Bears

Matt Nagy brings critical QB-action skillset to Bears where it is needed most

Matt Nagy brings critical QB-action skillset to Bears where it is needed most

What the Bears are getting in Matt Nagy as a head coach is a colossal unknown. He’s a first-time head coach, promoted to a job he’s never done before. My own experience: You can evaluate a rookie draft class in less time than you can a rookie head coach. It didn’t take all that long to watch Leonard Floyd in a training camp pass-pro drill to know the young man could rush the passer (and that Shea McClellin or Dan Bazuin couldn’t), or that Cody Whitehair was an NFL offensive lineman (and that Josh Beekman or Bob Sapp weren’t).

Usually it takes a little longer with a head coach. Not always, of course. More than a few observers knew very, very early on that Marc Trestman was not an NFL head coach, that there was a weird….something….going on there, which players, particularly veteran players, most emphatically knew from the first time Trestman met with the assembled team. Conversely, the underlying assumption with John Fox, given his coaching curriculum vitae, was going to work out in the form of a turnaround, even after a first-year collapse. And Fox was a 27-year veteran.

All of which should temper expectations for Nagy as he takes over leading a team that has lost 45 games in the last four seasons and is the only NFC North team without a winning season in five years.

But all that aside: To invoke a favorite dramatic/theatric bromide: Action is character. And for the Bears right now, that projects as a huge deal.

The reason is the whole quarterback thing. Nagy hasn’t been a head coach and he was only a full offensive coordinator for one year (he was co-coordinator with Brad Childress in 2016). But he has been apprenticing under Andy Reid his entire NFL career, and Andy Reid knows quarterbacks. And they win for him.

No matter how they’re acquired. Reid was involved in drafting Donovan McNabb, signed a post-prison Michael Vick, and traded for a previously pedestrian Alex Smith, who not coincidentally had the best year of his 12-year NFL career last season with Nagy as offensive coordinator and calling plays the last part of the season. Nagy didn’t fully “coach” McNabb or Vick (he was a lower-level staff assistant), but he certainly did Smith, and he was intimately involved in Reid and the Chiefs trading up last draft for Pat Mahomes.

Nagy also spent an entire pre-draft day with Mitch Trubisky and came thoroughly impressed, to the point of holding onto his notes on Trubisky, which he just happened to have handy when he interviewed with general manager Ryan Pace.

The point is that Nagy knows both how to coach quarterbacks and has been around a great NFL coach (Reid) who has an elite record of success with veteran quarterbacks and took McNabb from a pup to arguable Hall of Fame levels.

Most important, Nagy was very clear and didn’t hesitate identifying the single most important element in quarterback success, beyond the obvious of leadership.

“They all had a coach that believed in them,” Nagy said on Tuesday. “I’m not saying that that’s the case [in Chicago, with quarterback problems that have spiraled to epic lows the past several years]. But what I’m saying is that those guys that you just named [had that].

“That’s why there’s a common theme with coach Reid. He has a method to his madness of just showing those guys that he believes in them. And then what happens is, they understand that he believes in him and they work on their weaknesses and they try to get better, they ask questions, they all have different ways of learning.

“But words don’t do it justice. You have to come in and sit in the QB room and listen to how coach teaches to those guys and the questions that he asks. He doesn’t do all the talking. He lets them give feedback. So over time that grows and it makes them become a better player and then in turn over the next 10 to 20 years, you get results like that.”

That’s the coaching mindset and overriding methodology Nagy brings to the Bears and Trubisky, who was at Halas Hall Tuesday to meet his mentor (actually, his real “mentor” was Mentor High School, but you knew that).

Being a lower-level assistant to a legendary coach and dealing with established veterans is one thing, though. But Nagy, not coincidentally, comes with some very recent developmental work with a rookie in Mahomes.

It is the composite experience – vets and a rookie – that makes Nagy intriguing as a quarterback-whisperer-in-waiting.

“[Mahomes] made me adapt as a coach,” Nagy said. “I had Alex in 2013, ‘14, ‘15, ‘16 and now ‘17. So what happens is we do different things with the playbook, we tweak different things with his footwork, I know how he works, he knows how I work. I might tell him he’s doing something because we had that relationship.

“Whereas with Patrick it was different. He was coming in as a rookie but that was good. It kind of brought that out of me where it was, listen, he doesn’t know the concept of this play – ‘flanker-drag-Texas-Y’ –  he doesn’t understand that, whereas Alex can do it in his sleep. So it made me a better person and made me a better coach.”

Whether that plays out at the head-coach level is what the next couple of years will be about, and it will take that kind of time, if only because quarterbacks are perhaps the one position where it actually can be difficult to genuinely assess right from the get-go. Trubisky had the look of having “it” as a quarterback from the outset of training camp, but then, so did Jay Cutler once.

