Taking a step back from last night’s Bears win, consider this:
The only touchdown scored in a game featuring two first-place teams, one of which has the NFL’s best offense, came on a play with exactly zero running backs, wide receivers and tight ends on the field. Four of the five eligible receivers were defensive linemen, and the other was an offensive lineman. The play started with a run fake to a 332-pound defensive tackle and ended with a pass to a 312-pound offensive tackle.
Call it gimmicky, call it cute — use whatever slightly-veiled critical term you want. It worked on a night when the Los Angeles Rams, a team that averaged 35 points per game, wound up in the end zone once. And that was when Eddie Goldman dropped Jared Goff for a safety.
“If it wouldn’t have worked, you all would be ripping me right now,” coach Matt Nagy said of “Santa’s Sleigh.”
Nagy hasn’t shied away from not just thinking outside the box in his first year as a head coach. He’s scored touchdowns with two quarterbacks on the field (“Willy Wonka”), a defensive tackle carrying the ball (“Freezer Left”) and a 5-foot-6 running back throwing the ball (“Oompa Loompa”). The Bears converted a two-point conversion against the Vikings with Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris lined up as half of a diamond formation on one side of the field. Safety Eddie Jackson and nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan have played offensive snaps, too.
But the process matters just as much as the results of these plays. And Nagy isn’t just calling these plays just to give his players a morale boost or because he’s showboating in the face of decades of conventional wisdom. There’s a method to his madness, if you will.
“As a quality control coach, when you’re up in the booth and you’re trying to tell the D-coordinator that those four numbers are coming in, and I don’t know if they necessarily prepare for that,” Nagy said. “So I always tell you guys, any advantage you can get — and now you gotta be able to make sure it’s something that you feel like you can be worthwhile and not foolish. There’s that balance there. And so the other part of it too is our guys love it. They enjoy it, they have fun, they’re working. Maybe we’ll stay away from them for a few weeks and come back to it later.”
The other part of these plays: Players believe in them. Bradley Sowell, who caught the touchdown on “Santa’s Sleigh,” made mention of Nagy getting criticized for the first time a play was designed to get him the ball (a pass that should’ve been picked off in the end zone against the New England Patriots).
“He tried it with me earlier in the season and got flack for it,” Sowell said.
The Bears trust that these plays are going to work, and that Nagy believes his players can get out of their comfort zone to execute them. That’s why we’ve seen Hicks scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants or Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel faking a read option before popping a pass to Taylor Gabriel for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“If you have a ‘why’ behind why you do it, then it makes sense,” Nagy said. “They’re not all gonna work. There’s gonna be some where I’m gonna be standing up here and you guys (the media) are gonna be saying ‘you’re an idiot.’ But that’s inevitable. I’ll accept that. They’re working right now and the guys like it, so keep going.”
One other interesting aspect of “Santa’s Sleigh” is that Nagy said the play wasn’t devised just because Hicks had scored a touchdown on “Freezer Left” the week prior. Getting the Rams to bite on the play fake to Hicks was important, of course, but when the Bears line up with six offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and a quarterback on the field, the natural thought is they’re going to run the ball. Making sure the Rams respect Hicks’ running ability — which is an absolutely wild thought to type — was important, but not the reason why the play was drawn up.
“You could do whatever you want to do,” Nagy said. “It’s endless. There’s so much good stuff you can do.”