Matt Nagy fidgeted through most of Monday’s 42-minute press conference at Halas Hall, giving off every vibe of a coach deeply frustrated that his team isn’t prepping for the NFC Championship after crashing out of the playoffs eight days prior.
Even the most positive, easily-sharable quote Nagy gave about the future of his team was done through the guise of being, simply put, pissed off about how a wildly successful 12-4 season ended with a disappointing thud (or double-doink).
“What I'm most excited about is when we get to OTAs and we get to training camp, I can't even begin to explain how pumped up I am to take what we just put together this past year and fine tune it to our players and our coaches and our scheme,” Nagy said. “And then just get it down to what we think gives us a better opportunity to be much better next year.”
A defense loaded with talent will be good again in 2019, even with a new coordinator. But the best way for the Bears to build on their NFC North title and not only return to the playoffs, but make a legitimate Super Bowl push, will be for Nagy’s offense to make significant strides in Year 2. And just about everyone around Halas Hall has conviction that growth is entirely possible.
1. Advanced courses in the spring.
When the Bears first congregated at Halas Hall last April 3, nobody really knew what to expect from Nagy’s offense — literally. Nagy brought a scheme and language foreign to everyone but backup quarterback Chase Daniel and, to a lesser extent, tight end Trey Burton.
“We were just trying to figure out the formations and where to get lined up and who was going to be where,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “Just real vanilla stuff.”
That was to be expected. But the expectation when Bears players report to Halas Hall in mid-April for 2019’s offseason program — which will consist of workouts, organized team activities and a minicamp — will be they firmly grasp the basics of Nagy’s offense. Maybe a handful of new players will need to get caught up, but it’s not like the whole team will be stuck in Football 101 again.
“They all know that,” Nagy said. “We're speaking the same lingo.”
OTAs and minicamps carry loads of importance for coaches, even in the seemingly-monotonous nature of non-padded shorts-and-helmets practices in May and June. But if 2018’s offseason program was all about learning a new language and just making sure guys were lining up in the right spots and running the right routes, 2019’s will be about taking that knowledge and using it to begin making the offense more effective.
And that’s not to say the Bears’ offense didn’t make strides during the season, either. While it wasn’t a straight line of growth from April 3 to Jan. 6, the progress was there, culminating in Trubisky driving the Bears into field goal range with time expiring in a playoff game.
“From the time OTAs hit with us just learning the formations, just trying to get lined up, to be in this position now to go down with (56) seconds left to get to the 20-yard line, to have a shot in the end zone to give ourselves a shot to win the game, with even an attempt in the end zone,” Robinson said, “I think that says it all in itself.’
2. Progression from Trubisky.
With the emotions of a playoff loss still raw last week, Nagy delivered an impassioned summation of his quarterback’s play in 2018 in Soldier Field’s press conference room.
“I was just telling somebody in there, no one, not one person truly knows how far that kid has come this year than me,” Nagy said. “I mean, we're lucky. We're lucky to have him. I'm looking forward to the future. I really am, with him, because the city of Chicago is lucky to have that kid at quarterback.”
Trubisky ranked behind only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees by ESPN’s total QBR metric, which aims to calculate a quarterback’s contributions to his team winning. But that very much is an outlier: Trubisky ranked 16th in passer rating, 20th in DVOA and 32nd in PFF grading (among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop-backs). He threw an interception on 2.8 percent of his passes, tied for the 10th worst in the NFL.
“I thought I got better, but I'm just scratching the surface, hopefully,” Trubisky said. “I know this experience, I'm just going to do a lot of self-reflecting and make sure that I get better from this and that it motivates me to become the best player I possibly can.”
The Bears expect the experience Trubisky gained through OTAs, minicamp, training camp, preseason, 14 regular season starts and one playoff game will greatly benefit him as he returns to work at Halas Hall in the spring. Nagy said he saw Trubisky make important improvements with his vision and ability to go through progressions throughout 2018.
But the next step, Nagy said, will be Trubisky’s ability to focus less on the operation of the offense and more on what an opposing defense is doing to scheme against him, and how to counter that scheme.
