Training Camp Diary: Feisty Practice, Ferocious Defense, Forecasting the Preseason Opener

| August 13th, 2021

Thursday was apparently a feisty practice throughout, which is actually nice to see. I don’t know why every team in the league doesn’t orchestra more of these joint practices. They are so much more valuable than in-house scrimmages.

Another day, another Fields gem. Why would any team leave a talent like this on the bench?

Bears corners have been good so far this summer, and the defense is playing healthy and fast across the board.

Is There Anything to Watch Tomorrow?

The truth is, who knows?

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Training Camp Diary: If Fields Masters Playbook & Fundamentals in August, He Should Start in September

| August 4th, 2021

Last year, around this time, I texted a certain buddy of mine who happens to be the best beat writer covering the Chicago Bears. I asked him what was going on with Trubisky and Foles. He didn’t say anything specific about either player. He didn’t say, “Trubisky and Foles both stink.” But it was very apparent from his tone – and the tone he used on his popular podcast with another similarly-named fella – that both stinking was exactly the case.

This year, around yesterday, I texted a certain buddy of mine well-connected at the highest reaches of the Halls of Halas. I asked what he was hearing about Fields, thinking he might diffuse some of the hype. He responded in about four seconds, “Kids got it.” (Yes, there is a grammatical error there but just the facts on DBB.)

I don’t know if Justin Fields has it.

And it might be a year or two before ANYONE knows.

But unless he displays a complete inability to process information this summer, and that has overwhelmingly not been the case to this point, I can’t imagine a rationale for sitting him a single week of the 2021 season.

Because while we talk about “development”, that doesn’t actually happen during an NFL season at the quarterback position. Once the third preseason game is played, the backup QB essentially enters QB College. It’s all book learning. They become a student of the job but don’t get a single meaningful rep as long as they stay in that role. There just aren’t enough practice hours during the week anymore.

If Fields gets through the next few weeks with a mastery of the playbook and firm handle on the fundamentals of playing the position at the pro level (he seems to have mastered play-calling in the huddle in about two days), why waste a single second of his supremely-valuable rookie contract trying to win a few transitional games with Andy Dalton? Why risk Dalton playing well, keeping the job all season, and then having to start anew with Fields in 2022, knowing no more than we know right now? What is the rationale for not developing the kid in real games, against real opponents?

[Side note: I don’t buy this notion that Dalton definitively gives the Bears the best chance to win games, even as early as September. Dalton has been mediocre for years. Why would that change here?]

Also, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon this coaching staff to be able to do that? The head coach is a former college quarterback. The offensive coordinator is a former college quarterback. The quarterbacks coach is a former college quarterback. Shouldn’t these guys be able manage and bring along a talent like Fields at game speed? If not, why? If not, isn’t it fair to question the point of having such a quarterback-centric staff, and more specifically question what value these individuals bring to the organization generally?

This summer is progressing perfectly for the Chicago Bears. The quarterback they drafted, the man whose future success will mean the organization’s future success, is displaying every single quality they hoped he would display at this stage: mental, physical, emotional. The arrow is pointed up, and everybody around Lake Forest recognizes that. If he continues to progress, and display those qualities, why turn the arrow on its side?

Because the only way to truly develop in the NFL is to play NFL football. And that should be the focus of this coaching staff when it comes to Justin Fields.

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Training Camp Diary: Dalton an Essential Piece of the Nagy Evaluation

| August 3rd, 2021

Tweet one. Adam Jahns.

Tweet two. DBB.

There is an eagerness to get Justin Fields on the field. And, as Jeff illustrated, that eagerness seems to be okay with shipping Andy Dalton east. But like it or not, the Chicago Bears need Dalton as much for the future of the franchise as the present. Because developing Fields is the single most important thing the franchise is trying to accomplish right now and making sure he has the right coach is an important part of that. Through three years, we still don’t really know if Matt Nagy can outsmart opposing defensive coordinators. Dalton could help us get that answer.

The numbers aren’t pretty. Through three years:

  • All three years in the bottom twelve, in terms of yardage.
  • Two scoring offenses in the bottom ten.
  • Bottom five in rushing twice.
  • Bottom twelve in passing yardage all three years.

