By: Robert Zeglinski
At the heart of the success of any quality NFL team is one relationship. A pairing of two people who understand each other at the deepest of football levels. Every flaw, every highlight, every insecurity, and every opportunity for a meaningful dialogue must be out in the open, the brights on. While other connections in the organization’s building can flounder or wisp away, these two have no choice but to be on the same page. Their imperfections, if minimized, can mask everyone else’s shortcomings. Any football observer doesn’t have to look far to see this application play out in a beautiful harmony autumn after autumn. New England has flourished as the NFL’s gold standard for almost two decades primarily because their legendary head coach and legendary quarterback have never crossed each other’s respective lines. But if imperfections and detractions are magnified, if there’s even the slightest hint of a disconnect or unwarranted frustration, a broken promise, then that’s when tears in the seams become noticeable in the fabric. That’s when the head coach-quarterback dynamic extends rips away the last threads of respectability, and leaves a throwaway rag as a fleeting memory of what once was when whole.
Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky were supposed to have a role in the wave of football’s future. One hotshot former hotshot offensive assistant, mentored firsthand by one of the game’s prolific offensive masterminds in Andy Reid. One No. 2 overall pick sometimes dripping with natural ability, showing signs that all he needed a steady hand of guidance. The potential this quarterback-head coach duo once ostensibly held close would have (could have) acted as a catalyst of consistency and glory the Bears have never had in their possession. A dream of joining football’s modern age of passing efficiency and glory that seemed too good to be true.
If the dream seemed too good to be true, that’s because it was. Dreams aren’t meant to be realistic or grounded. Dreams are unsubstantiated fantasies built on hope and fears and whims often entirely out of reach. They are myths akin to the likes of the Tooth Fairy leaving money under the pillow in exchange for excess dental matter, Yoda saving a galaxy far, far away, or Santa Claus somehow traversing the length of a planet to deliver presents to a generation in one cold night (sorry, children). The Bears having a competent quarterback working in synchronization with a competent head coach is the folksiest tall tale—the one children will surrender as soon as they enter grammar school—of them all. It’s less believable than a green goblin having magical kinetic powers or an overweight, out-of-shape man living in the North Pole fulfilling the wishes of every little Timmy and Kaitlyn in existence.
Trubisky and Nagy were fine to a point. They had a baseline of respect. Even while the Bears struggled to meet the colossal weighted expectations of a season once predestined for a Super Bowl, the two were still connected at the hip. They still had each other’s backs. They supported one another through thick and thin. Mostly thin, and mostly weary of the thin. The ship may have hit an iceberg, and they may been sinking to their doom in the cold night, but they were going down together. They were violinists recognizing the inevitable coming to a unanimous and courageous verdict to finish on equal happy terms, together, in the face of looming darkness.
Circumstances changed when Trubisky decided to make a break for the life boats. At the last available moment as the ship of 2019 cracked into two pieces with the Bears’ official playoff chances wiped away by the Packers, the quarterback made his first play for continued life. When asked a simple question about Green Bay’s devastating pass rush, instead of staying in character and delivering cliches of hard work and team unity as he for the duration of his career, Trubisky left the man who has championed him, his tutor in Nagy, behind to freeze. He questioned his head coach in detail, publicly, and left no doubt.
“I felt like we could’ve taken more pressure off them moving the pocket a little more and me getting out,” Trubisky said of his offensive line’s struggles. “We’ve just got to continue to find ways to take pressure off our O-line. With a good pass rush like that, continue to mix it up, whether it’s with screens, running it, draws, all that kind of stuff helps.”
It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize laureate to see Trubisky daring to air his dirty laundry out for all to see. Nagy being the target of his ire in particular isn’t surprising either. The reigning Coach of the Year has a fair share culpability for an offense that’s failed to take any progressive leaps forward. Nagy’s inaugural campaign had the excuse of a complicated system and an inexperienced quarterback to explain offensive shortcomings. Thanks to experience, Year 2 should’ve meant, theoretically, far more smooth sailing in the open water. There should’ve never been an iceberg within shouting, let alone, spitting distance. Nagy is the navigator and he failed to foresee many of the pitfalls that could’ve and did befall the Bears.
At least Nagy is mature and grounded enough to take the high road when necessary. When someone else takes aim, he doesn’t deliver potshots in return.
“I think, probably, if I’m going back and watching that, that it’s very general and big-picture,” said Nagy after being asked to expand on his quarterback’s commentary. “But it’s also right after the game, so I take nothing by that, and we have a great relationship.”
The first place to look for discord on a mediocre team is at quarterback and head coach. Of two people who have lost a middle ground. If Nagy is capable of keeping it even-keel, then Trubisky making the conscious choice to stand on his soapbox only after the Bears are eliminated from the postseason picture rings hollow. Trubisky being the player to make a stand against the fallible coach as arguably the person most at fault for the Bears’ asphyxiation in the standings is also illogical in nature. For a professional athlete to speak out of turn, to let the media and fans and onlookers in on the inner workings of a locker room, there has to be a measure of earned respect. The NFL has such a culture of secrecy and channelled brotherhood, that only the best merit the right to make a statement with the doors open. The best have a presence of relevant, on-field accomplishments beyond leading and being well-liked and admired. Beyond being a magnetic personality independent of football. A player like Trubisky, with 48 career touchdown passes in 38 starts and less 300-yard performances than the famed Ryan “Fitzmagic” Fitzpatrick since 2018, is not a man whose word carries any weight. When veiled critique leaves his lips, it reeks of petulance and of someone trying to save their own skin out of desperation. It’s a man on his last legs, standing on a soapbox with a megaphone.
There are two games remaining in a lost year for the Bears. Trubisky’s first strike against the head coach who once had nothing but blind faith in his ability has been launched. Now when he makes a stand, the Bears suffer. And the last person listening, the most important person, will have tuned him out.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.