Wanna Fight About It? Matt Nagy, the Play Caller
Ryan Dengel & Jack Wright
In this, the second edition of ‘Wanna Fight About It’, my good friend Jack and I will tackle the debate many of you have been having at work, the bars or more recently, the kitchen/home office: is Matt Nagy a good play caller? We will NOT be tackling (see what I did there?) whether or not Nagy is a good head coach. Jack and I both strongly agree, Nagy is the real deal when it comes to leadership. 2019 was a Yuuuuge let down after going 12-4 in 2018. If it wasn’t for Nagy’s leadership, we agree the Bears’ locker room would have imploded; it didn’t, and that’s mostly thanks to the culture Nagy created.
A bit about both Jack and I: we’ve coached high school sports for a long time and know a lot about changing culture. It’s crazy difficult at the high school level, so we both have an enormous amount of respect for those who do it at the pro level. Nagy is genuine. If you listen to his press conferences, he never shies away from the difficult questions, nor does he fail to take blame. Say what you want about “Club Dub,” but the players loved it and if you don’t get pumped up when that man throws out a “BOOM,” you’re just as exciting as my last work Zoom call. Seriously, even my brother-in-law (Yuuuuuge Vikings fan) agrees — the Boom is cool.
In two years, Matt Nagy has lost only two games by more than 10 points. They have stayed in games where they should have been blown out. His teams don’t quit. Jack and I are both fans of Nagy the leader, no argument there.
Where the argument begins is Matt Nagy the play caller. I’m arguing that much of the Bears’ 2019 backslide was due to Nagy’s inability to adapt to the players’ strengths. Jack is going to argue that Nagy did all the right things but…..
Alright Jack, let’s fight.
How Is This Dude Still Calling Plays? (RD)
September 9, 2018, the first play against that Team Up North. Matt Nagy comes out with the T-formation. Every true Bears fan recognizes it and already loves this guy. It’s in the damn fight song for cryin’ out loud! At halftime of this game, all of us had two thoughts: Can we give the Raiders another first round pick for Khalil Mack? PLUS…Matt Nagy is Papa Bear Halas 2.0. Then the second half happened and “Buzz, your girlfriend, woof!”
When the game was on the line and the QB from Up North came back in to rally his troops (and the refs), the Bears had a chance to put the game away.
With just under three minutes left, the Bears were driving. It was 2nd-and-13, the Bears gave the ball to Jordan Howard who ran for 12 tough yards. It’s now 3rd-and-1. EASY call, give the ball to Howard, get the first down and milk as much clock as possible. Nope. Instead, Nagy has Trubisky throw from the pocket (we all know how this ends), resulting in an incompletion. The Bears settle for a field goal and eventually lose the game by 1 point.
This resonated with a lot of us; Nagy doesn’t like to run the ball. Some sports writers who are significantly wiser than me said this was a “meatball fan” take; I strongly disagree. The next season, Nagy (sure, and Pace too) traded away Jordan Howard. Howard ran for 1,313 yards in 2016, 1,122 in 2017 and 935 in 2018; but he didn’t “fit the system.” By the way, Howard ran for 82 yards and a touchdown against the Bears in 2019. In 2019, the Chicago Bears ranked No. 27 (out of 32) in rushing. That, my friends, is turrible.
Since we’re on the topic, let’s look at some 2019 rushing stats. Against that Team Up North the Bears ran the ball 15 times for 46 yards in the Week 1 opener. In the weeks that followed, Green Bay allowed 198, 149, 176 and 122 yards on the ground. The 49ers saw this and exploited them for 285 rushing yards in the NFC Championship game. The way to beat Green Bay was by running the ball, but Nagy refused to do it.
Mitch Trubisky struggled mightily at times in 2019. The best way to help a struggling QB? Run the damn ball. What did Nagy do? Called 54 passes (versus 7 runs) against the New Orleans Saints.
SEVEN run calls in the whole game for a whopping 17 yards. People that want to say Trubisky is the only reason for the stagnant offense can stop it right now. Mitch DEFINITELY has earned a lot of the blame, but you can’t win many NFL games by running the ball seven times.
Tarik Cohen has great speed and makes good things happen when running side-to-side, or when he’s given the ball in space. Yet, time and time again, Nagy sent the 5-foot-6 running back straight up the gut. Why? Because Nagy calls plays that fit his system, rather than allowing his system to adapt to the players he has. Why did Nagy trade Jordan Howard (this is the last time I’ll talk about this)? Because he didn’t fit the system. David Montgomery does fit the system, but definitely isn’t as good of a RB as Howard (yet).
Mitchell Trubisky. I know, I know. He isn’t a very good QB right now. However, Mitch has done some really good things. The dude has wheels. In 2018 Mitch ran for 421 yards and in 2019 he ran for 193. Running is one of the strengths of Mitch’s game, but Nagy tried to make him pass again and again. I get it, Trubisky was hurt for much of the 2019 season, but when he was healthy, Nagy seemingly refused to let him run. I don’t get it — was he trying to prove to Pace and the rest of the Bears brass that Trubisky wasn’t the QB he wanted?
Against Dallas in week 14, Mitch had his best game. It seemed as though Nagy tailored the offense that night to Mitch’s strengths. Mitch threw for 244 yards on 31 attempts for three touchdowns with one interception. He also rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown. The offense put up 31 points with Mitch basically accounting for 28 of those 31 points. So many of us felt like Nagy’s play calling had turned a corner. Lower Mitch’s passing attempts, let him run the ball while giving the defense an opportunity to rest. The next week? Mitch threw the ball 53 times and the Bears put up 13 total points on that Team Up North. Didn’t Nagy see that EVERYONE was running all over Green Bay? No.
