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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It was time for the one-on-one portion of practice Monday, where quarterbacks throw passes to receivers with corners draped all over them, when Matt Nagy’s eyes widened. He had an idea.
Nagy, the new head coach of the Chicago Bears, realized this practice was smack dab in the dog days of training camp, and his players had done this exact drill for several days in a row. He’d long ago pledged (during his days as an assistant under Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid) that when he became a head coach, if he could do anything to shake up the routine and get players excited again this time of year, he would.
So Nagy, a former Arena League quarterback, waved off the Bears’ quarterbacks and hopped in the drill himself. Bears quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, a former quarterback himself, joined him.
And for several minutes, the two proceeded to sling it against the cornerbacks.
“Did you see me throw?” Nagy asked a reporter with a smile afterward. “I was trying to drop some dimes over there.”
How successful he was is up for debate; Ragone says Nagy won, despite the fact Kyle Fuller picked him off at one point. But that’s beside the point. From that point on in practice, Nagy noticed the enthusiasm on the practice fields at Olivet Nazerene University was up, which is a key tenet of Nagy’s mission to turn the 5-11 Bears into a long-term winner.
“He wants to promote and show by example to go out there and compete and have energy,” Ragone said. “What he is, is authentic, and for a player, when you know a guy’s authentic and he’s real, [it’s huge].”
Especially for Nagy, who has brought a desire to be on the cutting edge of innovation to the Bears’ 30th-ranked offense. NFL coaches rarely step too far outside the box, fearing it could eventually cost them their jobs, but the benefit of youth is the natural optimism that comes with it, and at 40 years old, Nagy — one of the league’s youngest coaches — is as confident as they come as he seeks to do some things the NFL has never seen.
“We’re gonna have fun — just leave it at that,” Nagy said with a grin.
Bears building toward a high-powered offense
The Bears are wary of giving away too much, though a general portrait of an up-tempo, shotgun-heavy, run-pass-option (RPO) scheme built in Nagy’s image can be sketched together after talking to coaches. Think of it as a repackaging of the “fun-n-gun,” a fitting name, given Nagy’s emphasis on having fun on the field.
“He’s gonna do the stuff we did in Kansas City and he’s gonna add to it, just like everybody who came after Bill Walsh on his tree — Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak, Jon Gruden and on — did,” said senior offensive consultant Brad Childress, a close friend of Nagy’s who followed him to Chicago after spending the past five years together in Kansas City.
“He’s gonna use all the tools he has. Anybody we’ve got that’s a playmaker, he’s gonna find a way to get the ball in his hands.”
That’s why the early signs of Nagy’s union with Chicago general manager Ryan Pace are so positive, as the two worked together on an offseason plan that assured there would be no shortage of playmakers to make Nagy’s vision work. In free agency, the Bears spent $42 million on Allen Robinson II to be the No. 1 option, and $26 million on speedster Taylor Gabriel to stress defenses vertically.
Knowing that quarterback Mitchell Trubisky heavily relies upon inside targets to move the chains, Pace additionally spent $32 million on former Eagles tight end (and Super Bowl hero) Trey Burton, and drafted a prolific slot receiver in Anthony Miller in the second round.
Throw in a versatile holdover in 5-foot-6 blazer Tarik Cohen — the Bears think Cohen can run between the tackles, split out wide and serve as a jet-sweep machine, similar to the way Chiefs Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill was used as a rookie — and the end result is an offense long on established, versatile receiving threats, but short on proven quarterback and offensive line play.
Nagy addressed an offensive line that returns four of five primary starters by hiring Harry Hiestand, one of the game’s most respected teachers, but Nagy understands that the success of his Bears tenure will be defined by how well Trubisky progresses.
As such, Nagy is doing everything possible to make Trubisky — the quarterback the Bears surrendered a bounty to move up and select No. 2 overall in 2017 — as comfortable as possible.
“Mitchell spent 95 percent of the time in gun in college, so we’re gonna be a heavy gun team, for instance,” Nagy said.
A plan to use Mitchell Trubisky’s athleticism
Nagy will call the offensive plays, but staffers say he has also placed a heavy emphasis on collaboration. The terminology of the offense is his, brought over from Kansas City (with a few tweaks), but he has been open-minded in internal discussions about the running and passing games the Bears want to hang their hats on, which has made for some fun on-field experiments the past several months.
It is through this lens that the hiring of former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, a no-huddle, spread-game guru, as offensive coordinator is a sign the Bears plan to play fast, perhaps as fast as any team in recent history.
“Coach Reid taught me that you always surround yourself with better people, and as a football guy and person, I made the right decision,” Nagy said. “Mark is helping me grow.”
You can expect the offense to feature plenty of designed runs for Trubisky, in addition to the RPOs the Chiefs — who were ahead of the curve on this in the NFL — ran with another mobile quarterback, Alex Smith, the past several seasons.
This should be a net positive for the Bears, who actually led the league with an 8.1 yards-per-carry average on RPOs last season according to Pro Football Focus, though they didn’t call those plays frequently. Much of their success had to do with Trubisky’s impressive athleticism and the comfort of running back Jordan Howard, who grew accustomed to running the ball out of that formation during his time as a college star at Indiana.
“It’s just another option for the defense to account for,” Trubisky said. “Me running the ball will help our running backs, help our receivers get open and hopefully take some pressure off our o-line.”
The Bears’ passing game on RPOs needs to improve, as PFF says they were among the league’s worst at that last season. But considering Trubisky played in a similar up-tempo, fast-paced offense at North Carolina, he’s optimistic about the improvements he’ll make this year.
“I’m able to process faster, and that allows me to play faster,” Trubisky said. “[We’re] getting out of the huddle faster, [with a] faster tempo, and I just go through my reads and I know exactly where the ball needs to go. That allows me to throw it and dice ’em up.”
The Eagles did it, so why not the Bears?
Nagy’s final chess move to get the most out of his second-year quarterback was the hiring of Helfrich and the retention of the positive and upbeat Ragone, which means that all of the primary coaches in Trubisky’s ear are former quarterbacks.
It’s a setup similar to what the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles had last season, as the trio of head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo helped maximize the skills of Carson Wentz and veteran Nick Foles.
“You see a guy who really wants to play, do right and be successful for the guy who is calling the play for him,” Ragone said, referring to Trubisky. “There’s a great relationship there.”
His new head coach makes it easy, as one of Nagy’s greatest traits during his five-year stint as Kansas City’s quarterbacks coach and later, offensive coordinator, was the way he reached players. Smith, now Washington’s quarterback, loves Nagy to this day, largely due to his open-mindedness about offensive concepts and non-stop desire to make things fun, though still pushing the attention to detail he learned from Reid.
Nagy is big on rules. The team’s motto this season is “obsessed to be the best” and he regularly reminds players about the little things, like keeping their shirts tucked in underneath their jerseys and staying off social media in the Bears’ common areas.
“The players may feel I’m a little hard on them at times,” Nagy said.
But fun is never far away from his mind, which is why he does things both big — like plan a surprise team Topgolf trip in the spring — and small (like jump into one-on-ones), all in the name of keeping things loose.
“This is the best game in the world … and for him to hop in, it just shows that we’re just out here having fun,” Trubisky said. “You love to have a coach throw a couple dimes on a defense.”
The truth is, if everything goes according to Nagy’s plan, Trubisky and his teammates — not to mention the league’s other 31 teams — haven’t seen anything yet.
“It’s gonna be a fun year,” Nagy reiterated with a grin.
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