ORLANDO — The 2017 Bears’ offense wasn’t aggressive, and it certainly wasn’t flexible. Instead, it was conservative and predictable, but we’re not here to re-litigate that flawed roster and old-school coaching approach.
But with how dour things were for the Bears in 2017 as the backdrop, listening to Matt Nagy talk about what his 2018 offense will look like should provide some reasons for excitement for a fanbase that hasn’t been able to watch a lot of “fun” football in recent years. Nagy’s offensive approach will be aggressive and flexible, designed to create mismatches and take advantage of opposing defensive personnel groupings.
That shouldn’t sound like a novel concept, except that it feels like one after last year. For example: Jordan Howard, who admitted on NFL Network earlier this year that opposing teams “knew what was coming, like, every play,” faced eight or more defenders in the box on 43 percent of his runs. Kareem Hunt, in Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs offense, only had to run loaded boxes on 23 percent of his rushing attempts.
How does Nagy’s offense fix that problem that plagued Howard last year?
“We’re going to always attack you downfield,” Nagy said. “We’re going to make sure that you understand you can’t just sit there at 10 to 12 yards and just wait for these intermediate throws to be thrown. We’re going to go downfield, and we’re going to test you. Not every ball is going to be complete, and that’s okay. It’s going to stretch the defense. It’s going to open it up for guys like Jordan and Tarik to be able to do some things in the run game.”
The Bears didn’t really have a deep threat last year, though, and Tarik Cohen was the only truly flexible player on that offense. On one hand, he didn’t play enough — he only was one the field for more than 40 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps six times — but on the other, that the Bears had to rely on a sort of gadget-type rookie running back for all their offensive versatility last year speaks to how bleak the personnel situation was. Perhaps Adam Shaheen could’ve been used more creatively; it’s also rare for rookie tight ends to make significant impacts. There’s two sides of all of these stories.
But the 2018 Bears have plenty of players who profile as versatile. Shaheen, for one, will primarily be an in-line “Y” tight end, but Nagy said he’ll learn and be used at the split-out “U” tight end position, too. That’s where the Bears project Trey Burton will make his impact, with his ability to block if a defense is in nickel or create a matchup problem against a linebacker if they’re in base.
“It’s what we did with (Travis) Kelce,” Nagy said. “It’s an important role, it’s a position that a lot of our offense, it’s easy to create some plays for. And when you have a guy that has the size that Trey has and the speed that he has, it’s about mismatches.”
Taylor Gabriel and Cohen are both options to play the slot-oriented “Zebra” receiver position, which is where Tyreek Hill made his name with the Kansas City Chiefs. That position has loads of flexibility, and the prospective of a pair of diminutive, speedy guys to use there is a tantalizing thought.
“You see what he can do with screens, he can catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage and take it for a touchdown really on any given play,” Nagy said. “Now a lot of that goes with regards to blocking that goes on with wide receivers and that, but he’s not just that quote-un-quote gadget guy. He can be a true receiver and really do well and excel, and he’s proven that.”
Allen Robinson’s ability to take the top off defenses and beat opposing cornerbacks with his savvy route-running skills from the “X” or “Z” outside receiver spots will keep teams honest, too. Robinson will draw attention from a team’s best cornerback, and pushing the field will keep teams honest as part of Nagy’s aggressive plan.
“He’s a guy that presents a lot of problems to defensive backs just because of his ability with his size,” Nagy said. “But he’s a good route-runner. He’s able to, if you have a smaller DB on him, he can beat you up with his size. A bigger DB, he can beat you up with his route running.”
We’re still five and a half months away from seeing Nagy’s offense in a game that matters, and the Bears still have to optimistically project how good their free agent signings and ascending young players will be. But the way Nagy described how his offense could look here in sunny Orlando, it’s hard to not envision a much more successful, appealing product being on the field come September.