By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – New schools of thinking in football emphasize teaching, rest, and challenging players in a controlled fashion. To treat professionals like professionals. The old school is in line with a consistent grind, never slowing up or taking the foot off the gas pedal. To work professionals into a metaphorical fine paste by breaking them down and trusting that eventually they’ll be built back up.
Of course, they never do.
Prior to Matt Nagy’s hire with the Bears, the team was firmly aligned with that archaic thought process. John Fox’s teams weren’t analytically driven. They weren’t player friendly on the field. They weren’t strategic or innovative in any shape or form. They practiced and played their game as the cards lie without any foresight or planning. They attempted, most often, to get a checkmate without providing adequate cover for the queen in case of emergency.
As we enter the first official break of Nagy’s inaugural training camp in Chicago, he has proven to be the antithesis to Fox’s mantra.
Where Fox went full throttle every day of every hour refusing to adjust, Nagy chooses to ease his team in recognizing the bigger picture of a group growing together and forming valuable chemistry. On the Bears’ first day of full pads in 2017, Fox elected they do physical board drills and effectively beat each other up to get used to hitting. On the Bears’ first day of full pads this year, Nagy had them go straight to football activity and then dialed it down a notch: valuing mental repetitions more than anything. Professionals, after all, already know how to hit. Friendly fire doesn’t do anyone favors.
The time to ramp it up a notch will come.
“We have a plan for when we’ll go live,” Nagy said last weekend. “For now, we just wanted them to get used to the contact, and they handled it well.”
Football is a brutal game. The most fresh any player will be is that first day of full pads during camp. After that, a slow attrition occurs over the course of the next five to six months where no one is 100 percent healthy even a few weeks into the season. Everyone is hurt, and you only sit out when injured past a certain point. Fox demonstrated he often didn’t outright understand this concept, or he did and didn’t care by going with a “rub some dirt on it” philosophy. He never read his players who are merely freakishly fast and large humans with the same human limitations as anyone
The Bears suffered from this thoughtlessness as they ran out of gas each of Fox’s three years at the helm. Nagy’s approach to have his players not beat each other other up in action that doesn’t count in the standings is undoubtedly refreshing to everyone. To last in this game, a coach need only shift his team into gear when absolutely necessary: Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays.
Doing things like practicing through torrential downpours and inclement conditions instead, something Fox never dreamed of, is more valuable to Nagy. That’s an aspect the Bears can’t control and something they’ll eventually have to often power through given their Midwest location. Practice what you preach.
Where Fox refused to elaborate on any significant details about how his players slowly develop in the Bourbonnais sun, becoming a poster boy for word salad and coach-speak, Nagy is effusively enthusiastic, transparent, and honest. He enjoys discussing the developments across his roster, and doesn’t sugarcoat situations or shy away from criticism. Ask him about a how player such as Mitch Trubisky or Anthony Miller are grasping his Bears offense, and he’ll rattle off their skill sets or an occasional anecdote about that player’s progression.
“He’s in the flight simulator right now,” said Nagy of Mitchell Trubisky’s early camp play. “He’s testing things out right now, we’re testing things out too. There are so many routes and concepts in this offense, it takes time.”
While much of the Bears’ media policies are still quite draconian, Nagy is a coach that sees value in challenging or praising his players publicly. He sees an avenue in doling out information about guys’ respective trajectories far and wide with the Bears. There’s nothing to lose by being relatable and open about how the team is coming along. The Bears thus far in Nagy’s initial camp have overall only been okay, and the coach isn’t afraid to admit that. By keeping them grounded, he’s setting the Bears up to earn their keep later.
And finally, most importantly, where Fox didn’t pull back the reins on players who obviously needed more recovery time away from competition, Nagy already has a feel for pulling the strings just right.
Stalwarts like Kyle Long and Allen Robinson are getting their legs under them after major surgeries. The 332 pound Akiem Hicks intermittently played 90 percent of snaps in games last season, slightly fading down the stretch. The first week of camp is not the time to push them or any player and potentially put someone in a position to run on fumes in the near future.
Each of this Long, Robinson, and Hicks trio, who will have a crucial part in determining the Bears’ success in 2018, has missed time so far for needed maintenance: a patient ideal. Since Wednesday signifies Chicago’s first chance at stepping back and reflecting this summer, Nagy even decided to take off the full pads and really let his team inch back to life on Tuesday.
“The benefit for the guys is they get an extra hour of sleep on the front end … it’s a little carrot for them,” Nagy said. “And we take the pads off and it’s more mental. Our guys are going to be gearing up for a day off and then we come back with three good days of pads and I know they’re really excited for that.”
Success is not bred in overworking NFL players. It’s created in intelligent efforts that pertain to the main football tasks at hand. A needless reliance on aspects the Bears already understand, like hitting hard, didn’t serve them well in recent years. A self-imposed shell and lack of an open mentality only detracted from the Bears’ efforts as well.
It’s early in camp, but Nagy is assertively signifying he’s the polar opposite of an obsolete modus operandi the Bears leaned on for years, even before Fox. The 40-year-old is every bit the calculated breathe of fresh air as advertised. R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. He’ll be with the team all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.