Matt Nagy

Anthony Miller's earned the Bears' trust. Now he just needs to prove he can keep it.

Anthony Miller's earned the Bears' trust. Now he just needs to prove he can keep it.

Given how confusing and uncertain the Bears’ offense has been this season, there’s a bit of irony in the fact it has always been clear when they do or do not trust Anthony Miller. 

Like, for instance, the first three games of the season, when Miller was targeted five times, catching three balls for 17 yards. Or in the three weeks leading up to their Week 11 loss in Los Angeles, when Miller had four catches on six targets. He’ll disappear as quickly as he reappears a month later, and working to remain consistent throughout a full season has proved difficult through the first two years of Miller’s career. 

“He cares. He cares a lot,” Mitch Trubisky said. “He works his tail off in practice. Just that communication from him – that he wants the ball, and you know that he has the ability to get open within this offense. He's done a lot from the learning standpoint about where he belongs within each spot, within each concept, and even when he's not getting the ball, where he's blocking, who he's blocking.” 

Then there are stretches, like over the last month, when he looks like he could be a focal point of the offense. He’s been targeted 37 times over the last four games, with 18 receptions, 313 yards and a touchdown (finally!). Miller’s not the first wide receiver to insist he’s a volume guy and definitely won’t be the last, but the offense is inarguably more dynamic when Miller’s involved – which, so far, has meant finding a drive or two where he gets four or five targets. 

“I definitely feel different,” Miller said after setting a career-high in receptions (9) and yards (140) during the Bears’ Thanksgiving win over Detroit. “I feel like I’m getting more opportunities, I feel like I’m getting more involved. When I’m more involved I feel like I can make a lot of plays for this team. Coaches have just been giving me the opportunities and I’ve been taking advantage.” 

The Bears’ coaches will certainly take 9 receptions for 140 yards, but Miller's talent as a pass catcher has never been what frustrated Matt Nagy, Mark Helfrich and company. It was Miller’s habit for mental mistakes – like cutting a route off two yards short on an interception in Los Angeles – and undisciplined play, like the taunting penalty on a touchdown celebration in London. To Miller’s credit, Nagy is quick to give the wide receiver credit for never making the same mistake twice; a finer attention to executing details also happened to be what the head coach liked most about Miller’s touchdown against Dallas. 

“What I liked about Anthony was he caught the ball and he set up his blocks and got vertical,” Nagy said. “It was aggressive. He had a mindset that no one's stopping him getting to that goal line and you felt it. And you felt the energy after he scored. Just again another example of guys detailing leverage, detailing what they're supposed to do, executing and making us look like good coaches.” 

This season, Miller’s seemed to have a weird, probably-coincidental habit of playing well for three game stretches, and then disappearing for three game stretches. It’s actually kind of uncanny. If you’re superstitious you may want to look away, because right now he’s one (quiet) game removed from his best three-game stretch of the season. Give us some reassurance, Mitch! 

“He's earned that trust and he's been busting his tail to get on the same page with me,” the quarterback said on Wednesday. “And he's done a tremendous job for this offense, especially stepping up when some of the other guys being out.”

Sunday is Matt Nagy's chance to prove the Bears' changes are for real

Sunday is Matt Nagy's chance to prove the Bears' changes are for real

Matt Nagy thinks about the Packers a lot. 

He thinks about his first career game as an NFL head coach, at Lambeau Field, and how he’ll “never forget that day, that game, for so many different reasons.” 

He thinks about his first NFC North title, which was clinched when Eddie Jackson intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the end zone, avenging the season’s earlier loss.

And he thinks about Week 1 of this season, when millions of eyes tuned in on Opening Night to watch a supposed Super Bowl contender score three points, at home, in a loss to the Packers. 

“I try not to remember too much of that,” he said. “That was a rough one.”  

It just so happens that, this week, everyone else is thinking about the Packers too. On the surface level, it’s the 200th meeting in one the league’s most storied rivalries, and a pivotal game in this year’s race for the second Wild Card spot. There’s Aaron Rodgers, who Nagy called, “competitive as hell.” There’s a talented-and-maybe-underperforming defense, with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith on the edges creating matchup nightmares for an offensive line that’s undergone more change than anyone. 

