I Write Plays. So Does Matt Nagy. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

| November 12th, 2020

Me, London, 2019. (Back when I could go to London.)

The Rodgers Award-winning musical Rosa Parks, which I wrote with my collaborator and friend Scott Ethier, has been presented by non-profit theatres all over the country. Different spaces. Different directors. Different casts. Different everything. It’s taught me some of of my greatest lessons in the theatre. And I think some of them are relevant to what’s currently happening to Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears.

The Will Harper Experience

Years ago, when the show was first written, we held auditions in NYC.

Will Harper – who has become a star on The Good Place – walked in with his script rolled up in his hand and “sang” Oscar Brown Jr.’s Signifying Monkey into those pages like they were a microphone. He was magnetic. There was no chance we weren’t putting him in this show in some capacity but he really couldn’t sing and Scott’s music is particularly difficult on non-singers.

I turned to the composer, affectionately known as “Half Pint” for his propensity to nurse half pints of Guinness once he feels he’s had too much to drink. “Let’s hear him read. No music.” Scott agreed. I had the casting director grab Will in the hallway and hand him a Martin Luther King Jr. side. (Sides are a brief passage of dialogue from the show used in the audition process.)

The side was a King sermon. But not a real sermon. King’s actual words are heavily protected by the family and they are a litigious bunch. I mapped out one of his sermons syllabically and wrote a knock off so good you could sell it on Canal Street.

He read it. He was brilliant. We had intended to write two songs for King. We scrapped that plan. We had our guy. We played to our strength. To this date, the show is better for those decisions. The songs were never written and they never needed to be.

TheaterWorks Palo Alto

We took the show to Palo Alto the next year and the company generously offered to pay for us to bring five performers. Having a show with 16 African American musical theatre roles is a lot of fun but it’s near-impossible to cast in most markets around the country. If you’re an African American musical theatre actor, you don’t stay in Palo Alto. You move to LA or Chicago or New York. 

We didn’t ask Will. King, since it’s basically a non-singing role, felt easier to cast and teaching speeches is far less time-consuming than teaching songs when you have a limited rehearsal schedule. We weren’t there to cast so we didn’t meet our King until we arrived.

Guess what? Fucker couldn’t act. Like…he couldn’t act, at all. He was a straight-up singer. (I’m leaving his name out of this because I don’t want him to Google himself and find this criticism. He doesn’t know this story, and doesn’t need to know it.)

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Self-Scouting Matt Nagy’s 2018 Play-Calling

| May 6th, 2019

The Bears offense showed significant improvement in 2018, but still was an average-to-below average unit overall. There’s been plenty of focus about the need to get better on that side of the ball, and that starts with scouting yourself. Some coaches have play-calling tendencies in different down and distance situations, and opposing NFL teams scout those to help their play calling in response. With that in mind, I looked at down and distance trends for Chicago’s’ offense in 2018. All statistics are from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.

First Down

The Bears were very balanced on first down, with 231 runs and 223 passes for a 51/49 split. Unfortunately, they were not very effective on the ground, where they averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. This is a significant step down from 2017, when they averaged 4.1 yards per carry, and 2016, when they were at 5.2.

Lest we be tempted to blame Jordan Howard, I’ll note that 142 of the 231 runs (62%) were his, and those actually gained 3.7 yards per carry. So the rest of the team was actually slightly worse than Howard on 1st down. One way or another, the Bears need to figure out how to improve running on 1st down and/or run less and throw more.

Speaking of throwing it, the Bears averaged 7.0 yards/attempt on 1st down, a healthy but not overwhelming number that was right around average for all NFL passing stats in 2018. Teams always average more yards/play passing than running, but when the discrepancy is this large, you should probably consider throwing it more.

Second Down

When it comes to 2nd down, context is needed. A 3-yard gain is great on 2nd and 2, pretty good on 2nd and 5, and awful on 2nd and 10. With that in mind, I split the data into 4 groups based on the distance required to get a 1st down. The table below shows the results.

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Audibles From the Long Snapper: Play Calling Nonsense, Injuries on the O-Line & More!

| September 9th, 2014


Enough with the Play Calling

From Mark Potash’s column in the Sun-Times:

The other issue on Cutler’s second interception was Trestman’s play-call itself. Why not run on third-and-one? Matt Forte had gained 62 yards on 14 carries to that point, though he had been stopped for no gain on the previous play.

“Most of the time we do, but we have to have some balance to what we’re doing,” Trestman said. “And the fact that it was a two-down situation gave us an opportunity to get a big play, and we’re going to take an aggressive approach at times.”

Nothing is more tiring in the NFL than fans and media criticizing play calling after the fact. If Cutler throws the football away, nobody complains. If he gets the yard with his legs, the play is an absolute afterthought. If he completes the pass, HEAVEN PRAISED TRESTMAN IS  GENIUS!

Play calling is the single most overrated element of football games. When runs don’t work, people want passes. When passes don’t work, people want runs. Now all of a sudden the Bears should run on short-yardage when the number one criticism of Matt Forte’s career has been his inability to get first downs in short yardage AND the Bears are without their starting center and left guard?

You know why offensive – and never defensive – play calling are often the most criticized elements of football games? Because it is the element of the game the casual fan and media member believe they can do. Spoiler alert: they can’t.

I prefer to exit the realm of the hypothetical and put the blame where it belongs: on the guy who threw the ball to a defensive lineman.

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