But Nagy was a quarterback, in high school, college and the Arena league. He DOES know how a quarterback thinks, sees, develops, all the rest. And he knows what’s required of himself as well as of his young quarterback.

“Trust, No. 1,” Nagy said. “He has to trust the quarterback coach. And the quarterback coach has to trust him. That goes for the system and the philosophy.

“Honesty. You have to be able to be honest. The quarterback needs to know when he’s doing something wrong or how he can get better. The coach needs to understanding when he’s not teaching something the right way or he sees something wrong, he’s got to be able to admit to his mistakes.

“The other part would be – and sometimes this gets neglected – is over-communication. That’s all part of the honesty and trust, which you’ve got to communicate. And when you fail to communicate, there’s gray areas. And when there’s gray areas, then bad things happen.”

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

prince-719.jpg
USA TODAY

Bears starting secondary returns intact for ’18 – but is that a good thing?

The coach of a woeful college basketball team was asked in a postseason media session if the fact that he had all five of his starters returning was cause for optimism. “The kids tried hard,” the coach pointed out, “but we won two games last year. So having everybody back isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

The Bears approach the 2018 season and training camp returning their entire starting secondary – cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller on new, multi-year contracts, safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson now being touted as one of the NFL’s top safety tandems.

And continuity is unquestionably a prized element, particularly with offensive lines and defensive backfields. Having the four principle starters back should be a good thing.

The problem is, the Bears tied for 29th in the NFL with eight interceptions, matching a franchise-low for the third straight season. The starting DBs four accounted for just five total interceptions, suggesting that for all the supposed continuity, the whole was somewhat less the some of the parts where the critical turnover ratio is concerned.

The last time the Bears intercepted more passes (19) than their opponents (13) was 2013 – the last time the Bears saw .500.

The importance of one statistic can be overstated, but turnovers, particularly interceptions, are the one measurable with the greatest correlation to winning. The top 11 and 13 of the 14 teams with positive turnover ratios all posted winning records in 2017 (the Bears were 15th, with a zero net differential). And while fumble recoveries obviously also count as takeaways, interceptions are key: The top 10 teams in interceptions all posted positive records and all 14 of the turnover-ratio leaders intercepted more balls than they recovered.

Of the takeaways by those top 14 in turnover ratio, 65.8 percent of their takeaways came on interceptions. The Bears and the bottom half of the NFL turnover gatherers picked up only 55.7 percent of their takeaways on interceptions.

“Well, we hope we’re going to improve there,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “That takes 11 guys doing it, but we’ll see. That’s obviously going to be an emphasis for us.”

Creating a different mindset

Individual Bears defensive backs had flash moments: Jackson became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple 75-yard defensive touchdowns in a season; Amos returned an interception 90 yards for a score; Fuller was one of only two NFL players with at least 65 tackles and 20 passes defensed.

The Bears self-scouted enough to understand those for what they were – exceptions, bordering the fluke-ish, given the overall. The result was that even during minicamps and OTA’s, there was an edge to the play of the secondary. Mitch Trubisky and his quiver of weapons will have to earn things, beginning against their own teammates.

“We’ve been getting the receivers and the running backs a little mad, but they know that we’re just trying to get better at [takeaways],” Amukamara said. “And just catching the ones that the quarterback throws to you. But if we keep making the most of our opportunities we know that those numbers will go up.”

The numbers could scarcely go anywhere but up.

Amos, who was languishing on the bench and a possible roster bubble before Quintin Demps suffered a forearm fracture in week three, went 2,638 career snaps before collecting his lone career interception last season on a ball deflected to him seven yards away.

Amukamara was signed to a new three-year contract with $18 million of its $27 million guaranteed – this despite a dubious streak that has reached 2,340 snaps and more than two full seasons since his last interception.

The goal is to change that by “just getting to the ball, everybody,” Amos said. “Everybody is making efforts at the ball during camp. It’s just something that we just are emphasizing every day trying to create more takeaways.”

Pro Football Focus rated the Bears’ secondary No. 30 going into the 2017 season, factoring in veteran safety Quintin Demps signed coming off his best NFL season and Fuller coming off a season missed with a knee injury.

That is not a given. Pass defense begins with a pass rush, but roster losses have cost the Bears more than one-third (14.5) of their 2017 sack total (42).

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

Postcards from Camp: Bears preparing for physical training camp as QB Mitch Trubisky, offense settle in

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Dear Mom and Dad:
 
Camp’s finally here, the guys all reporting and I think really ready to get started for real after the camps and OTA’s this spring and summer. Practices start tomorrow (Friday) and fans’ll be able to watch practice starting on Saturday. 
 
