By Robert Zeglinski
There’s an old adage that it’s better to be great at one thing, than average or good at many things. Specialization in it’s many forms has often take precedence over possessing talents in a variety of areas.
For example, you might be a good guitar player that’s capable of playing a few songs. You might be a decent cook that has a few dynamite recipes in your back pocket. But what you’re really most proficient at is painting. Hell, you capture dream scapes and effortlessly and meticulously weave them into magnificent stories of detail, color, and wonder. You’re a downright masterful artist, and that’s where most of your passion and skill understandably lies.
In the NFL, to specialize means to have an identity. One of the most common core concepts a competent team is told it must have, let alone one contending for a championship, is that is has to possess a few plays and select schemes it can lean on. If you’re adept at running the ball and suffocating opponents with a great defense, adhere to that notion. If you’re a high-flying team built on wild personalities and a quick strike offense, don’t veer away from that.
In one year, Matt Nagy’s Bears found their concrete identity. They play a special, attacking brand of defense and look for the quick strike on offense (as average as their statistics still are). The Bears won 12 games in 2018 and morphed themselves into a contender because they were great at a few things, rather than well-balanced all around. They accomplished it by having some of the most impeccable chemistry in pro football, too. Chances are, if the Bears win Super Bowl LIV in Miami next February, they’ll likely do it by sticking to what works for them within their comfort zone.
What Nagy’s bunch should actually be aiming for is a dependence on versatility. While executing their oncoming championship plan, they should attempt to be more of a football chameleon rather than a tiger with set stripes. More often than not, it’s not the NFL team with the set identity that ends up lifting a Lombardi trophy. Instead, it’s the team that isn’t pigeon-holed to one specific skill-set that’s capable of having an answer for every situation in the face of adversity.
The Patriots, the gold standard of modern football after winning their sixth championship in 18 years in Super Bowl LIII, uncommonly adapts game by game like no other organization. It’s repeatedly said that it’s impossible to replicate their contending formula. New England is seen as so much of an exception to the norm of NFL copycat mediocrity that it would be a fruitless endeavor to ever even attempt to completely take after them. But has anyone ever really tried to examine the big picture of why Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and company plug away year after year?
It’s because they’re not afraid of changing who they are on the fly. “Who” they are is a superfluous definition that means nothing.
For most of the 2018 season, the Patriots were a thoroughly average defensive team ranked No. 16 in DVOA. They didn’t generate much of any meaningful pass pressure, and as a man coverage team, were often completely burned by stellar offensive playmakers. Offensively, they tried to rely on the arm of a 41-year-old Brady arguably more than they should, and it led to a mere 11-5 regular season.
Come playoff time, New England morphed into a power running team that owned the line of scrimmage. Led by a stable backfield of Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots ran for nine touchdowns and 485 yards over the course of three postseason games. There’s bullying, and then there’s taking the will out of teams as you please like the Patriots did. The Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams’ defenses never stood a chance. Brady, the ever masterful conductor, only made plays extending beyond his means as necessary. If he had to make a play beyond his means, it didn’t matter: the future Hall of Famer was sacked just once in January and February.
That mediocre Patriots defense of four months all of a sudden then relied on zone coverage, stymieing the likes of Phillip Rivers, Patrick Mahomes (for a half), and Jared Goff seemingly effortlessly. A porous pass rush got on it’s horse in harassing those three quarterbacks to the tune of 10 total sacks in three games. Name New England’s best individual pass rusher. Adrian Clayborn? Kyle Van Noy? Trey Flowers? We’re not exactly talking about anyone to invest the franchise in long term. It was a team effort to it’s core.
The crux of the matter is that when the time called for it, the identity of Belichick’s dynastic team didn’t matter, as it so often doesn’t. They were ready and able for any responsibility asked of them. They were versatile, and they were dependable on each other. The ultimate team can do that.
If you’re a competent coach, and Nagy is, if you have a talented roster, and the Bears do, then theoretically it shouldn’t be so hard to follow the Patriots’ example loosely. But most NFL coaches never try. Most NFL coaches follow a set pattern and wonder why they fall flat on their face when an opponent is wise to what they do well. They don’t adapt like the Patriots do, and it costs them. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. The Patriots don’t do the same thing, and don’t have any one thing they particularly lean on. That’s why they’re special, and that’s why they’ll likely be playing deep into next January yet again.
Expectations are reasonably high for the Bears to end a championship drought once fall arrives. A roster filled to the brim with depth, premier players, and a smart coaching staff should work to be malleable and flexible. Malleable at the prospect of starting anew for a game-plan when the time calls for it. Flexible in knowing where you went wrong and being humble enough to change it.
“We don’t talk about making the playoffs. We talk about winning the Super Bowl,” Nagy told the Chicago Sun-Times recently.
If the Bears are to win Super Bowl LIV then they must know that being good at many things in the NFL is indeed much better than being great at one.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.