The Matt Nagy honeymoon is over in Chicago

The virtual trombones and trumpets have been packed away, the imaginary confetti has been swept up and the NFC North banner is presumably starting to collect dust.

Now the question is being asked around Chicago and — for this week at least — it isn’t about Mitchell Trubisky.

Just what is Matt Nagy really made of?

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Had you asked this query last Halloween, the answer would have been much different. With the Bears an unexpected 4-3 last Oct. 31, the first-year coach was viewed as a master of locker-room culture and an innovative mind who might be able to jumpstart the Bears’ offense from a few decades spent in the doldrums. After the failed Marc Trestman experiment and John Fox’s retirement account-padding tour, it looked like the Bears had finally nailed a head coaching hire.

Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 record in the regular season, a seven-game improvement from the 2017 campaign, and one good enough to win him NFL Coach of the Year honors.

But then the Bears met the Eagles in a home playoff game, Cody Parkey double-doinked his game-winning kick and nothing has come easy for Nagy or the Bears since.

Now if you were to ask the average Bears fan about Nagy’s job performance, there’s a good chance you’d get a response of mockery and scorn. Hell, all it took was a few minutes for the media’s knives to come out during the postgame news conference following last Sunday’s 17-16 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

That might seem like too wild of a swing considering the 3-4 Bears are just one game off last year’s pace, but Bears fans are more bipolar than anyone. The Monsters of the Midway win a few games and everyone from Evanston to Evergreen Park morphs into a walking Superfans character, planning not only the next Super Bowl parade route but the four or five after that.

Lose a few games and, well, there isn’t a fanbase that can get more fatalistic. It’s just what happens when a franchise of the Bears’ early pedigree is going on 35 years without a title.

Matt Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 record last season. Chicago has already lost four of its first seven games this season. (Getty)
Matt Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 record last season. Chicago has already lost four of its first seven games this season. (Getty)

The main difference between the two views, of course, are expectations. The Bears could have pulled out the game against the Chargers to move to 4-3 and the current feelings for Nagy would be roughly the same. Fans and media came into this season expecting a run to the Super Bowl, not just a simple upgrade from John Fox’s uninspiring stewardship.

But what changed apart from the narrative? Nagy probably wasn’t as much of a genius as he looked last season, just as he probably isn’t ill-equipped to lead a NFL team as some overly-perturbed Bears backers have insinuated over this current three-game losing streak.

The thing is, Nagy hasn’t done himself many favors and some seemingly small decisions have backfired big time.

Take, for example, the end of the Chargers loss. After 59 minutes of seeing his offense repeatedly sputter in the red zone, Nagy had a chance to escape with a win if new kicker Eddy Pineiro made his field goal attempt.

After a Trubisky scramble got the Bears into reasonable range for a 41-yard-attempt by Pineiro, Nagy decided not to try for any further yardage and ran down the clock so the kick would be the last play of the game.

Pineiro’s kick, of course, went wide left and Nagy headed into a news conference that was dominated by a heated back-and-forth over why he didn’t try to make Pineiro’s job easier with an extra run or two.

I thought the criticism was misplaced and that Nagy’s inability to call plays to get his team in the end zone earlier in the game was more of a problem than assuming an NFL kicker would hit a 41-yard field goal.

But then Pineiro let it slip on Tuesday that he would have rather had the ball placed more toward the center of the field than the left hashmark. Though it appeared that Pineiro immediately regretted letting the media in on that secret, the damage was done. An extra day of Chicago sports radio controversy had been written.

"We have a communication process that we believe in and that we use," Nagy said of Pineiro on Wednesday, going wide left himself when asked to answer a question.

There have been other issues, of course, starting with Nagy’s offseason obsession with finding a productive kicker to calling just seven rush attempts against the Saints — the lowest for any game in franchise history — just after reiterating the team’s need to establish the ground game.

The biggest issue, of course, wears No. 10 and plays quarterback for the Bears. While Nagy was playing the Hunger Games with any unemployed kicking candidate that came within 50 miles of Halas Hall, the reality was that the success of the 2019 Bears was always going to hinge on the development of Trubisky.

Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky fumbles the ball in front of Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Damion Square. The Chargers won 17-16. (AP)
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky fumbles the ball in front of Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Damion Square. The Chargers won 17-16. (AP)

While Nagy didn’t draft Trubisky nor does he drop back in the pocket on gameday with subpar skills, Nagy is responsible for putting his offense in a position to succeed. And right now he’s not doing that.

Worse yet, Trubisky has taken a step backward from last season when he often got himself out of trouble and extended drives with his one plus-skill: running.

While Nagy coached in 2018 like he and the Bears had nothing to lose, the opposite seems true in 2019. He’s terrified of Trubisky’s very real limitations and can’t find a successful way to coach around them. (Last year’s get out of jail free card — the 36 turnovers forced by the defense — aren’t happening with quite the same frequency.)

Taking quarterback play out of the equation, Nagy’s current path seems pretty standard for coach of the year winners. His seven-game improvement was in line with the average 5.7-game improvement of every winner since 1990.

And because it’s hard to measurably improve once you hit double-digit wins in the NFL, Nagy’s encore season looks like it might be trending toward the average -2.8 win decrease in the season following a coach of the year win.

The trick is establishing the consistency in years three and beyond so you’re closer to the group that includes Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Sean Payton than the one that includes Dick Jauron, Jim Haslett and Wayne Fontes.

But Bears fans don’t quite particularly care about future seasons when they’ve got a championship-caliber defense in the here and now.

Here’s the bottom line: Nagy was brought to Chicago as an offensive wizard and someone who could bring Trubisky into the potential that many draft gurus saw in 2017.

A year and a half in, we haven’t seen any evidence that Nagy is in fact that guy. The unexpected arrival of Khalil Mack and the Bears defense may have accelerated Nagy’s expectations, but then the NFL has never been a league that has waited around for anybody.

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