Chicago Bears HC Matt Nagy’s head-coaching playoff debut marred by questionable decisions
One year ago on Wednesday, at Matt Nagy’s introductory news conference as the 16th head coach in Bears history, he called the Kansas City Chiefs’ wild-card collapse three days earlier a “learning situation,” saying, “there were some scenarios where I wish I would have made some different choices with the play call.”
The former Chiefs offensive coordinator mostly was alluding to 2017 NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt only getting five touches after intermission with a 21-3 lead on the visiting Tennessee Titans. Kansas City, the reigning division champs, were shut out in the second half of a crushing 22-21 defeat by their wild-card foe.
“You know, for me, that wasn’t a failure in my book,” he said. “I’ll learn from it. I’ll grow from it. So I use that as a strength for me with the Chicago Bears.”
Fast-forward one season to the Bears’ season-ending 16-15 loss to the No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, when Nagy’s offense finally found some rhythm in the second half after the first 30 minutes were defined by missed opportunities that resulted in the Bears only leading 6-3. They scored their only touchdown, a 22-yard strike from Mitch Trubisky to Allen Robinson, to take a 15-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. But it was a major struggle much of the way, with Nagy again lamenting his inability to feed arguably the team’s offensive MVP.
Tarik Cohen, Mr. Everything for the Bears in his second season, when he led the club in all-purpose yards and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (9), received a season-low four touches from scrimmage.
“Well, what kind of ... what do you think?” Nagy rhetorically asked a reporter who queried whether Cohen was involved enough, in what was for him an unusually terse interaction.
“Four touches is not enough, yeah. But good question.”
Cohen’s backfield sidekick and arguably the Bears’ hottest skill player entering the playoffs, Jordan Howard, garnered only 10 carries for 35 yards, eerily similar to Hunt’s 11 and 42, respectively a year ago. The Bears would end Sunday with 45 dropbacks and only 18 carries in a game in which they never trailed by more than four points, and Mitch Trubisky rarely appeared comfortable at any point in the first three quarters.
“Yeah, they did a nice job of keying on him and taking him away, and sometimes that’s how it is with our offense,” Trubisky said of Cohen’s small role. ”... We should always find more ways to get 29 the ball, and tonight it didn’t, but I thought we were still pretty efficient on offense.”
Now, Nagy receiving scrutiny for the Bears’ inability to consistently run the football this season is nothing new, and unfortunately, neither is this postseason heartbreak feeling of his.
But it wasn’t solely Nagy’s play calling Sunday that merits second-guessing.
The Bears’ 15 points tied a season low. Yes, the Eagles ‘D’ played inspired much like Chicago’s, but Nagy’s offense couldn’t deliver in the biggest spot of the season until it was essentially too late.
Nagy also wasted 41 seconds in the final minute of the game, when his defense was aiming for a goal-line stand it ultimately would falter on. By the time Nagy sent Cohen back for the final kickoff return, following Nick Foles’ dramatic game-winning two-yard touchdown to Golden Tate on fourth-and-goal, there were only 56 seconds remaining. That Cohen delivered a 35-yard return, before Trubisky found Robinson on a pair of completions to position PK Cody Parkey for the 43-yard field goal that clanked off the left upright, made it even more difficult not to second guess the time the Bears wasted that might have gotten Parkey closer.
“It’s six of one, half dozen of another,” Nagy said of the decision to wait on spending his first timeout (the Bears used the second one immediately following the next play, a Darren Sproles run for no gain. “You can call it there and you have time or you don’t call it and you use it when you have it on offense. And so I thought — actually I thought it worked out pretty well.”
Questioning a coach’s clock management and play calling is always a slippery slope. But Nagy’s decision to activate All Pro S Eddie Jackson, and say afterward, “if we felt like we wanted to play him, we could play him,” might have been the game’s biggest head scratcher.
Jackson, arguably the Bears’ biggest game changer on defense not named Khalil Mack, was listed as questionable and deemed by Nagy a game-time decision after returning to practice on Thursday and Friday on a limited basis for the first time since injuring his ankle on Dec. 16. On the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, it might have been Jackson, not Adrian Amos — amid a roller coaster game — covering Dallas Goedert. That there were only 10 men on the field for Chicago is another story but also reflects poorly on Nagy.
The Bears’ defense, admirable as it played, also had more than a few uncharacteristic coverage busts that contributed to a huge day for ex-Bear Alshon Jeffery and others. Would having Jackson, the quarterback of the secondary, have made a difference? We’ll never know for sure, but he’s an All Pro in only his second season for a reason. And Nagy’s “plan” for Jackson is no more clear than it was at the time he was activated but remained on the bench for four quarters.
Another playoff nightmare Sunday for Nagy doesn’t take away one iota of what he accomplished during the regular season, leading a last-place club to 12 wins and a division title. Heck, the Bears’ breakthrough still very well could earn Nagy Coach of the Year honors, which would be wholly deserved.
But so too is critiquing Nagy’s rough day at the office Sunday. His first season with the Bears ending the same way it began — remember the late collapse in Green Bay? — certainly could make him an even better coach next season, which the Bears figure to enter as favorites to repeat in the NFC North. After all, Nagy and his staff helped entirely change a franchise’s fortunes this season.
I know this: I wouldn’t trade a single day for anything,” Nagy said. “I’m just — I’m proud. I’m happy, and I’m going to — I’m going to get it hurt right now for a little bit. I’m going to feel it, as everybody should, but it’s going to make me better.”
Nagy has to be better on the postseason stage if his Bears are going to build on their excellent regular season.