Julius Campbell (played by Wood Harris) said it best in the all-time sports movie Remember the Titans: “Attitude reflect leadership, Captain.”
After the Chicago Bears’ mortifying opening night loss to the Green Bay Packers, Matt Nagy stood in front of the media and took the heat in that refreshing way he’s become known for.
“It’s not who we are,” he said of the Bears’ performance.
“It starts with me…I didn’t help [Mitchell Trubisky] at all,” he added, pointing the blame at himself for his unbalanced, unsuccessful scheme (including running the ball on just 23% of the team’s offensive plays) that led to just three points against a pretty mediocre Packers defense.
That candor is one of the things that helped Nagy earn Coach of the Year honors in his first season as Chicago’s head honcho. He shoulders the blame when it’s needed and protects his guys (for the most part) even when they struggle as badly as Mitchell Trubisky did in that game.
But it sure feels like Nagy’s been repeating these points a little too often for comfort in regards to offensive struggles in big moments.
The Bears ran 23 plays in the fourth quarter. Matt Nagy called 23 passes, 0 runs… and Trubisky completed just 12 of those 4th quarter attempts
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) September 6, 2019
The last game that counted for the Bears before Thursday’s loss – the Wild Card Round match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles that ended in cruel disappointment – featured a similar formula to this one: three quarters of disjointed offense followed by late signs of life that came too late.
Flash back to last year’s Week 1 loss to Green Bay, and you could see a different but similarly concerning parallel between that second-half collapse and the one the Kansas City Chiefs suffered in Nagy’s final game calling plays for them in 2017 (also a Wild Card game): a dominating first half followed by an anemic second-half performance that allowed the opposing team to come back and steal a victory.
Offenses known for creativity and innovation suddenly falter.
Dominating defensive performances go for naught as defenders run out of gas, and morale, as the pressure mounts to not give up so much as another point.
Good teams drop games they should have won.
Perhaps these momentary lapses in poise in Nagy’s game plan are to be expected of a man who’s only called plays at the NFL level for about 1.5 seasons — Andy Reid didn’t hand him the reins to the Kansas City Chiefs offense officially until Week 12 of 2017.
One could argue Nagy is still trying to figure out his own identity as an NFL coach and play-caller in addition to helping his quarterback and team discover who they are.
But there’s a limit to the amount of understanding and patience afforded to this quest for consistency.
Ryan Pace has built a roster with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Trubisky is in his third season, and the Bears likely still have no idea if they can win a Super Bowl with him. Time is short for feeling things out.
Pace knew there would be an adjustment period last season, given that Trubisky had only started 25 games in college and the NFL combined and Nagy didn’t even have half a season as a primary play-caller under his belt.
But Thursday’s loss and the continued repetition of past mistakes were not part of the plan. Even worse, it suggests Nagy may not be learning from his failures as much as he wants to.
#Bears HC Matt Nagy on moving on from Week 1 loss: "You identify the problem, you fix it and you move on. You don't dwell on it."
— Larry Mayer (@LarryMayer) September 9, 2019
I’m starting to wonder if there’s some heavy truth to the idea Nagy thinks too much like a quarterback: trying to throw his way out of problems and relying too much on wrinkles and gimmicks as a way to fool opponents — his Arena League background might play into both habits.
When he’s calling plays confidently and loosely, you see generally balance and a healthy mix of standard “spread coast” passing concepts, straight-up downhill zone runs and fun gadget plays sprinkled in. He knows he can run whatever he wants, and the offense executes that way.
But when things aren’t going well, the throws pile up. Balance goes out the window. The game lies almost solely in the hands of the quarterback, who starts to flail and lose their poise as the pressure mounts. The panic seeps into the offense, and failure ensues.
Matt Nagy: "We didn’t run the ball enough last night. … For me, I’ve never been a part of a game like that. Weird game. No rhythm."
— Kevin Fishbain (@kfishbain) September 6, 2019
(Actually, yes, you have been part of games like that.)
He’s now coaching Trubisky this way whether because that’s just what he knows best or because he’s trying to coach Trubisky out of his big-game ruts or both.
All of those options come at the detriment of the Chicago Bears, with one of the most glaring examples being his decision to make the Bears go for it on 4th-and-10 from the Packers 33-yard rather than let Eddy Pineiro try a 51-yard field goal to make the game 7-6.
Once again, there are a number of reasons for this (still inexplicable) choice that may have made sense to Nagy at the time.
Maybe he didn’t want to show up Chris Tabor, who said Pineiro had a comfortable range of 47 yards pre-game (regardless of what you think of Tabor).
Perhaps a part of Nagy wanted to protect Pineiro (and himself) from the possibility of a miss and the scalding scrutiny that would have followed in the aftermath of the infamous Wild Card game “double-doink.”
But at the end of the day, Matt Nagy is the head coach of the Chicago Bears. The ultimate decision of what to do in that situation lies with him and him alone.
His job is to put the Bears in the best position to win football games. That means scoring more points than the other team. Therefore, passing up the opportunity to put points on the board with a healthy, big-legged kicker (even given the Bears’ recent kicking history) to go for it on a down usually reserved for emergencies and Madden — with a struggling quarterback, no less — seems irresponsible.
Now the media is writing the headline Nagy wanted to avoid in his despite:
Why is Eddy Pineiro on the roster if he can't make a 51-yard field goal? https://t.co/Q1mP1EJBZ3
— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) September 6, 2019
This Bears season can’t become about Nagy’s passing proclivities or his mission to appease or protect certain individuals in his charge.
This has to be about helping this team win, first and foremost.
Nagy’s “Be You” mantra feels apt for him to remember now, but perhaps not in the way you might expect.
As much of a respected player’s coach as he’s becoming, this isn’t about him being the guy who yells “Boom!” in the team huddle.
Though he was hired to advance the Bears offense (and despite what many of us reductively say about his purpose in Chicago), this isn’t about him being the quarterback whisperer/personal coach for Trubisky — that’s Dave Ragone’s job.
(Aside: the hyper-focus on one side of the ball over another and inability to see the big picture is arguably a big reason last two Bears coaches no longer work there.)
This is about being the head coach of the Chicago Bears: both sides of the ball, all three phases of the game, all 53 players on the roster.
He’s not the quarterback. He’s not a coordinator or position coach. He’s the coach.
That’s what Nagy is, or least should be.
He doesn’t need to dispense with the unique personality and background that make him who he is as a coach. But he does need to make sure those things fit with the ultimate goal of getting the most out of this team every week.
If he can’t do that here, he’ll have to “Be You” someplace else sooner than he intends.