The disconcerting Bears 10-3 loss to start the season against the Green Bay Packers was surprising and initially concerning. It shouldn’t have been, not entirely.
What will be surprising and very concerning will be if the Chicago offense under Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich do not adjust to certain realities that the dismal offensive performance brought to the fore.
And along with all of this is an overarching need for some perspective on Nagy in particular, something that has been in short supply during the fawning gush-fest that has swirled around Nagy ever since his hiring if for no better reason that he isn’t John Fox.
Nagy has ridden the crest wave of adulation and media canonization borne out of the long-standing civic craving for offensive innovation. And after more than one false positive (Gary Crowton, Mike Martz, Marc Trestman, Adam Gase), BearsNation has been primed to embrace someone with the cred that comes with being from the Andy Reid coaching tree.
The need to tap brakes has been there since the Nagy hiring. Funky plays – Freezer Left, Oompah Loompah, Willie Wonka, even the Papa Bear Left T-formation – worked even while the overall offense wasn’t re-defining the NFL, for anyone who was paying close attention.
What sent NagyMania to another level long before the start of the 2019 season was Nagy being named NFL coach of the year, a fitting honor for someone who took a team from 5-11 to 12-4. But the award reflected Nagy’s deft makeover of the entire on-field product, not so much the offense even with all its fun twists. In some respects, until the Chicago offense moves into at least the mid-teens in league rankings, it is still the unit that failed to top 15 points in four of its last six games of 2018, with the nagging suspicion that the NFL indeed has figured some things out about Nagy and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
But to be blunt, Nagy’s success was built on the defense that he inherited, complete with coordinator Vic Fangio and with a massive upgrade in the form of the Khalil Mack trade and drafting of Roquan Smith. (Just for casual comparison purposes: Nagy was given a gently broken-in Trubisky and Mack. John Fox was given Kevin White and Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer.)
This in no way whatsoever disparages Nagy’s coaching accomplishment. Not at all.
But Sean McVay was COTY for 2017 after turning around the Los Angeles Rams and Jared Goff. Offense.
Jason Garrett, 2016 COTY. The Cowboys at No. 4 overall draft Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the NFL in rushing, and Dak Prescott in the fourth round, with Prescott joining Elliott on the Pro Bowl roster after leading the Cowboys to No. 5 in points and yardage. Offense.
Ron Rivera, 2015 COTY. A defense guy but who had quarterback Cam Newton emerge as the league’s MVP. Offense.
Bruce Arians, 2014 COTY… . You get the point.
Nagy’s 2018 season was an epic turnaround for the franchise. It did not happen because of his offense.
Again, no slight of Nagy whatsoever. Just a dose of perspective, one which, best guess, Nagy himself is keeping.
Beyond the minutiae of Thursday – Eddy Pineiro’s field goal range, delay-of-game penalties, Cordarrelle Patterson as the short-yardage back, etc. – the broader issue hanging over Nagy from the Green Bay game is the run game. The overall run-pass relationship, actually.
Through three quarters against Green Bay, the Bears had netted just 120 yards on 27 pass plays (23 throws, four sacks); average, 4.4 yards per play. The rushing average at 3.1 yards certainly wasn’t dominating, but to be that wedded to a failing strategy is not the stuff of an enlightened offensive mind.
If the Bears suddenly are groping for an identity to their suspect abilities to run the football, the chief fault lies with Nagy, not Jordan Howard anymore. Not necessarily the offensive line, either; the strength of the line is the interior, particularly guards Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair. Tackle make Pro Bowls for pass blocking, guards for run blocking, and Long and Whitehair have been Pro Bowl’ers, albeit Whitehair at center. The Bears have invested heavy draft and financial capital in Long, Whitehair and center James Daniels. The decision not to give them the opportunity to take the heart out of the Packers lies with Nagy. Fox kept the reins on a rookie Trubisky; Nagy did the same with the heart of his offensive line.
Nagy has, to his credit, pointed the thumb rather than a finger as recently as Thursday night after a game in which he called 50 pass plays vs. 15 run plays in a game in which the Bears never trailed by more than one score. That he was unable to adjust and was so locked in to throwing when Trubisky wasn’t doing it very well is a substantial indictment of Nagy.
Observations have been that Nagy becomes bored with the run game. Not sure that’s necessarily the case; no coach is bored with something that goes well.
Nagy, however, is a quarterback by training and DNA, and those guys think throwing is just simply what you do, as in, “If God didn’t want us to pass, then why did he give us arms?” Besides, NFL rules-makers have tilted the game that way anyway.
And as certain past failed Chicago offensive leaders (Trestman, others) did, when the run component of the game plan faltered, it was abandoned as just not working that day.
Nagy appeared to succumb to that mindset on Thursday. The Bears ran 10 times in the first quarter against Green Bay and had seven pass plays. The runs averaged a paltry 3.6 yards. In the second quarter, one carry, average down to 3.1. Nagy did the first two drives of the third quarter with runs but that was about it for the game.
Last year the Bears ran 29 times and called 29 pass plays in the second Green Bay game and put 332 yards and 24 points on a Mike Pettine defense, the same Mike Pettine who outcoached Nagy and the offense last Thursday.
Nagy has only once experienced a losing season since entering the NFL in 2008 as a junior member of Reid’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles. That was back in 2012. The 2019 season obviously is only one game old, but Nagy himself said that this is a vastly different and more difficult loss than the one that opened the 2018 season, which was on the road and as an underdog. It was Nagy’s honeymoon season as a new and first-time head coach in an in-stall year; every situation was a learning experience, positive for the most part.
Now his Bears, who were favored on Thursday, already have lost as many home games this year as they did in all of ’18.
The NFL spent much of 2018 learning about the Nagy offense while the Fangio defense was dominating. Now it falls to Nagy to do the learning.
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