Will Nagy’s “Live” Scrimmages Be the Right Test for His Quarterbacks?

Ross Tucker at The Athletic writes about how hard it is to make a decision in a quarterback competition without preseason games. He strikes a nerve with me when he addresses the importance of seeing what happens when a quarterback can be hit.

“You see, they can and will chart every throw and decision [quarterback Mitch] Trubisky and [quarterback Nick] Foles make throughout camp. They’ll grade who is more accurate, who is making better decisions, etc., but in all instances, the quarterback will know he can’t actually get hit. Without naming names, I played with a number of quarterbacks during my career who looked awesome in practice wearing the red no-touch jersey but were totally different when they had to go out and do it inside the stadium with a defense trying to take them down. I really don’t know if it was just the pressure of being in a game situation or the knowledge that they were subjecting themselves to physical harm, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter, does it? All that matters is how they perform in the games that actually count and when the defense is going to do everything it can to get to the quarterback and inflict harm.

“But don’t just take my word for it. I asked some former quarterbacks for their opinions to make sure my observations weren’t off base.

“‘Most NFL fans don’t like the preseason, but for quarterbacks, whether they are in a competition or backups looking for live reps, the preseason is an extremely important aspect of getting ready for the season,’ said Sage Rosenfels, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons.

“‘There is nothing like live reps. Some quarterbacks excel in practice, when you don’t have the fear of getting hit, and then clam up during real games. The preseason helps tremendously in the evaluation process.'”

This has been on my mind for many months now as I have thought about what went wrong with Trubisky last season. My guess was that, despite having a “live scrimmage” in practice, the first snap Trubisky took against the Packers in game 1 was the first one he had taken without a red jersey on since January. That means it was the first snap he took where he could actually get hit. The guess here is that his eyes dilated in a way head coach Matt Nagy should have, but didn’t, expect.

That, along with the fact that Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Petine is the equivalent of a junk ball pitcher who will throw every wrinkle he can at a quarterback to confuse him, had Trubisky seeing ghosts. Nagy addressed Trubisky’s lack of confidence game after game after that and it certainly looked like it was many weeks before Trubisky recovered from the experience.

How many times did we hear Trubisky and Nagy talk about how good a play looked in practice after failing to work in a game? It’s a refrain we hear many times in many different circumstances. The reason is obvious. Everything is different once the live bullets start flying.

To his credit, Nagy apparently learned his lesson last season and by all accounts he was planning on playing his starters in the preseason this year, quarterback competition or no. But now, with no preseason games, is when we find out if he really learned anything.

Nagy will undoubtedly use the “live scrimmage” approach out of necessity rather than by choice now. And now the crucial question is this: will the quarterbacks still have the red jersey on during that session? If not, there’s a chance that Nagy will choose the right player in this competition. And that player will have at least a chance of being prepared for what’s in store for him in game one when it all becomes real.

John Jenkins Is a Good Bet to Get the Nod in Goldman’s Place

Mark Potash at the Chicago Sun-Times thinks defensive lineman Bilal Nichols is the most likely candidate to replace nose tackle Eddie Goldman in the lineup.

“Nichols, 23, is getting the first shot at replacing the inimitable Eddie Goldman at nose tackle for the Bears, who held their first practice in pads Monday at Halas Hall. Goldman, a two-time Pro Bowl alternate and five-year unsung hero in the defense, opted out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

“His absence leaves a significant hole, but one the Bears can fill and survive better than when they lost defensive end Akiem Hicks last year. Nichols, who played tackle at Delaware, is arguably the most intriguing prospect for the vacancy because he fits the Goldman mold as a strong run-stopper, and he obviously learns quickly.”

“The Bears have other candidates to fill Goldman’s nose tackle role; defensive line coach Jay Rodgers mentioned Abdullah Anderson, John Jenkins and Brent Urban as additional options. But given his quick acclimation to the NFL as a rookie, Nichols seems like the best place to start.”

