Oestmann: This is Deeper Than Play-Calling for Matt Nagy.

| September 27th, 2021

Adam Oestmann was a colleague of DBB during our ill-fated period at ChicagoNow. But he’s a writer I’ve always admired and a genuinely good dude. Thrilled to publish his thoughts here.

It didn’t take long after the Bears hired Matt Nagy in 2018 for the media to label him the offensive guru Chicago football fans had been hoping for. The former Chiefs’ offensive coordinator had spent just a single season in that role, and only part of it calling plays. Nevertheless, the Chiefs ranked among the NFL’s best when it came to scoring points that season, finishing sixth in the league, and Nagy, it seemed, was poised to turn the tide in Chicago.

That was 2018.

Three years and into a fourth season later and – when it comes to scoring points at least – Nagy is, statistically, one of the worst offensive head coaches in the history of this franchise. Nagy’s 2019, 2020 and, thus far, 2021 points-per-game rank among the worst for the team. Ever. It would seem the offensive-minded quarterbacks guru the Bears thought they were getting didn’t exist from Jump Street.

Following a three-game losing streak and heading into a Week 10 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings last season, a reluctant Nagy relinquished play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The Bears went on to lose to the Vikings 19-13, but an interesting thing began to happen that cannot be seen on a stats page: the Bears’ offense seemed to be forming an identity. Finishing the regular season 8-8, the team earned a Wild Card playoff berth before being knocked out by the 12-4 Saints.

Bill Lazor’s calls, it turned out, were good for more than a touchdown per game over Nagy’s (on average). In a league where many games are decided by less, Lazor’s eight points-above-replacement number was significant. If Nagy had been able to find those eight points earlier in the season, his team might have won as many as three more games.

But let’s not get too lost in the weeds.

The point is the Bears’ offense got better without Matt Nagy calling plays. Even when they failed to come away with a victory, fans could see an identity and understood their team’s path to victory.

With Nagy at the helm through three games this season, Chicago’s offense once again resembles an early 1900s hit-and-miss engine (emphasis on the miss). There’s no rhythm, little adjustment, and zero margin for error. And it all leaves Bears fans with a sinking feeling in their collective gut that, once again, their team is headed nowhere.

So who is going to right the ship and take this team and its exciting young quarterback anywhere but nowhere? Because as things stand today, with the Bears looking to recover from an embarrassing 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, Nagy is still at the helm. And the problem facing the Bears’ top brass is how to trust the guy whose job it is to steer the ship, to admit that he’s not capable of doing so. At least when it comes to play-calling.

To be fair to Nagy, he was able to swallow his pride, at least temporarily, when he handed the reigns over to Lazor in 2020. But when the dust had finally settled and fans were ready to be excited again – thanks largely to the miracle drafting of Justin Fields – Nagy picked up his trusty “Be You” play sheet and decided it had all just been a bad dream.

And now the head coach of the Chicago Bears is at a crossroads once again. Being him hasn’t produced results. Any objective observer would agree it’s not unreasonable for Bears fans to conclude that Matt Nagy is not the offensive guru they were sold. And yet Nagy’s identity as a coach in the NFL seems to be directly tied to the concept of being a play-caller. When he surrendered those duties to Lazor in 2020, he had this to say about it: “I’d be lying to every one of you guys if I told you that this is easy. It’s not. It’s not easy. It’s one of my favorite parts of coaching. I love calling plays. I love it.”

Those who have faced an identity crisis in their lives, personally or professionally, know just how devastating it can be when the thing you’ve built your identity on comes crashing down. It’s takes a lot of humility and self-awareness to move on and start over. Which is why the issue at hand is deeper than just play-calling. Nagy believes he’s a play-caller. There’s just one problem: he’s not good at it.

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