Paradise loss: Goodwill all but gone, Matt Nagy must learn to pull back reins
By Robert Zeglinski
There’s a phrase for the initial stage of a relationship. The first few months of a partnership where everything is sunshine and rainbows, where every shared moment is hunky dory. Both people are perfect, idealized, and placed on pedestals. The “honeymoon phase,” as it’s come to be known in colloquial terms, is when the power of romantic glasses proves to be unrelenting. It’s gripping. The mere idea that you have potentially found someone to spend years with, to spend your life with, dilates the senses. What happens after the excitement and honeymoon passes is what defines whether a relationship is long-lasting. People see how their partner responds to adversity, or lack thereof. They begin to conceptualize verbal ticks, throwaway comments, and actions more accurately. If the relationship can adapt after the honeymoon has come and gone, there may be hope for its long-term standing yet. If not, it’s time to start re-download the standard dating app profiles and hope for the bet.
The Bears once had orange-tinted glasses for Matt Nagy. The googly eyes used to view the 2018 Coach of the Year saw a man ahead of the curve, poised to lead the Bears into consistent greatness. Nagy was personable, regularly welcoming open-ended conversation with reporters and fans alike. He was thorough and detail-oriented, almost to a fault. When he received his fateful Coach of the Year honor, the question on everyone’s mind was “how high?”; what Nagy was going to have the Bears achieve next.
As it turns out, it’s irrelevance. It’s confusion swamped in a never-ending storm of questions. It’s a turn toward “what’s next?”; whether Nagy is a one-year fluke propped up by the lone instance of success the Bears have enjoyed this decade. Those orange-tinted glasses are broken, smashed to a faulty frame beyond repair. If Henry Bemis would have a difficult time reconciling with this reality, surely Nagy would also see it isn’t fair.
Matt Nagy’s honeymoon with the Bears has reached its anti-climactic but logical conclusion. One need only peruse the tale of the tape to see a coach reaching the ceiling of his wit’s end. Dive in a little too deep and you might find a man out of his depth and out of his element.
On Sunday afternoon, the Bears outplayed the Chargers in every noteworthy phase. If there was an aspect of the game to be parsed down, the Bears had the advantage. 26 first downs to Los Angeles’ 11. 388 yards gained in comparison to a measly 231. Six possessions of at least 30 yards to two for the Chargers. Five trips into the red zone, by far a season high, and only 16 points to show for it. An all-too predictable collapse of mismanagement and poor discipline mashed into a 17-16 defeat.
At the heart of the defeat—Mitchell Trubisky’s penchant for shrinking in the clutch aside—was Nagy’s ill-advised decision-making. A contradictory contrast in both two-minute drills showed off where the 40-year-old coach stood off base.
To close the first half, the Bears rumbled into the red zone. On the strength of rookie runner David Montgomery’s 55-yard scamper through the Chargers’ back line, Chicago found itself with 10 separate attempts to punch the ball in with less than two minutes to go. When Nagy had the Bears run the ball for no gain at the one-yard line with no timeouts, they found themselves without a paddle. The clock ticked down and it seemed a miracle that Trubisky was even able to get a clock-killing spike off. An Eddy Pineiro field goal later, and a welcome touchdown scoring opportunity had gone to waste.
In any good storytelling, foreshadowing and slight references to events that will happen later on are incremental. They help portend a compelling narrative that is connected at the seams. What misfortune befell the Bears at the end of the first half was what would spell out their eventual doom. It might as well be the script of what looks like a lost season.
Needing but another field goal to overcome one of the NFL’s fellow most mediocre outfits in the late throes of the fourth quarter, Nagy decided to tear apart his cells. He decided to spontaneously combust. Holding one timeout and a healthy 43 seconds in their back pocket, the Bears kicked a field goal on second down from the Chargers’ 21-yard line. Never mind that Eddy Pineiro had missed earlier on a similar chip shot at a gusty Soldier Field. He surely wouldn’t miss from 41 with the game on the line. That made a push for a table-setting running play irrelevant. Any quick pass attempts toward the end zone would be counterproductive, too, because of the minute chance of a turnover.
The advantages heavily in his and his team’s favor, Nagy decided to settle and bunker down. Just like the late stage of risk-averse commerce, Pineiro’s subsequent miss was karmic retribution. Play to lose and you will see always such results.
Asked to clarify his logic, Nagy seemed more flustered than he would let on. The words came out of his mouth, but it’s not clear he believed in them when they left his lips.
“I’ll just be brutally clear: Zero thought of throwing the football. Zero thought of running the football,” Nagy said. “You understand me? That’s exactly what it was. It’s as simple as that.”
Sunday saw the Bears produce 162 yards rushing on the ground. Buoyed by the breakout game of Montgomery, they averaged five yards a carry. Why then, in crunch time no less, could Nagy not have feasibly ran the ball once or twice and stopped the clock comfortably? Why then, are the Bears kneeling down with plenty of time and breathing room?
Because he’s frightened of something bigger. While Nagy pulls the reins ever tighter on a carriage he’s slowly losing control of, he’s creating a hazardous path for his group of football-playing pioneers. And admitting he was wrong, that his means of solving problems has flaws, is the scariest conceivable thought.
“I would do it again a thousand times,” Nagy professed about his now infamous de facto surrender.
What Nagy says in settling for a 40-plus yard field goal (hardly automatic for any kicker) is that he doesn’t trust his own offense not to turn the ball over. He doesn’t have faith in his offensive line, his running back, and last but not least, his quarterback, to avoid disaster when victory is in the cross hairs. There’s no tangible belief that his players coached by his scheme won’t completely capitulate when they have all the aces in the deck.
It’s a remarkable thought process amplified by Nagy’s defiant insistence that he’s still doing all the right things. In Nagy’s frame of mind, the Bears haven’t looked like a competent football team since September, but it’s not his fault. He pushes the right buttons (buttons of his creation), so he can’t be wrong. He put in the work. He’s the coach. He can’t be questioned.
If everything was going according to plan, the Bears would not be caught in a listless three-game losing streak. If the stubborn Nagy was pulling the correct strings, the Bears would not be settling for 41-yard kicks with a healthy amount of time and space remaining. If Nagy had a measured grip of what ailed him and what ails the Bears by association, he wouldn’t dig his heels in to every perceived grievance and flaw. He would go with the flow more often. He would delegate. He wouldn’t overreact to every instance of adversity by pulling his boot straps up, as if it’s the only route to success. It’s never that simple. It never was.
But the more time goes on, the more it seems like Nagy’s drowning in a self-imposed abyss. It began by never letting his roster move on from the pain and trauma of a missed field goal, treating it as if it was the first missed field goal ever in a playoff game. It snow balls into a man leading an offense that has only an identifiable trait of incompetent and unreliable. It ends with resolution, be it an uplifting tone of growing stronger together, or a poignant atmosphere of moving on.
Only Nagy can determine what direction his relationship with the Bears eventually careens toward. Only Nagy can stand to realize that loosening up in the face of his first real crisis as head coach would relieve a lot of his tension. Overthinking like Nagy is the foundation of failure, because you perceive your failure before it happens. He’ll have come to this realization on his own as goodwill from a happy honeymoon has faded away.
If he can’t manage to have his epiphany in an appropriate amount of time, at least Nagy and the Bears had some fun together while they could. Don’t worry. They wish each other the best, too.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.