I’m not too sure of that. Or at least I’m not too sure that’s true in every situation.

Goldman is a mountain of a man at 318 pounds. He’s a load to move and can hold up well to double teams. Nichols at 299 pounds is almost 20 pounds lighter than Goldman and almost 30 pounds lighter than Jenkins at 327 pounds. Nichols is really built more like the 2 gap defensive end that he mostly has been in the Bears base 3-4 defense.

Though he was rarely active because he doesn’t play special teams, the Bears almost certainly carried Jenkins on the roster in 2018 specifically to back up Goldman. The guess here is that was the plan this year before Goldman opted out.

It’s highly unlikely but not impossible that the Bears would change their scheme to adapt to Nichols size and ability. He could, for instance, play a 1 gap nose tackle. And the Bears will, as usual, see plenty of time in their nickle defense where Nichols will surely be a good fit in the interior of a 4 man line.

But when they are in base defense in their current in scheme, I think Jenkins gets the nod.

Why Don’t the Bears Have a Run Game Coordinator? Well, in a Way, Maybe They Do.

As head coach Matt Nagy re-made his offensive coaching staff last year, one of the most puzzling moves was Dave Ragone‘s change in title from quarterbacks coach to passing game coordinator. What does Nagy, the supposed wizard in charge of an offense that makes its living passing the football, need with a passing game coordinator? What is he going to do? What role will be play in the quarterback competition that is playing out at Halas Hall?

Ragone has addressed the issue with reporters. Via Adam Jahns at The Athletic:

“[Ragone] indicated more than once over Zoom last week that his direct interactions will change with [quarterback Mitch] Trubisky. Unlike the coaches he’s working closely with, Ragone also doesn’t have previous experience with [quarterback Nick] Foles.

“’It’s my job to oversee other things and be where I’m needed to be for [offensive coordinator Bill] Lazor and coach Nagy,’ Ragone said. ‘The conversations with Mitchell are more so how’s my family, how are my kids. It’s been those type of conversations. To me, it’s not my role to get into those (football) conversations with him right now.'”

“‘It’s just not at this point of the juncture of the conversation would I be willing to go into details about what I’m looking for in the job,’ Ragone said. ‘More importantly, it’s just getting us on the field and executing at a high level.’

“The Bears always will have ‘us’ in mind, too. For Ragone, that means preferring to have a macro perspective of a competition that will have micro-managed qualities to it.

“‘For me, watching how this plays out is more about the offense in general than just the quarterback spot,’ Ragone said. ‘I know that’s where the spotlight will be on, but the reality is getting the other 10 guys to be in sync with whatever quarterback is going to be behind center is obviously all of our goal going forward.'”

My initial instinct when I heard about Ragone’s change in title was that Nagy wanted to make sure Trubisky still had a “Mitch guy” on the staff. They probably already knew at that point that Foles was going to be their guy in the coming competition and everyone that Nagy brought in was familiar with him.

But this probably goes farther than that. It’s now evident that, as his title suggests, that Ragone is going to have a role in the game planning and in make sure the passing offense runs well as a whole. He’s gong to be putting in extra time researching the opponents, watching film and providing extra information to Lazor and Nagy and generally being of assistance.

The question is, “Why is that necessary?” Although the passing game wasn’t anything to brag about, its accepted that the biggest problem associated with the Bears offense last year was the running game. The Bears ranked 29th overall in rushing, had the second-fewest runs of 5 to 10 yards in the league and the third-fewest plays that gained 10 yards or more according to Football Outsiders.

If the problem was in the running game, shouldn’t the Bears have a run game coordinator?

Well, maybe in a way they have.

Nagy reportedly put the running game into the hands of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and offensive line coach Harry Heistand last season. Both took the fall at the end of the year in part due to its failures as they were fired and replaced. A legitimate question at the time was why Nagy was using these two coaches as a scapegoat when the truth is that he was in charge of the offense. Shouldn’t he have been the one to take public responsibility?

