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Countdown to Bourbonnais: Matt Nagy and the burden of expectations

By Robert Zeglinski

To rebuild in sports is to accept hope. To rebuild successfully and quickly, and then dignify that hope with more meaning, is to keep promises. In the NFL, filling your operation with genuine, unbridled optimism, not just some performative annual summer circus routine, makes you a football wizard. There’s a magic, not a method to the madness. Not many are up to the task of the unpredictability of a head coaching opportunity. They can’t keep up with the monotony. The long nights eat away at their spirit. Composure is a concept rarely considered. Most head coaches jump on the treadmill before they’re ready and burn out at top speed.

Not Matt Nagy. Not when for the time being the goodwill he’s established with the Bears is the highest it’s ever been. (Beware of small sample sizes.)

A good, personable Bears coach in front of a good, personable Bears team in Chicago is the equivalent of a beloved Pope making a visit across the pond. Both make numerous appearances at sporting events (and other public gatherings, of course). Both note the intangibles behind the legends in their professions. Both are revered in incredibly delicate terms. Most importantly, both have a similar relatively untouchable celebrity status in the Midwest.

When that goodwill is the highest the Bears have had in 40 years of irrelevance, it’s a different story. After the instant gratification of instant success kicks in, the charming Mom N’ Pop element of a surprisingly good head coach is gone forever. The novelty of “turning it around” for that coach isn’t acceptable anymore. Expectations for the team are higher, astronomically so. Opponents’ guards are reasonably raised to fight harder, to dig deeper. The pressure to keep shit from hitting the fan, because every (good) coach believes that shit will always end up hitting the fan, is relentless. Throw this mix into one of football’s media slaughterhouses and there’s no margin for error. An error in itself is unacceptable.

Three second-year head coaches (the Rams’ Sean McVay, the Eagles’ Doug Pederson, and Falcons’ Dan Quinn) have led their teams to the Super Bowl in the last three NFL seasons. Judge the active heat around the Bears, and Nagy should be poised to make it four in a row. He should be add to relevant history. Anything less, and the Pope takes back his undisputed title.

The challenge in following his predecessors, as most coaches of Nagy’s first-year ascendance attest to, is taking the next steps. The first 100 steps are easy once a rhythm is found. Milestones come and go in the form of division titles and Coach of the Year honors and they don’t seem to stop. Surely, it can’t get better? When no one’s paying attention to your team, the climb becomes a leisurely stroll. Fatigue doesn’t set in. Strength gathers the more time goes on. The weather’s too nice and the day is perfect. It can’t be spoiled. Those steepest last 10 steps take the lion’s share of the effort. They present an equal level of work compared to the rest of what the journey required, combined.

The journey, as fun as it’s been, soon isn’t worth it anymore.

Hype is an overused descriptor in sports. It’s shorthand for those who can’t articulately describe the most enjoyable aspects of sports. But there isn’t a better means of relating what the Bears are about to experience over the next six months. The 2019 Bears are carrying the most hype into a given season since Jerry Angelo traded for a disgruntled Broncos quarterback. They’re the most hyped Bears team of the modern era. A coronation for many is inevitable. The only iteration that can eclipse them in preseason puffery is the only one that’s ever managed to hoist a silver, football-shaped trophy.

With hype and attention comes responsibility. For the cynic, hype is a burden, especially when it creates a target on the back. After flipping the dynamic out of what people who follow the Bears expect out of them, it’s on Matt Nagy to make sure increased hype doesn’t suffocate the Bears. His guiding hand is the failsafe against the many strikes of Bears opponents.

To Nagy’s credit, he knows the tone he sets for the Bears from the get-go is what determines their fate. He understands trite cliches like the NFL standing for “Not. For. Long.” He knows unless the Bears are adequately prepared to be a league darling again – look no further than a preset five primetime appearances on their 2019 schedule – they’re going to fall short. And it won’t come without pain. If reliving a “double-doink” was torture, even contemplating wasting multiple chances at ending a championship drought should be terrifying.

Aim low and you’ll never be disappointed. Aim high, all the way to the top, and you might miss. It happens. Life isn’t fair sometimes. But at least you’ll have made an ambitious attempt at greatness. There’s a difference between disappointment rooted out of stagnancy and disappointment created out of ambition. The former lulls you into a false of security. The latter, at least, shows you gave it the old college try.

In Nagy’s hyper competitive universe, his team isn’t settling any time soon.

“We talk about it,” Matt Nagy told the Chicago Sun-Times before the Bears’ 2019 preparations began in earnest in February. “We don’t talk about making the playoffs. We talk about winning the Super Bowl.”

From Bourbonnais to the now traditional season finale in Minnesota, everything the Bears do will be colored with how it affects their pursuit of a championship. Each interaction between players and coaches will be analyzed, overanalyzed, scrutinized to the point of redundancy, filed into a paper shredder and taped back together in emergency circumstances, and analyzed again. Every loss will probably feel like the apocalypse has mercifully arrived. There have been hints of its arrival over the past few years. One Bears’ loss in a Super Bowl-or-bust-season will be the harbinger of the end times. That is, until they win again. Throw in the continued development of Mitchell Trubisky, a change at defensive coordinator with Chuck Pagano, and the ongoing management of 53 contrasting personalities, and Nagy has a full plate to contend with. (Never mind self-inflicted tension with the Bears’ issues at kicker. That deserves its own chapter.)

A lot of what the Bears were able to accomplish in 2018 is attributable to the 40-year-old Andy Reid disciple. Nagy was and is the leader they’ve needed to steer them onto a correct path. By statistical measures, a lot of what the Bears were able to accomplish last season was primarily thanks to their historic No. 1 defense. Khalil Mack and friends couldn’t have had longer coattails to drag along the ground if they tried. If Nagy is the second coming that many in Chicago believe him to be, his offense and the rest of the team will pick up the slack. If he’s the leader and offensive genius the Bears think he is, his celebrity status in elevating the Bears won’t have his players end up detesting him. He’s already on the right track of a successor without an ’80’s mustache or sweater vest. A visor on a bald head in is enough to meet that aesthetic quota.

When an NFL coach manages to ease his way into accolades galore, like Nagy in 2018, nothing seems to be able to phase them. He’s infallible in outside perception and in internal reflections. Even with this shield in account, the worst aspects of the job are magnified. Depending on perspective, magnified can be an understatement. If the Bears are going to meet the bar that’s been set for their performance this season, more attention will just be an amplifier for what they already do well.

Embracing becoming the center of attention is perfectly in line for Nagy and the Bears. It’s about walking the walk now. Anything less is unacceptable.

“There’s definitely pressure and expectations now,” Nagy said in a recent radio appearance. “But we wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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