swing tackle Bradley Sowell played eight snaps lined up as a fullback.
“Hats off to Brad, that’s an odd position for a tall lineman to be in,” right tackle Bobby Massie said. “He stepped in there and he made some key blocks.”
Sowell was told the Wednesday prior to the Vikings game he’d get some work at fullback, and quickly became “obsessed,” he said, with learning everything he could about the position. He talked with Michael Burton, the Bears’ natural fullback, as well as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan to get a sense of what he needed to do, and what an opposing defensive player wouldn’t want to see from someone about 75 pounds heavier running at him downhill.
“Little stuff like that can help take your game to the next level,” Trevathan said.
Sowell’s athleticism has been on display in a few different ways this year, be it on catching a touchdown from Mitch Trubisky on “Santa’s Sleigh” against the Los Angeles Rams or running a route in the end zone, too, against the New England Patriots. He's also the guy who plays catch with Khalil Mack before games, showing off a decent arm.
But playing fullback was a different role, one the Bears came away pleased with how Sowell handled. Whether or not he gets some work in the backfield on Sunday remains to be seen, but what he did against the Vikings perhaps will give the Eagles something to think about.
“It’s my seventh year doing this, so I know that we’re trying to make a run and whatever’s asked of me each week by coach Nagy I trust him,” Sowell said. “And he wouldn’t put me there if he thought I couldn’t do it.”
Happy birthday, Howie
With NBC televising Sunday afternoon’s contest — and FOX not having a game broadcast — Howie Long will get to celebrate his 59th birthday in Chicago watching two of his sons square off in a playoff game.
Bears right guard Kyle Long is expected to play a full game Sunday after returning from injured reserve a week ago, while Eagles defensive end Chris Long remains an important piece of Philadelphia’s pass rush with 6 1/2 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in 2018.
Sunday won’t be the first time the two brothers have played against each other — it happened as recently as 2017, when the Eagles blew out the Bears in Philadelphia — but the stakes have never been this high.
“It’s probably going to be pretty crazy for them,” Kyle Long said. “… It’s gonna be a fun birthday for them. I don’t think my mom will be able to watch. She’ll be there, but she’ll probably have her eyes covered the whole time. Yeah, they love their kids. They’re going to be happy to be here. I think everybody’s just happy.”
An offensive mind...and a great defense
The Bears hired an offensive mind in Nagy a year ago to improve a unit that felt stuck in the 20th century under John Fox and flopped in the Jay Cutler era. Nagy certainly improved the Bears’ offense, but not to the point where it was the catalyst for a 12-4 season and NFC North championship.
So an amusing exchange happened on Friday when a reporter informed Nagy four of his players — cornerback Kyle Fuller, safety Eddie Jackson, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and punt returner Tarik Cohen — were tabbed as All-Pros.
“No offense?” Nagy chuckled.
The Bears enter the playoffs for the first time in eight years with a team that feels fitting in franchise history. Success, again in Chicago, is defined by great defense, not necessarily great offense.
Nagy, though, is hoping to eventually be the coach who levels those two sides of the ball out. But, in his first year, he’s not there yet.
“Growing up as a kid you just know about the tradition of the defense here,” Nagy said. “I could go on and on with that. So you feel that, you know it, and now for us to have that again, it’s just — it means too much to this city. Everybody relates with the defense.
“In the end, we’d like to be able to make it to where it’s offense and defense. But we get, right now, that where we’re at.”

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Former Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman remains unsigned after being released earlier this offseason following a 2019 season that totaled 14 games and a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.

Freeman, who earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl in 2015-16, was at one time considered one of the NFL's top dual-threat running backs. His best season came in 2015 when he ran for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding another 578 yards and three scores as a receiver. In 2016, he ran for a career-best 1,079 yards and 11 scores.

Injuries derailed what was a promising start to his career. He hasn't played a full 16 games in any of the last three years and in 2018, he missed 14 games with foot and groin injuries. 

Are Freeman's best days behind him? Maybe. Running backs tend to decline the closer they get to 30 years old, and at 28, Freeman is inching closer to the end of his career than its beginning. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have value for a team like the Bears, who lack any semblance of depth behind starter David Montgomery.

