Going back and reading some of the quotes said by Bears players and Matt Nagy in the immediate aftermath of their gutting season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers is enlightening, now that we’re three months and 12 games removed from it.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said “we have a bunch of guys that want to win.” Offensive lineman Kyle Long said “I thought the coaches did a great job.” Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said “We played together, we played as a team.”
And coach Matt Nagy said his team did not, and would not, point any fingers in the aftermath of blowing a 20-point lead in front of a national audience.
The point here being: This was a team that had an idea of how good it could be, even if it didn’t collectively show it over the final 15 minutes of a 24-23 loss at Lambeau Field. The Bears aren’t out for revenge with the Packers coming to Soldier Field on Sunday — yes, that Week 1 loss has stuck with them, but moreso as part of this team’s push to finish out games. Perhaps the best payback is where the two teams are in the standings: The Bears cannot be passed by the Packers in the NFC North, and with a win on Sunday would not only clinch the division but effectively eliminate Green Bay from the playoffs.
“We’ve been watching the cut-ups, and it’s like 20-0 in the third and I’m just thinking, like, man, how did we lose this game?” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “But yeah, … I don’t think we see most of this game as a redemption game, but we definitely do remember it and we know what’s at stake and are just trying to get to win No. 10.”
Still, that Week 1 loss proved two things to the Bears that have been critical factors in their success in 2018:
1. An eye-opening experience
Khalil Mack had been with the Bears for all of one week before he debuted for his new team at Lambeau Field. Players knew how good he was from the highlights he made with the Oakland Raiders, and he made an immediate impression from the first practice rep he took.
But there was something different about actually going out and playing with him in Green Bay. Mack was a terror, coming up with a sack-strip-fumble recovery all in one play and getting a pick-six while consistently pressuring Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer in the first half.
“The man came in, he absolutely changed the whole face of that game and our defense, we carried that momentum,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “Like, we got some dogs now, let’s go.
“… Just to be out there, you got a different sense of it. Like, it’s really real when you’re out there. Bullets flying, you get to see what type of player you really have and I know we had a great player.”
The addition of Mack has been the biggest single factor in the Bears’ jump from being a top-10 defense in 2017 to being the NFL’s best defense in 2018 (anyone who wants to challenge that statement — go watch the tape from the Rams game). This was a defense bursting with confidence before the acquisition of Mack, but his pass-rushing presence has had a massive impact on the rest of this team.
Opposing quarterbacks frequently are out of rhythm because of the threat of Mack getting to them, allowing guys like Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson to feel emboldened to be more aggressive. The Bears don’t have the best ballhawking secondary in the league solely because of Mack, but he’s been a significant help in this team having 25 interceptions after three consecutive years with only eight.
“I don’t want to say he put us on the map because our defense was already there, but he just brought a whole new dynamic to our team,” Amukamara said. “Another (guy with) playmaking ability, and bringing that momentum and that adrenaline was something we could build off of.”
The Bears believed they could have a great defense in 2018, but the addition of Mack has taken it a step further: Vic Fangio’s group is building toward one of the best defensive seasons ever. And Mack proved that lofty of a goal would be possible with what he showed in Green Bay.
2. Belief in their coach
Players grew to believe in and trust Nagy from their first team meeting in early April until their last practice before the regular season, so there was already a foundation in place when that 20-point advantage dissipated in the face of a sluggish offense and a classic Rodgers comeback.
But how Nagy approached such a brutal defeat in the visiting locker room at Lambeau Field only furthered his players’ belief and trust in him.
“Coach Nagy was very optimistic and he was saying, like, hey this one’s going to hurt but he was proud that we fought and he liked how we started and that we just needed to finish,” Amukamara said. “That’s huge. As a player after you let one slip by you, you don’t want to get beat down even more, so the fact that he was encouraged, I think that really lifted our spirits up and we got to see how he reacted after a game like that.”
That his message resonated so positively with players on both sides of the ball is remarkable given the circumstances: A first-time head coach with an offensive background blowing a 20-point lead to a historic rival, on the road, in primetime, when this franchise hasn’t had any success against said historic rival in a long time.
But Nagy emerged from those circumstances with an even stronger reputation in the Bears’ locker room. Three months, nine “Club Dubs” and several postgame “booms” later, the Bears’ respect of Nagy is abundantly clear.
“He’s our identity,” Trevathan said. “Whatever he says is our identity — we feel that way, but he says it. When he says it, it’s like dang, he really feels the same way we feel, he’s really on our side, that’s our coach, man.
“… That’s just the type of coach Nagy is. He’s a different type of coach. It’s his first year, but it doesn’t look like it. It feels like he’s been with the team for a (while). He’s out there with his identity, he’s taking care of us and the team is just playing toward his attitude.”