Hoge: Matt Nagy’s offense under intense spotlight in Year 4 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
LAKE FOREST -- In the NFL, four years is an eternity. Coaches get fired after two years – sometimes even after one. Offensive and defensive systems constantly change. Players continually move from team-to-team.
That’s why Matt Nagy’s offense is under an intense spotlight in 2021. This is Year 4 of his system existing in Chicago, and in the first three years, the Bears’ average finishing position in yards/play was 26th.
So why now, with two new quarterbacks – Andy Dalton and Justin Fields -- does Nagy feel confident his offense will be better in 2021?
“Probably just the way we’ve been practicing, the tempo, where we’ve been just talking through schematics of where we know we want to be,” Nagy said. “I would also say too, I remember when I first talked to you all when I first got here and I explained to everybody here that this offense, it takes a few years to get going.”
That’s true. Nagy has periodically reminded the fan base that this is a complicated system. Remember the whole Offense “101” to “202” for Mitchell Trubisky in 2019? Year 2 was supposed to be better than Year 1. And Year 3 was supposed to be better than Year 2. Obviously, that’s now how things played out for Trubisky or the offense. 2018 – Nagy’s first year in Chicago – was actually the most successful year, as the Bears ranked 20th in yards/play.
Now the big question everyone has is: Was the quarterback the problem or the system/head coach? That question has only intensified after Trubisky came back to Soldier Field and lit up the Bears’ defense, albeit in a preseason game with very little scheming.
Regardless, the complexities of Nagy’s offense – and the patience required – were supposed to lead to a big payoff, which makes the skepticism in Year 4 completely fair.
“We saw that in Kansas City because it took a few years, not just the players that were coming in and were drafted but the scheme -- them learning it and understanding it,” Nagy said. “After three or four years, it really started picking up and going. I feel like we’re at that spot right now. We’ve got some guys now that have been on this team for two, three, four years, and they know the offense as well as I do, where that wasn’t the case two or three years ago.”
There’s always a transition period when new head coaches and/or general managers take over a program. It takes a couple free agency and NFL Draft cycles to turn over the roster the way they want it. And that’s why I believe NFL ownerships should have more patience than we often see in the league these days. But that hasn’t been an issue here in Chicago. The McCaskeys have been plenty patient. GM Ryan Pace is in Year 7 and Nagy is in Year 4. And, as Nagy indicated, the roster they have now consists entirely of their players.
On the other hand, you don’t have to look at the depth chart too long to realize that the amount of guys who have actually been in the offense for at least two full seasons isn’t very long. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, running back David Montgomery, left guard Cody Whitehair, center Sam Mustipher and right guard James Daniels count as legitimate starters who have been immersed in the system since at least 2019.
Beyond that, we’re talking about players like wide receiver Javon Wims, reserve offensive lineman Alex Bars, tight end/fullback J.P. Holtz, tight end Jesper Horsted, and wide receiver Riley Ridley. A few of those guys might not be on the 53-man roster when the season begins.
And then there’s running back Tarik Cohen (torn ACL), who won’t be available when the regular season begins, and veteran left tackle Jason Peters, who at least played in a somewhat similar system in Philadelphia under Doug Pederson, but just showed up last week.
That’s really it.
Oh, and both quarterbacks – Andy Dalton and Justin Fields – are new.
The good news is that the newer players brought in across the roster (i.e. tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham) are here because they are perceived to be good fits within the system. And Nagy seems to have more confidence in his quarterbacks than he has at any point since he got here in 2018.
“We’ve got more of those guys, so when you have that and you have a guy like Andy and these quarterbacks that come in and understand it, that’s where it gives me the confidence,” Nagy said. “Now we’ve got to go do (it). We know that, of course. But it gives me the confidence knowing the offensive line, these tight ends that we’ve got, the wide receivers—there are a couple new ones, but they’re doing well — and then Andy and the quarterbacks in general, the running backs, it’s a really good foundation now in my opinion. That’s why I feel good about it.”
When the Bears take the field against the Rams in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, every starting spot except two – left tackle and quarterback – will likely be filled by a reliable player that played for the Bears in 2020.
That’s either a good thing or a problem, depending on how you want to view it. Remember, the Bears ranked 27th in yards/play in 2020.
The hope, of course, is that the change at quarterback is the big difference, which is why the focus has been and will continue to be on Dalton and Fields. Nagy has confidence that Dalton can run his system effectively, but likely won’t hesitate to switch to Fields if the offense continues to stall.
And if the Bears still can’t score points with Fields?
Well, then all that patience – which the fan base has very little of these days -- goes completely out the window.