Chicago's running back depth chart is void of any real NFL talent behind Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, and let's face it, Cohen is more of a satellite weapon than he is a true running back.

So what's stopping the Bears from pursuing Freeman? Money.

Freeman is holding out for a reasonable payday that, apparently, involves demands beyond what the Seahawks offered in May (one-year, $4 million). The Bears, who still have in-house business to take care of, including an extension for wide receiver Allen Robinson, aren't going to offer Freeman a contract in that range. And they shouldn't. Montgomery is the unquestioned starter and that won't change even if a player like Freeman is added. As a result, he'll get a contract consistent with what's paid to a backup with starter's upside.

Remember: Freeman signed a five-year, $41.2 million extension with the Falcons in 2017, and like most players who believe they still have a lot left in the tank, he doesn't appear willing to lower his value by such an extreme amount.

Still, the market will determine Freeman's next deal. And if he's still hanging around and unsigned as training camp approaches, the Bears could find themselves in a favorable position to land an extremely talented running back at a mega-discount.

Chicago's offense will hinge on how productive the running game is in 2020. It would make sense to improve its chances of success by adding more talent. Freeman could be that guy, at the right price.

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

“We’re gonna do the shuffle then ring your bell,” sang Gary Fencik back in 1985. 

The updated lyrics in 2020 would be: “We’re gonna do the shuffle then get a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.” 

Football today is a largely different game compared to when the Bears won their only Super Bowl in franchise history. You’ll see that when Super Bowl XX is aired on NBC this Sunday at 2 p.m. CT. But as I went back and watched some highlights ahead of catching the full game on Sunday, I wondered: What from the ’85 Bears would still work in the NFL today?

MORE: 10 crazy stats about the 1985 Bears

Talent, of course, transcends eras. Walter Payton would still be a great running back in 2020. Richard Dent would still be one of those pass rushers offenses have to gameplan around. Mike Singletary’s versatility, toughness and instincts would make him one of the league’s top linebackers. But that’s not what I was wondering. 

The Bears’ first offensive play of Super Bowl XX — on which Payton lost a fumble — came with two wide receivers, one tight end, one running back and one fullback on the field, otherwise known as 21 personnel. There was nothing odd about it back then. 

Only 8 percent of the NFL’s plays in 2019 used 21 personnel. 

The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings were the only two teams to use 21 personnel on more than 20 percent of their plays, and both teams made the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo, remember, threw eight passes while the 49ers throttled the Green Bay Packers on their way to the Super Bowl back in January. 

Payton and Matt Suhey would’ve been just fine in today’s NFL running from under center quite a bit. But consider this: Jim McMahon’s passer rating in 1985 was 82.6, good for seventh-best in the league. Mitch Trubisky’s passer rating in 2019 was 83.0, ranking him 28th. 

How about Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense? 

I dug up this video we did a few years ago with Rex Ryan explaining his dad’s defense — which, while it turned out to be great at stopping the run, was actually designed to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Check it out:

The Bears’ defense in 1985 is, arguably, the best in NFL history. The Bears held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and 12.4 points per game, the lowest averages in the league. Dent led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks and, maybe the most mind-blowing stat of all: The Bears’ defense allowed 16 passing touchdowns and had 34 interceptions. 

But putting eight guys in the box doesn’t seem like a sound strategy in today’s pass-happy, 11 personnel-heavy league — a league that often forces defensive coordinators’ base packages to be in nickel. To wit: San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman faced the highest percentage of “loaded” boxes in 2019, with 40.2 percent of his 137 rushing attempts coming with eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. 

The Bears’ defense only had to defend multiple backs (i.e. a running back and a fullback) on 120 plays in 2019. 

So the 46 defense might not work in 2020. Then again, who would doubt Ryan’s ability to coordinate a good defense against today’s modern NFL landscape?

This is all building to my overarching feeling thinking about the 1985 Bears: They'd be fine in today's NFL. Greatness can transcend era. It might take a few tweaks and they wouldn't look the same as you'll see on NBC Sports Network on Sunday afternoon. 

But who am I to say one of the greatest teams of all time wouldn't be great in any era? 

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