By Robert Zeglinski
Modern sports has an obsession with raw numbers. Analytics, and all of the processes behind it, drive so much of the success of premier NFL organizations. Gone are the days of faulty intuition and instinct pushing forward scouting and team development. In is a careful approach making sure everyone always does their proper homework with detailed context.
So it’s funny that as we’ve collectively begun a movement toward full scale logic and reason in the NFL, there’s still aspects of team building we can’t quantify to a tee. Namely, a close team chemistry and unity. It’s something that forever will only be able to pass an eye test, barring human beings inexplicably attaining the ability to measure emotions on a wide scale level. Something that’s part of the perfect mix of every preeminent sports franchise, let alone any in the NFL.
You know it when you see it.
In roughly one calendar year, the best thing Matt Nagy did with the Bears is establish the kind of culture one dreams about. It’s telling that the main takeaway from Chicago’s season-ending press conference last month was how the reigning Coach of the Year chose to characterize his locker room in response to a controversial Cody Parkey national television appearance. It wasn’t only about Parkey’s decision-making, though it played a huge role.
It was about Nagy putting up a shield for his players in feeling the need to speak up to anyone.
“We always talk about a ‘we’ and not a ‘me’ thing, and we always talk as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team,” said Nagy then, clearly putting a stake in the ground for his guys.
Outside of being an offensive guru, Nagy’s most recognizable trait is his passion. A passion that serves as not only the lead voice in the locker room at Halas Hall, but also pushes forward a mantra of uncommon continuity and togetherness. The Bears aren’t just good because they’re talented but because they genuinely like one another. They value each other’s presence and opinions and aren’t divide in the least. As the Bears trudge through one of their quieter off-seasons on paper and in recent memory, it’s Nagy’s emphasis on integration and reunion that separates the Bears from everyone else.
On Tuesday, the Bears restructured the contract of long-time valued veteran Kyle Long. The compromised restructure essentially guarantees Long will remain a Bear through at least the 2019 season. A compromise that’s more than about simple salary cap or replacement issues, though they both play huge role. A person of Long’s stature and importance to everyone associated with the Bears couldn’t ever realistically walk.
Long, ever the good soldier, has had the second half of his NFL career ravaged by a plague of injuries. Once a Pro Bowl and even All-Pro level talent, Long hasn’t played a full 16-game season in three years. But he’s remained vocal, outspoken, and sits as a prominent member of the Bears’ impressive leadership core. He’s one of the rare players on the roster that had to go through all of the muck that was the Phil Emery era and the early years of Ryan Pace, and it colors his entire experience. It makes him stronger, and each of his teammates better by association for understanding his grind.
To bring back a man that’s been through so much professional adversity in comparison to most of his teammates speaks volumes of Long’s importance to the Bears. To have him return despite not knowing whether you can entirely count on him on the field, says everything about the tight knit chemistry the Bears have as a team. You can’t have the modern Bears without a boisterous Long bullying defensive linemen and linebackers. You can’t enter a premier era of ideal championship level football without a man who wholeheartedly appreciates the mere privilege to play in the league given his recent pitfalls. Nagy and his team needs Long as much as Long and his setbacks need the Bears.
The other side of the coin is the not-at-all eminent return of Robbie Gould.
On Tuesday, it was announced the that the 49ers were placing the franchise tag on the 36-year-old Bears all-time leading scorer. While Long, a traditional Grabowski Bear, gets to likely play out the end of his football life in Chicago, Gould doesn’t. He’ll stay in San Francisco, the decision completely out of his hands for the time being.
Even still, the high degree to which it was presumed that both the Bears and Gould wanted a reunion after previous split differences says everything about the Bears’ maturation as organization. There’s no bad blood on Gould’s part after being unceremoniously released at the end of the 2016 preseason. He has nothing but love for a franchise he spent 11 seasons with earning a main moniker, “Good as Gould.” There’s only contrition and regret on the Bears’ part for letting go a player of which is back at the top of his game.
While these two sides won’t get the chance to come together any time soon, that the Bears and Gould wanted to reconnect after being two former bitter exes is jarring. A heartening sign of what’s to come for an organization now on the consistent upswing. It shows how desirable the environment Nagy has evolved over the shortest of times in Lake Forest has again become.
The Bears are in Indianapolis this week for the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. There they’ll get a concrete idea of the raw measurables of a whole host of draft prospects. They’ll input data at the highest levels to help serve them in picking out the next best Bears both in the draft, and free agency that’s increasingly on the horizon. Their process there, along with every other NFL team present, is a math nerd’s dream.
What they won’t be able to do is gauge how someone fits into their locker room until they actually select or sign him. Fittingly, with what Nagy has built over time, it’s not anything they have to worry about. Nagy’s Bears have that intrinsic X-Factor you can’t measure with complex data. You know it when you see it. – R.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.