Judging by the numbers alone, one could only conclude that Nagy is a bad offensive coach.

But we know it’s about more than the numbers.

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Training Camp Diary: Camp Begins Today, Opening the Definition of a Transitional Season

| July 28th, 2021

And so, camp begins.

Two nights ago I was sitting in my local and two guys, for no other reason than the Aaron Rodgers “thaw” news being broadcast on the televisions above us, asked me what I expected from the Bears this season.

My answers were wishy washy, ineffectual, nebbish.

The paragraphs were peppered with you knows and who knows and maybe, I guesses. Normally, as training camp begins, I have a pretty solid grasp on what is to come over the next 5-6 months from the Chicago Bears. (2019 being a signature exception, wherein I believed the quarterback was going to take a significant leap.) But this season, not only don’t I have that grasp, I don’t see their performance over these next 5-6 months as particularly important.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be into every game. I am not one of these Bears fans that sees upside in losing. (You would think the events of the 2021 NFL Draft would put an end to that stupidity.) I’ve written many times that some of my favorite moments as a fan of this franchise were during forgettable campaigns. I want the Bears to win every single time they play football.

But 2021 seems like the very definition of a transitional season. Look at the details:

  • The quarterback of the future is on the roster but unlikely to see more than a half season of work.
  • The quarterback manning the position is a solid veteran option but isn’t going to take the club, in all likelihood, beyond wildcard weekend.
  • The team is littered with veterans, specifically on defense, who are unlikely to be on the roster in 2022. This includes the team’s entire pass rush.
  • It is the defensive coordinator’s first season on the job.
  • The cornerback position won’t be solidified until next spring.
  • The left tackle isn’t a left tackle. I happen to believe he is going to be a terrific one in the future but as a rookie? History says no.

None of this is to say the Bears can’t win a bunch of games this season. They can. But is it Andy Dalton winning those games? If yes, okay, that’s nice. But is it better for the 2022 Chicago Bears for Dalton to go 10-7 as a starter or Justin Fields to quarterback the last eight games to a 4-4 record while looking the part of frontline NFL starting QB? Of course the answer is the latter because there is 0% chance Dalton is starting for the Bears next year unless something goes terribly wrong. (Do you feel the nebbish here? I’m practically writing in Woody Allen’s voice.)

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Wednesday (on the) Links Package (7/14/21)

| July 14th, 2021

Me, in the famed Himalaya Bunker, off the fourth fairway at Royal St. George’s. This week The Open returns to the southern coast of England. (Picture was taken for effect. I split the fairway.)

Football is getting closer. But there’s still relatively-little happening in the NFL for a few weeks. So here are some more links.

  • If you’re interested in golf, this is one of your favorite weeks. The Open is on early morning, and over by early afternoon. If you don’t know about the greatness of Royal St. George’s, here’s the Golf Channel hole-by-hole guide. If you’re looking to gamble on the tournament, take a Top 20 shot on Lucas Herbert. The Australian is coming off two top 20s in the states, a win in Ireland and top ten in Scotland. You can’t find better form (sans Rahm) heading into this tournament.
  • Matt Nagy is selling a “time is now” narrative when it comes to his offense: “I think what we’ve put together — Ryan Pace has done such an amazing job of building the last three years — this roster that we have, we have a lot of depth,” Nagy said told Kenneth Davis on the Under Center Podcast. “And so now to be able to have the time to put together, we feel like we’re going to have a great opportunity offensively to to do what we need to do. The time is now, we know that, and we’re looking forward to it. You can’t live in the past. And that’s not what we’re going to do. I refuse to allow that to happen. This is a new season, and so we got a fresh start. So let’s see what we can do with it.” (I get the urgency but…is the time really now for his offense? Can he really make that argument for any game Andy Dalton starts?)
  • The Bears are doing their part to help local bars and restaurants still struggling to rebound from the pandemic. “It’s been just over a month since Chicago’s bars and restaurants fully reopened after more than a year of pandemic restrictions, but the road to economic recovery remains long and daunting for many in the hospitality industry. With football season approaching, the Chicago Bears are offering a select few restaurants promotional partnerships and marketing opportunities…Applications are live.”

