There was a not insignificant period of time, in my tweens and teens, when I wanted to be an astronaut. I obsessively watched “Space Camp” (still a great movie), bought books on aeronautics and aerospace that I didn’t understand, and dreamed of the day I would don an unflattering blue jumpsuit and blast off for parts unknown.
Eventually though, I came to understand three things: 1) being an astronaut meant lots of math; 2) I didn’t like math; and 3) I wasn’t particularly interested in or good at math. Even a young Lea Thompson and Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix weren’t enough to get me over the hump. But if NASA ever puts out a call for sports writers, I’ll be first in line.
I’m telling you all of this because I realized around age 15 something that Bears head coach Matt Nagy has yet to realize: Just because you want something badly doesn’t mean you’re good enough to have it.
When Nagy took over the Bears in 2018, he was heralded as a young offensive potential genius, cut from the same cloth as Sean McVay and Adam Gase (I know!) and raised up to offensive coordinator by none other than the hallowed Andy Reid. In his first season, Nagy pulled all matter of trick plays out of his bag of . . . tricks. The Willy Wonka! Santa’s Sleigh! The Oompa Loompa! The Freezer Left! In Chicago, we loved them all, convinced we had a bona fide savant on our hands, finally giving Chicago the white whale we’ve longed for our entire lives: A creative offense.
Looking back though, things started going south for the Bears’ offense as early as Week 14 of 2018, the year they went 12-4 and won the division. Chicago only managed to score one touchdown in a 15-6 win over the Rams that week; two weeks later they put up only 14 in a win over San Francisco. Two weeks after that, in the playoffs, kicker Cody Parky put up the bulk of the Bears’ 15 points on 3 field goals, only to break hearts all over the Windy City with the infamous double doink.
Here’s where I should mention that all of this took place with a really extremely very good defense that ended the season ranked 1st in the NFL in fewest points allowed.
In 2019, Bears fans expected a lot and got exactly diddly-squat. The offense fell flat on its face on Thursday Night Football (against the Packers, no less), and spent the rest of the season trying to figure out what happened to the offense while, on the other side of the ball, the defense got more injured and a year older. Fans blamed third-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky, (now banished to the sidelines in favor of Nick Foles), but there were grumblings about Nagy’s play calling even then. It was just hard to tell how bad the play-calling was with Trubisky checking down all the time. The Bears finished the season 29th in the league in both scoring and total yards.
But but but! We were assured part of the problem was that Nagy didn’t have “his guys.” He needed more versatile running backs! He needed better TEs (at one point the Bears had 10 on the roster). He needed a better (read: smarter) QB who could understand his system and make quick adjustments. Over the course of two offseasons, out went Jordan Howard, Trey Burton, and Chase Daniel. In came Jimmy Graham, David Montgomery, and Foles. Out went a host of offensive coaches. In came Matt Nagy’s handpicked guys.
So here we are in 2020 and a Bears quarterback is finally saying out loud what everyone has been saying privately for a season and a half: Nagy’s play-calling stinks.
Despite somehow awkwardly lurching their way to 5-2 and vying for the NFC North, it’s clear to anyone watching the game that the play-calling hasn’t improved since 2018. If anything, it’s gotten worse. In 2019, Nagy seemed genuinely convinced that a run game was only for peasants. And despite announcing in post-game presser after post-game presser that he knew he needed to run the ball, he continued to, you guessed it, not run the ball. Then there was an entire season of trying to force Trubisky to stand in the pocket when it was clear he was much better with a little freedom to move around. So far this season, the Bears are 28th in the league in points scored.
Look, Nick Foles isn’t going to be compared to Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees anytime soon. And it seems the broken shell of Mitch Trubisky, now watching forlornly from the sidelines, was never the guy to make Nagy’s system work. But the Bears have switched up just about everything they can switch up, outside of who calls the plays.
For his part, Nagy has always bristled at the idea of handing over play-calling to someone else, even though he says he has no ego about it. But with another refusal to hand over the laminated sheet again this week, it’s time for GM Ryan Pace to step in and make him.
Every game the Bears spend trying to figure Nagy’s system is another game of wear-and-tear on the defense, and another four quarters of obvious frustration on the part of the few good offensive players the Bears do have and would like to keep around.
Pace has been hands off the last two seasons. Nagy was his guy. A guy he staked his reputation (and probably job) on, just like he staked it on trading up to get Trubisky in the draft in 2017 (no I’m not over it). If you’ve ever seen Pace and Nagy in a room together, they are each other’s guys, delighted to be in one another’s company. But this is the National Football League, not the National Friends League. And as much as it will pain Pace to do it, the Bears need to find out if this season is salvageable sooner rather than later.
As long as Matt Nagy refuses to hand over the reins, we’ll likely never know.