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Training camp hype and familiar stories for Matt Nagy’s Bears

By Robert Zeglinski

It’s funny how despite making the playoffs exactly zero times since 2010, the Bears are decisively the city of Chicago’s favorite sports team. How despite being a football albatross for a better part of three-plus decades, they’re still king in comparison to teams that have actually won championships in the 21st century. No one sells optimism like the Bears do. Even the slightest blip of that optimism means they’re back on track immediately and everyone puts on a fair amount of blinders to the rest of the city’s sports landscape.

Ah, training camp. The official start to the NFL preseason, before the regular season, and before energy is inevitably sucked out of the Bears’ hopes once the games matter. At least in accordance with their recent history.

This week, the Bears begin their preparations for the 2018 season in earnest as they report to Bourbonnais, Illinois for training camp. This week, the Bears return to the part of the calendar year where they can do no wrong and where everything they sell to those invested in them turns to … orange (gold).

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This setting has previously seen an astonishing over 100,000 total fans visit Bourbonnais to see the Bears practice over the course of three weeks, because any taste of a new year means a new beginning. Any wishes of success in respect to previous failure, is intoxicating.

Bears camp season and the approximate month it takes to unfold has it’s litany of narratives many have become used to by now. There’s always the young player or two ready to make a leap. There’s always the up-and-down veteran in the best shape of his life in a make-or-break year. There’s positional battles that often end up amounting to nothing, and or aren’t nearly as important as originally believed. The same headlines largely recycled and regurgitated for a fresh opportunity and clean slate.

And of course, every individual NFL team has it’s own repeated stories. For the Bears of late, that’s been Kevin White’s continued “redemption” each season he’s attempted to come back from unfortunate injury. Each year, he’s supposedly figured it out and ready to make those who doubt him eat their words, all based on several practices and non-simulated game action.

This year, the Bears return to a familiar formula with a spin they haven’t had in some time: “Young quarterback with first-time head coach”.

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The coach being Matt Nagy, and a story the Bears should be used to as Nagy is the third hire since Chicago fired Lovie Smith in 2012. Each of the previous two head coaches in Marc Trestman and John Fox were painted as necessary culture shocks, or shots to the arm. Much like Nagy is being illustrated as now without any games under his belt, for every area he seems different.

It’s the first time that a new head coach, at least with the Bears, has had a young and malleable quarterback like Mitchell Trubisky to work with. To embolden in his vision and offense from the get-go. For every story the Bears have sold at camp over the years, this one is a contrast from their previous exploits. There’s a reason this seems like the most hyped Bears camp environment in years: the nature of the exciting unknown.

Two previous instances most stand out in comparison to this Nagy-Trubisky Bears camp venture.

The first being Jay Cutler’s debut season in Chicago in 2009. Anticipation over the Bears having a bona fide professional quarterback of Cutler’s ability overshadowed every other aspect of Bourbonnais that year. Fans and media members alike flocked like never before to Olivet Nazarene University not to see superstars like Brian Urlacher or Charles Tillman, but the quarterback that made them think the Bears were legitimate contenders for once. The quarterback that would put a halt to the Bears’ painful revolving door at the position.

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In the face of such elation, Cutler’s apparent flaws were overlooked and ignored, and for good reason. They simply didn’t matter. Cutler had a rocket arm. The franchise was being placed in his hands. Full steam ahead under the beaming Bourbonnais sun.

The other instance of boiling over Bears camp hype was Marc Trestman’s second year with the Bears in 2014. Coming off a disappointing finish in the de-facto NFC North championship game against the Packers the season before, there was actual belief in a Super Bowl contender being brewed on the lakefront. Fans and media members similarly flocked to Bourbonnais, this time buying into those February aspirations and sold it to each other every day.

It was Cutler’s second year in Trestman’s wacky offense, so naturally he could only get better with more comfort. He would finally reach his potential, six years into his tenure with the Bears no less. The offensive horses in Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett were there too, meaning Cutler had stellar weapons to excel. And there was no way one of the NFL’s worst defenses from 2013 could get worse. No way.

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Nothing went according to plan, as the 2014 Bears would go on to enjoy one of the worst seasons in franchise history. But for a month they rode high. All problems of an aging roster and an intensive lack of chemistry were ignored for the sake of hype and sheer talent that didn’t fit together. These Bears were rock stars, if only for three weeks.

What’s different for the latest iteration of the Bears and this year’s camp?

They’re going to be willing to acknowledge their mistakes and shortcomings. And more importantly, learn from them. That’s if the mantra installed by Nagy, their leader, means anything.

One of the first things Nagy talked about when hired by the Bears was his former team in the Chiefs, and their collapse in the playoffs last January. Instead of heaping any criticism onto his mentor or Kansas City players, Nagy stood at the Halas Hall podium and took it upon himself to continually mature as a coach.

“I called every single play in the second half,” said Nagy of a disastrous second stanza for the Chiefs. “That was a failure in my book. I’ll learn from it. I felt terrible for our team.”

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Apply this to the roughly next three weeks in Bourbonnais and forget the litany of fresh high-flying offensive talent for a second. Put the continuity of Fangio’s returning defense on the back burner. And know that these Bears don’t read their own press clippings to drum up their hype. They’re not caught up in the practice moment for anything but sharpening their game, and Nagy will be the instrument to make sure they focus on the task at hand.

Though perhaps this reads as another tried and true training camp narrative: “Culture shock by new coach.”

Hey, the Bears are back and they can do no wrong.

Robert is your guy for all things Bears and will be on site for every 2018 training camp practice. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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