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Examining Chicago’s Personnel Usage/Tendencies on Offense in 2020

| June 1st, 2021

Like I’ve done the last few seasons, I want to explore how the Bears deployed their skill position players on offense in 2020 to see if there are any trends or tells for which opposing defensive coordinators can look. These are tendencies Chicago’s coaches should be aware of and look to rectify in the future.

The table below shows changes in run percentage when skill position guys who played between 35-65% of the snaps were in the game vs. on the sideline.

  • On the high end, that excludes players who played more than 75% of snaps, because their “off-field” splits would be too small to consider. That was only Allen Robinson in 2020.
  • On the low end, that excludes players who played less than 25% of snaps, because they are often mainly in the game in specific situations, where a run or pass may be expected (i.e. the 4th WR in a 4 WR set for 3rd and long, or the 2nd TE in a short-yardage set). This excluded Demetrius Harris, Cordarrelle Patterson, and a host of other role players who played a few offensive snaps.

(Note: This data is pulled from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, which includes sacks and QB scrambles as passing plays.)

A few thoughts:

  • David Montgomery had pretty even splits when he was on and off the field. Therefore I won’t look at him any further when I split the sample into different personnel packages below.
  • This is a change from 2019, when Montgomery’s presence on the field made a run much more likely, and is almost certainly due to Tarik Cohen’s injury. In Cohen’s limited 76 plays before getting hurt, the Bears only ran it 29% of the time. He clearly had the passing downs role, and Montgomery absorbed that when Cohen got hurt.
  • Everybody else has fairly significant changes in how frequently the offense runs when they are on the field vs. off of it, which warrants further exploration.

Different Personnel Groupings

I was curious how much the personnel groupings might influence these splits, so I looked at how frequently the Bears run the ball in different groupings. Generally, there are five skill position guys (WR, TE, RB) on the field for a given play, so I split the sample up by how many of them were wide receivers.

The more WR the Bears have on the field, the more likely they are to pass. That makes sense, but the significant difference in run frequency here means we’re going to have to look at each of these groups individually to see how players really impact the run/pass ratio when they are on the field.

3+ Wide Receivers

Let’s start with plays featuring 3 or more WRs, which means there are 2 total TE + RB. The most common setup here was 11 personnel, which features 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR.

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When it Comes to QBs in the NFL, Studs are Studs.

| May 14th, 2021

Whether Justin Fields succeeds or fails, Matt Nagy probably isn’t going to have a hell of a lot to do with it. While everybody loves a “QB guru”, fans, media members and NFL teams waste entirely too much time talking about the development of young quarterbacks. It is just as likely that studs will be studs and duds, well, you get the picture.

At least in the modern NFL.

This isn’t your grandfather’s NFL and there isn’t a huge difference in the schemes run by teams. In his discussion with local media, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day referred to his experience in the NFL, even labeling his current scheme an “NFL offense” numerous times. Sure, rookie quarterbacks have to adjust to the speed of the NFL. They have to learn how to read different coverage concepts and adjust protections.

And while that’s all stuff that a good NFL team will help with, some guys just get it.

A narrative has emerged in recent months that Nagy failed to develop Mitch Trubisky. The truth is no one could have develop Trubisky because Trubisky is a bad football player. Bad football players don’t become good. Ryan Pace failed by drafting him to play quarterback in the NFL. Was Trubisky’s inability to read defenses and adjust something we would’ve found out about had he played more collegiate games? Almost certainly. (His inaccuracy downfield was certainly something that one would see if they looked at North Carolina tape.)

Fundamental improvements are fixed in the offseason these days because NFL coaches aren’t allowed as much contact. Mike McCarthy used to run a full-blown QB Camp as part of his offseason program. (Aaron Rodgers even credited it as part of his development.) That can’t happen any more.  Trubisky seemed to acknowledge that he wasn’t getting what he needed from his personal QB coach. Why else would he have changed coaches last offseason?