“He knows it all,” Nagy said. “And now he can take that next step of figuring out, okay, here they come. They have got a saw blitz, cover zero, now I know what to do or I know how to check to, protection, all that. That's going to be the big one for him.”
That greater comfort and, as Pace put it, “natural growth” should help Trubisky avoid some of the head-scratching mistakes he made throughout the course of the season, whether it was due to sloppy footwork, mis-reading a defense or trying to do too much. But the emphasis is on “should” there. If it doesn’t, it won’t matter if the Bears’ offense moves on from Football 101 to more advanced lessons in the playbook.
“To be able to come into this season with new personnel, with new scheme, new everything to be able to handle everything how he handled this year, like I’ve said from Day 1 when I stepped in here, the sky’s the limit for him,” Robinson said. “I truly believe that and I knew he believes that.”
3. Tweaking the ground game
Pace and Nagy are in lock-step on personnel decisions, and at the top of their offseason wish list for the offense will need to be finding a solution to an inconsistent run game.
Whether or not Jordan Howard will be a part of that solution is the biggest question to answer. Howard seemed to have turned a corner in December, with the third-year back rushing for 399 yards on 88 carries (4.5 yards/attempt) over the final five games of the season. But he managed a paltry 35 yards on 10 carries against the Eagles, reverting back to the meager production that defined his 2018 season.
The Bears ran play-action on only 20 percent of their plays in 2018 (23rd), while only one team — the Jacksonville Jaguars — averaged fewer yards per play on play action than the Bears’ 5.7. No team had a greater gap between their yards per play average on play action and non-play action plays than the Bears’ minus-1.4-yard difference, per Football Outsiders.
The Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, ran play-action on 27 percent of their plays (7th) and averaged 8.6 yards/play on those (8th). So there’s certainly room for an effective play-action game that could greatly benefit Trubisky within Nagy’s offense — he just wasn’t able to find it in 2018.
Meanwhile, Howard — cast as a downhill, physical running back — broke tackles on a shade under 10 percent of his touches, per Football Outsiders, slightly lower than the broken tackle rate of wide receiver Anthony Miller.
This doesn’t mean the Bears are guaranteed to move on from Howard, who is in the final year of his cheap rookie contract. But there has to be an improvement on the ground in 2019, with or without Howard.
Pace and Nagy kept the door open to explore bringing in Kareem Hunt, the former Kansas City Chiefs star who is on the commissioner’s exempt list after video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman from an incident in February. Allegedly, Hunt also punched a man in a separate incident last June, and was allegedly involved in a violent incident at a nightclub last January as well.
Undoubtedly, Hunt is a talented player who would make the Bears’ offense better. But Nagy frequently preaches culture and bringing in people with “good, high character,” as he explained as the No. 1 reason that he was interested in hiring Chuck Pagano to replace Vic Fangio. No matter Nagy’s past relationship with Hunt, signing him would be inconsistent with that message, and could be a hard sell to the McCaskey family that stuck its neck out for Ray McDonald in 2015 only to have the defensive end again be arrested for domestic assault.
The Chiefs found Hunt in the third round of the 2017, draft; that’s the same round in which the Bears’ first pick in 2019 will be. They can find a cheap replacement for Howard there that not only fits Nagy’s offense well, but also wouldn’t risk alienating a portion of the fanbase.
Or maybe the Bears will absorb the negative press about Hunt and go ahead and be the team that gives him a second chance — because, make no mistake, some team will, even with that disturbing video easily available for anyone to see. Hunt is expected to be suspended for at least six, perhaps more, games once he’s removed from the exempt list.
Whatever the solution is, though, this is an area of the Bears’ offense that will need to be better in 2019. And whatever the larger solution, is, too, it’ll also heavily involve Tarik Cohen — who only had four touches against the Eagles, which Nagy was asked about on Monday.
“If you think that I don't want to get Tarik Cohen the ball, then we need to reevaluate where we're at because I don't think you know me too well,” Nagy said.
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