I really admire Nagy. Seriously. I was defending his basement draft room that was covered in the play call sheets from his 2018 Coach of the Year campaign. I just want to see him do a few things:
- Commit to the run to help give his amazing defense some rest.
- Adapt to the strengths of his players, not try to fit them into a system.
- Or, if things continue to be as bad as 2019, surrender play calling duties to someone else.
You’re up Jack.
The Art of Play Calling (JW)
Hubris gets the better of us sometimes. This is not one of those times. I want to be clear, my experience playing high school and (D3) college football, and coaching high school football does not equate to an NFL experience. The complexity, speed and athleticism of the NFL game is surreal. Regardless, I plan to tap into my experiences over the years playing and coaching the game of football. Let the record show, I am not a meathead, chachi living in my (mildly) athletic past. (Insert some reference to Napoleon Dynamite and Uncle Rico)
First, playcalling is an art and any art done well takes time.
Microscopically, game plans take hundreds of man-hours and lots of staff support. You watch film. A LOT of film. You watch your guys on offense. All of them, over and over again. Then, you watch the opponents’ defensive players and schemes over and over again. You consider your unit’s strengths and weaknesses and, likewise, your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, create your scheme, share the scheme with your squad, and practice the scheme throughout the week making adjustments along the way. Ultimately, once it’s all in place and game day rolls around you hope you landed upon the right scheme and your players execute the game plan.
Macroscopically, calling a game takes intuition. Every game is vastly different in terms of pace, physicality, strategy and scheme. Think of something you are REALLY good at. It feels pretty good, right? You have confidence, swagger and expertise. You trust that expertise to land the plane, play the perfect chords, or nail the flawless spreadsheet. You achieve flow. Calling a game is no different. There is a distinct rhythm that, when things are going well, becomes clear, easy and SO fun.
Matt Nagy has been around the game all his life but has been calling plays at the elitist of elite levels for a relatively brief period. He took over play-calling in Kansas City late in the 2017 season and landed the head coaching job with the Bears in 2018. There is a monumental learning curve in acquiring play-calling skills and eventually becoming an aficionado. I think he deserves more seat time.
The Cupboard is…Poorly Stocked (JW)
Next, Nagy gained his clout as a play-caller while at the helm of the offense in KC. There was a crystal clear (a few good men/am I clear? crystal) offensive scheme in place in KC and more importantly, there were skill players in place to execute the scheme.
A top-notch QB, RB, TE and WR. Those players included Alex Smith, Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Together they put up freakishly good stats. Combine elite players with a stellar offensive line (check out where those dudes were drafted and how GOOD they were) and you have the formula for an explosive, highly-effective offense.
Now, despite their best efforts, the Bears have not been able to match the template. Mitch, J-How/Monty/Cohen, Burton and Robinson aren’t exactly the 2017 Chiefs. Let’s not waste any time making offensive line comparisons, that’s futile.
In the 18 years I coached, I mostly called the offense. One year, I had a stud RB. One Friday night, he ran for well over one hundred yards and three touchdowns. After the game, parents and coaches were complimenting me for calling a great game. An older gentleman was sitting at the end of the press box. He’d been in town all his life. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It doesn’t take a genius to hand the ball to No. 26 thirty-plus times a game.”
That certainly pulled me back down to Earth. Also, he was right. When you have great players you look like a great coach. The opposite is true as well. The bad years are hell. You look down at your play sheet. You look up at your players standing out there on the field. You have no idea what to call. You cannot get anything going. Zero rhythm. Guess who looks like a terrible play caller? I’d imagine Matt Nagy had a similar feeling last year.
Jack is oh-so-right about this point, it takes hours and hours of seat time in order to get good at play calling. Why then did the Bears hire a dude who had less than one full year of calling plays at the highest level? Ryan Pace didn’t hire a play caller, he hired a clear communicator. Nagy’s real strength is his leadership. I would run through a wall for that guy. Maybe not a real wall, because I’m older than I look, and I feel older than I look. You get the point…
The reason why Nagy looked so good calling plays in Kansas City was exactly Jack’s point; he had Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill and Trevis Kelce. He needs to be reminded that he no longer has those guys. I will concede to Jack’s point. There isn’t the same level of talent here in Chicago and it’s going to be really difficult to run an offense when your best TE’s were Jesper Horsted and J.P. Holtz, and your only true consistent receiving threat is Allen Robinson.
There is offensive talent on the current Bears roster, Nagy just has to find a way to utilize it in the right way. He’s said that he wants to do this and so far, Nagy has been pretty honest for an NFL head coach. I want nothing more than to see the Bears dropping BOOMs all over the 2020 schedule. If they can stay healthy, figure out the QB situation and (most importantly) if Matt Nagy can call plays to his players’ strengths, watch for the Bears to make a playoff push.
Why did Pace hire an inexperienced play caller? Great question, Ryan. It appears there is a mounting number of head scratchers during the Pace era. This could be one of them. However, it appeared he had the resume. He has spent his career around offensive units and was closely tied to one of the best offensive minds in the game in Andy Reid. Also, Ryan is undeniably correct about using the personnel he HAS in the locker room and playing to their strengths. That is the mark of a good OC. Coaches will often make elaborate plans for their offensive schemes only to find out the personnel just doesn’t fit the scheme. A good coach will reassess and redirect. However, the quarterbacks in Chicago were just ranked lowest in the league. The TEs are unproven. The RBs are unproven. Adding the aged WR seems like a desperate move. Has there been any major changes to the OL?
Regardless of play calling, it could be rough again this year. I hope not.