If we’re going to blame Nagy for not developing Trubisky, why don’t we blame Bruce Arians for whatever happened to Jameis Winston? Surely Sean McVay can’t be trusted with young quarterbacks after failing Jared Goff and why didn’t Boy Genius Kyle Shanahan turn his first hand-picked passer, CJ Beathard into a steal?

Then, if you look at the quarterbacks who have been good. Who do we credit for Derek Carr? Is Pete Carroll the genius behind Russ Wilson?  Is Jason Garrett the reason Dak Prescott became a stud? Shouldn’t Bill O’Brien get another job because of the work he did with Deshaun Watson? Uhhh…no.

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If They Make 2021 About Andy Dalton, the Chicago Bears – Collectively – Have Lost Their Minds

| April 1st, 2021

Andy Dalton is a middle of the road quarterback.

Ryan Pace knows Dalton is a middle of the road quarterback.

Matt Nagy knows Dalton is a middle of the road quarterback.

George McCaskey and Ted Phillips know Dalton is a middle of the road quarterback.

And that is why none of these men can possibly believe Dalton is a pathway out of the mediocrity of the last two seasons. None of these men can possibly think Dalton – even replacing the ineptitude of “the former guy” – is the missing piece in a Super Bowl puzzle. And in the cases of Pace, Nagy and perhaps even Phillips, they can’t possibly imagine Dalton is worth risking their tenures within the organization.

To believe any of that nonsense would show that everyone in a position of authority at Halas Hall has lost their collective minds. And if that’s case, what hope do any of us have?

So we must believe Pace, Nagy, Phillips and McCaskey have not lost their minds. We must believe they understand the Bears must still solve the most important position in team sports. We must believe they know there are only two ways to inspire this fanbase for the coming season: Russell Wilson or a first-round (or very early second-round) quarterback.

Bears fans have grown impatient, and with every right. But until we know if either Wilson or a top prospect are achieved, there is no reason to be decisive about this Bears off-season. That time, however, is rapidly approaching.

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Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy Will Return in 2021.

| January 13th, 2021

Both men will meet the media at 10:00 AM CT Wednesday (my birthday). Stay tuned to this space for a response to that press conference.

A few notes:

  • George McCaskey made clear what many of us have known: this ownership group loves Ryan Pace and trusts him to right the ship. (Do they love Nagy? I’m not sure but they trust Ryan on him.)
  • No contract extensions for either doesn’t automatically mean next season is “win or gone” but it will increase the pressure.
  • George: “We need better production from the quarterback position to be successful.” Bingo.
  • George suggested he’s more confident in Pace selecting the next franchise QB because Nagy will be involved in that process. It is very obvious ownership wants this group to succeed and is going to give them every chance to do that.
  • Weird moment when Ted wouldn’t answer how long the Nagy/Pace contracts are. Not sure I get why that would be privileged information but it does suggest these guys might not be expiring after 2021.
  • Pace made it very clear that this entire offseason is about the quarterback position.
  • Prodded about the 2017 draft by Dan Wiederer, Pace would not take the bait and kill Trubisky. Nagy was pressed as well, and passed. There’s no reason to do it.

One thing is very clear from today: Mitch Trubisky will not be on the Chicago Bears next season.

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I Was Wrong: Tectonic Shift Proves Pace, Nagy and Trubisky Should All Return in 2021

| December 21st, 2020

The Bears scored 30 points again.

The Bears gained 400 yards again.

The quarterback, with the exception of a couple throws, pitched another stellar rating and looked a different player.

There has been a tectonic shift at the crust of the Chicago Bears organization. Matt Nagy, Bill Lazor and Mitch Trubisky have figured it out. Don’t ask me how, but they have. Suddenly the offensive line is a cohesive, powerful unit. David Montgomery is one of the best running backs in the league. Allen Robinson is a bona fide number one. Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney are two of the more exciting rookie skill guys in the sport. This scattered collection of puzzle pieces has been put together and the picture is a thing of beauty.

Perhaps most importantly, the Bears are playing an exciting, entertaining brand of football. They are a threat to score every single time they get possession. They are a joy to watch.

And guess what? I was wrong.

Yep, someone in sports “media” is saying it.

I was wrong.

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