Well, perhaps this year he is. The shifting of Ragone’s responsibilities could indicate that Nagy is planning to spend more time working on the run game while delegating more of the planning in the passing game to Ragone and Lazor. In other words, its possible that he didn’t hire a run game coordinator because he has been personally concentrating on improving it and will be filling that role himself. One can only hope so.

One thing seems certain. Although new offensive line coach Juan Castillo will reportedly have a strong say in how the run game is constructed, there will be no one this year to shift blame to if the running game is the same mess in 2020 that it was in 2019. With no “run game coordinator”, this year its all on Nagy.

Anthony Miller: Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance

Jason Lieser at the Chicago Sun-Times highlights the problem with fluffy spring time comments as he addresses wide receiver Anthony Miller‘s situation with the Bears. He quotes receivers coach Mike Furrey on the matter:
‘‘’He’s starting to understand defenses and coverages and leverages — that stuff, it’s not just playground,’ [Furrey] said of Miller. ‘Now everything’s slowing down for him from a route-running standpoint. He gets in meetings, he can respond, he can communicate. He’s not tucking his hat down and [giving] one-word answers. ‘‘’He’s trying to learn. He’s dropped the ego of this whole Memphis thing. Now he’s coming here and learning from Allen Robinson, asking Allen Robinson, watching Allen Robinson. . . . If you’re starting to do that stuff, you’re definitely heading in the right direction and starting to grow individually.’’’ “Furrey thought the same thing last summer, however. Nearly one year ago to the day, he said of Miller: ‘I just held my breath, hoping that he was gonna go to the right place [in 2018]. . . . He’s come in now and understands what we’re doing. Now I believe everything’s gonna get better and better for him.’’’ “That proved to be false hope.”

It did, indeed. Miller disappeared and wasn’t really a factor until late in the season when he had a five-game stretch in which he had 33 catches for 431 yards and two touchdowns. That’s because, despite Furrey’s comments last season, Miller still didn’t mastered the details of playing the position. ‘‘One of our best players is not on the field,’’ Furrey said. ‘‘And the reason why [he wasn’t on the field] is because you can’t trust him.’’ I love the fact that Lieser pointed out that the rainbows and sunshine coach-speak surrounding Miller this season is the same as last season. I wish other writers did it more. For instance, outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino went on and on last offseason about linebacker Leonard Floyd. Floyd went on to have a miserable year. His total inability to win one on one match ups completely destroyed the pass rush along with it as offenses focused almost completely on throwing men at stopping Khalil Mack. As a result, fans will never be able to trust anything he says about a player again. We’re in a similar situation with Miller, who is now entering his third year. Miller has shown flashes of ability that give fans hope that he could finally breakout. But so far, its been no bueno for the guy that Ryan Pace traded up to get in the second round of the 2018 draft. And that’s a problem because the Bears didn’t do that much at wide receiver this offseason. Similar to the situation along the offensive line, they decided to stick with the guys they have with only minor additions and depend upon better coaching and player development. This is what good organizations can do. Unfortunately, the Bears have failed to do it rather consistently on offense. The most notable failure in this regard was last years’ tight end situation where they stuck with Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton when many (including me) thought they needed help at the position. The result was disastrous. In any case, in finally addressing the situation at tight end this year they obviously hope that it will help solve the issues in the passing game. Certainly, at least as long as everyone is healthy, we can expect to see a lot of double tight end sets. But you still need wide receivers on the field and right now the only one the Bears can depend upon is Robinson.
Riley Ridley and Javon Wims have proven to be nothing special so far and I don’t see anything in their game that makes me think that’s going to change. Similarly, Ted Ginn, Jr. will be useful but he has proven that he isn’t going to provide the kind of consistent threat that the Bears need. And a fifth round pick like Darnell Mooney feels more like hoping to catch lightening in a bottle than something you can depend upon. So those passing game issues are going to remain prominent unless Miller finally gets it this year and provides another viable threat. It could happen. But I wouldn’t take Furrey’s word for it.