I and the other quarterbacks decided to come in Monday with the rookies, kind of to get going but really to connect with the young guys. I know what they’re going through – they were me this time last year. Allen Robinson came in, too, and he says his knee is feeling great and there won’t be any holding back, which is good to hear since Allen is a wide receiver who is great at going up and getting the football.
 
Coach Nagy tells us this’ll be a physical training camp. He says he wants to get his team “calloused.” Akiem Hicks said that physicality wasn’t really a problem in the past but the coaches want to establish an identity from the get-go, and a big part of my job will be to be a leader at setting that.
 
Someone asked whether it was fair that the coaches last year got so much criticism for holding me back. I said that I guess from my point of view I want to just say I was doing what I was asked to do. Last year is definitely different than this year. I’m going to have more responsibility and more, I guess, responsibility to do what I wanna do in the offense. I’ll have more options. Last year, it was what it was. the coaches’ philosophy. I tried to do to the best of my ability what they asked me. this year I’m going to do the same. Whatever they ask me to do I’m gonna do, and just roll with it.
 
Gotta run. Send money. (just kidding).
 
Your quarterback son,
 
Mitch
 
*                          *                          *
 
No Ro’ yet
 
Barring a late contract breakthrough, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t expected before the start of practices on Friday. Smith is one of more than a dozen No. 1 picks still unsigned, not completely unusual because of details like offset language in the event a player is released before the end of his fourth season and the structure of paying signing bonuses. The Bears are not evincing serious concern at this point, although defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is among those who have acknowledged the impediment that missed time poses to a player’s development.
 
“There's a lot of details that go into these things,” said GM Ryan Pace. “We're optimistic that he's here soon. It's really part of the process and meanwhile we're rolling forward with the guys that are here and you know that chemistry and continuity is important.
 
The Bears are working on contract extensions for a handful of what they deem to be rising talents, as they did this offseason with a four-year contract for cornerback Kyle Fuller. “Obviously we're mindful of the guys in the final years of their contacts,” Pace said. “We've got a handful of them. Obviously those contract [details] we're going to keep internal. Those are really good players and we're mindful of it as we go forward and we'll have a plan in place.”
 
 
*                          *                          *
 
Long-range danger
 
Wide receivers Allen Robinson, Kevin White, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton have been tasked with bringing a level of firepower that the organization is counting on to be on par with the Martellus Bennett-Matt Forte-Alshon Jeffery-Brandon Marshall cluster of five seasons ago. One key member of this year’s group sees danger for defenses regardless of where the Bears are on the field.
 
“Kevin White brings a lot to the table, as well,” Robinson said. “I think for him being such a big physical specimen, I think he’s at any point on the field and any point in time, I think he’s where we literally can possibly get six points on the board. Maybe off a deep ball. Maybe off a catch-and-fun. Anything like that.
 
“Whenever you’ve got him and Taylor and Anthony and those guys on the field, I mean, to be honest, we can any point in time are six points away.”
 
*                          *                          *
 
How “physical” is too physical? Too soft? Just right?
 
The Bears have grappled with injury demons for too much of the past five seasons, with training-camp intensities ranging from a lighter, get-off-your-feet program under Marc Trestman to a time-tested system under veteran head coach John Fox. Neither approach saved the Bears once the season commenced, and now Matt Nagy has declared “physical” to be the measuring standard. The trick will be balancing full-contact, padded practice sessions with enough near-realistic intensity without risking injury any more than necessary.
 
“It has to be competitive,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It has to be where you get out there and a couple days hot, back to back to back, and coach is running you hard and it’s giving us a little test. You need those moments. Those are the moments I look forward to at training camp, where you know it gets a little aggressive out there. I think that builds not only your team confidence but that tenacity, that edge you need to have to play, especially defense.”
 
Training camps before the backing-off occasioned by the strictures of the collective bargaining agreement were notoriously physical, with double-session days in full pads common. They were also longer, as long as the 32-day first camp under new coach Dave Wannstedt in 1993. Camp opened that year on July 14 for a season with a Sept. 5 opening day.
 
This preseason year is in that range. The Bears begin their season Sept. 9 at Green Bay, and are starting now with the extra week of prep for a fifth preseason game on Aug. 2 as part of Hall of Fame ceremonies.
 
“I think it’ll be good to get a chance for our offense to sharpen up what they need to sharpen, our defense to relearn and revisit some of the things we need to revisit.,” Hicks said. “More time together is only beneficial. You just have to make sure you’re taking care of your guys. And I’m sure our coaching staff won’t have a problem doing that.”