It’s easy to forget Matt Nagy is still a young coach.
He has some gray in his beard, speaks with that authoritative dad voice — perfected by raising four sons — and started working in the NFL when most of the current Bears were in grade school.
But at 42 and only two full seasons into his head-coaching career, some of the tests he will face this year still will be new. Before the Bears hired him, Nagy had served only two seasons as an offensive coordinator, and they were spent under an offensive-minded coach in Andy Reid.
So after Nagy followed his splashy debut season with a belly flop in 2019, the jury’s still out on whether he’s a good coach. But we’re about to get a ruling. The upcoming season will tell the Bears everything they need to know.
It’s an obvious make-or-break season for general manager Ryan Pace and quarterback Mitch Trubisky, but it’s pivotal for Nagy, too. While he’s not quite on the hot seat, he might find himself there if the season goes off-track early.
In the next few months, Nagy faces the unenviable assignment of trying to turn the Bears into a contender without a solid answer at quarterback. He also must lead the organization through myriad coronavirus-related concerns and unite his locker room at a time when players around the league are debating how to protest racial inequality.
For all his accolades as a quarterback whisperer, which was a central reason the Bears hired him in 2018, Nagy never has run a quarterback competition. He has been around them, but this will be his first time as the decider. It’s his responsibility to turn Trubisky and Nick Foles into legitimate NFL starting quarterbacks, then choose which of them is best suited to lead the Bears.
And that might not even be the most pressing on-field issue, considering it’s imperative that Nagy reinvent himself to avoid a repeat of the 2019 debacle offensively.
‘‘If you don’t learn from it, then shame on you,’’ he said at the end of the season.
The passing game was a wreck, as Trubisky plummeted to 27th in the league in passer rating and last in yards per attempt, but the Bears were equally ineffective on the ground. Nagy set what is thought to be the franchise record for fewest rushing attempts in a game with seven in a loss to the Saints, then said: ‘‘I know we need to run the ball more. I’m not an idiot.’’
But the Bears also ran only 15 times in the season-opening loss to the Packers and rushed fewer than 25 times in nine of 16 games. Teams with that few rushes lost nearly 80 percent of the time last season.
Much like the task of fixing the passing game without a proven quarterback, Nagy has to get the Bears running with virtually the same cast on the offensive line and in the backfield.
He’ll be making all those redesigns under maximum pressure. Nagy felt the heat when the Bears struggled early last season, but that’s nothing compared to what it’ll be like if it happens again.
And being a strategist is only half his job; the other half is leading. Nagy will have to steer the Bears through varying fears about the coronavirus and the cumbersome protocol they’ll have to follow to minimize its spread in their building. That’s a new hurdle for every coach in the league, and those who are most flexible will navigate it most deftly.
Nagy also is unlikely to get the unanimity he wants when it comes to players’ feelings about social injustice and what to do about it. He’ll have to show true leadership that goes well beyond football.
But even with everything looming for the upcoming season, bet on Nagy to figure it out. His first two seasons haven’t been perfect, but he’s on the right track.
His character has been widely respected the last two seasons, and he puts as much importance on that as he does anything football-wise. That means something to players, and several already have said they were impressed by how he has facilitated conversations about race in the last month.
As far as coaching goes, Nagy appears willing to adapt. He’s certainly a thrower more than a runner by nature, but the failure of last season hit him hard — in a good way. He’s too smart to be stubborn.
‘‘One of the most impressive things about coach Nagy is the very quick willingness to evaluate himself, to humble himself and to ask the questions, ‘Did I make the right call here? Am I doing this the right way?’ and opening himself up to criticism,’’ offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “We’re in an environment where you need to be able to be open with each other. We wanted to have an environment where people can speak.
‘‘All of us have been on teams and in businesses where that’s not the case with your boss, right? When the boss doesn’t want criticism? But Matt is very open to what’s the best way to get this done and to listening.’’
Lazor only has been around for a few months, but his assessment lines up with what Nagy has shown since the Bears hired him.
At quarterback, he might not be able to fix Foles or Trubisky completely, but he’s an expert on both of them. There’s no unknown for him with those two, and he is well-positioned to make the right choice.
There are still plenty of questions about the Bears going into this season, but Nagy gives them a shot to answer them. There certainly have been times in the recent history of the franchise when the aptitude of the head coach was one of those questions, but that’s not the case with Nagy.
Published at Sat, 20 Jun 2020 10:00:00 +0000