“We knew what kind of players they were,” he added. “They’re not unknown anymore.” 

If you wanted to get esoteric, there’s a great redemption narrative to Sunday’s game too. The Packers came into Chicago and exposed the Bears’ starters – who, you’ll remember, sat out the preseason. Things would get worse – so much worse – but the book was out on Nagy’s Bears, and it took them three months to recover. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now,” Mitch Trubisky said. “We’re a different team. There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Things have been different than Week 1, even if you couldn’t say that until Week 12. Nagy has admittedly found a better rhythm as a play-caller, and many of the issues that plagued the Bears in Week 1 haven’t been an issue lately. The tight end room is producing, they’re shifting through personnel groupings less, and the run game has stabilized – all vital components of the offense that best suits the 2019 Bears. It’s not what Nagy envisioned, but 202 ended up being formative in ways he never expected. 

“I feel like a better coach going through this for the players, for my coaches and just the way we communicate,” he said. “The honesty, the belief in one another; going through this is important and it'll help me in the long run, to be able to handle these type of situations when they arise again.”

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What's changed about Mitch Trubisky? Nothing, and the Bears are thrilled

What's changed about Mitch Trubisky? Nothing, and the Bears are thrilled

Guess they weren’t lying after all.

All year, the Bears have been telling us that Mitch Trubisky’s as even-keeled as they come. It’s about the only sound bite that comes up every Sunday, regardless of the outcome.

“It's confidence. Mitch is confident back there,” Taylor Gabriel said back in June. “So I feel like, like I said, it's just a drastic change from last year.”

Six months later, and Trubisky would have every reason, and then some, to be having a crisis of confidence. The Bears – then presumptive NFC favorites – kicked off the NFL’s 100th birthday party by scoring three points at home. He then sprained his shoulder in Week 4, ending the game in a sling on the sideline as he watched backup Chase Daniel once again look more comfortable operating the offense. Things got even WORSE when he came back, and the Bears’ historically-bad offense was booed early and often during their midseason four-game losing streak.

People called for Cam Newton, and Andy Dalton. People even called for Eli Manning! The city of Chicago 'Irish Goodbyed' the Bears’ franchise quarterback and it didn’t change him for a second. At least, not from where the head coach is sitting.  

“You know, even within our team and our offense, you can go through some struggles,” Matt Nagy said on Wednesday. “And you feel that – and confidence is a part of that. Whether it’s individually how you’re playing, same thing.”

So has there been any change in his demeanor, now that a thousand Daves from Winnetka aren’t constantly on-the-line yelling for his replacement?

“Not really, no,” added Nagy. “It hasn’t.”

Quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone acknowledged the expectations facing Trubisky and pointed to his knack for playing well late in the game, or in important moments. To Ragone, it's the sign of a quarterback who has the skillset to make it as, as he calls it, a “Top Gun.” Trubisky will only be 25 when his fourth NFL training camp begins next July, and the Bears are thrilled with the leadership qualities they’ve seen from the 13th-youngest player on their roster.

“Obviously your play on the field is hugely important to you continuing to be the face of a franchise, but there’s a lot more that goes into playing quarterback in the National Football League than just throwing a slant route on time,” Ragone said. “Hopefully you can grow into it, and I think you see as a kid who came in here when he was 22, and is now 25, he’s maturing not just as a player, but as a person.”

As for Trubisky himself, the quarterback mentioned that if this season has taught him anything, it’s how to better stay unaffected by the media narratives he was so infamously hearing around Halas Hall. Like, for instance, when Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams talked about how the Packers’ plan to beat the Bears in Week 1 mainly involved “forcing [Trubisky] to play quarterback.” Trubisky was unspectacular (26-45, 228 yards) in that loss, and on Wednesday, if you can believe it, mostly (mostly) wasn’t biting on the Revenge Game narrative – just like the Bears like it.

“I got enough motivation from the outside, and I guess that’s even more motivation,” he said. “I didn’t hear that. I don’t really care.”

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