Dec. 16, 2017. Ford Field.
Mitch Trubisky threw three interceptions and the Bears retreated from Detroit after a 20-10 loss to the Lions. Their 10th loss of the season strengthened the question of when — not if — coach John Fox would be fired.
The Tribune headlines over the next two days ranged from “A complete mess” to “Going the wrong way” to “End. This. Now.”
Now come back to the present.
Dec. 16, 2018. Soldier Field.
Trubisky threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 24-17 victory over the Packers. Khalil Mack had 2½ of the Bears’ five sacks of Aaron Rodgers. Vic Fangio’s defense recorded its 35th takeaway of the season. And after it was over, Matt Nagy stood at the fringes of a chaotic, bouncing locker room watching his players dance to celebrate the Bears’ first playoff berth in eight years.
The Tribune headline: “Crown ’em.”
The Bears became the 47th team in league history to go from worst to first in the course of a year and one of 24 to have done it since 2003.
So how exactly did the Bears get from Point A to Point B? How did the vital traits of this team bring the division title to life?
Jan. 9, 2018. Halas Hall.
In a blue suit and orange tie, Nagy stood in front of the Chicago media for the first time and considered why he could succeed as head coach of a Bears team that hadn’t had a winning record in six years.
“I’ve always considered myself a leader, a leader of men,” Nagy said. “I have a command, I feel like, in the room.”
Nagy’s ability to communicate his message is a common thread through the Bears’ accomplishments this season — from guiding Trubisky in learning his offense to persuading his players to buy in to his vision of success when skeptical outsiders saw too many obstacles.
The quarterbacks room long has been Nagy’s comfort zone as a former Arena Football League quarterback, so it was a natural place to start in establishing that bond. Even as Trubisky’s highs and lows in his second season have been pronounced, his trust in Nagy is evident. That starts with openness.
“(It’s) him being able to be hard on me (and me) being able to take that criticism and wanting to get better from it all the time,” Trubisky said. “The main thing for me is that he believes in me, and that means a lot to me. Whatever he says, I’m going to take it to heart, and he can never be too hard on me because I know he wants the best for me and this team.”
Watch one of Nagy’s postgame victory speeches or the Bears’ “Club Dub” dance parties and you’ll see the impression he has left on the team as a whole. Nagy said it has been “a surprise in a good way” how accepting his players have been.
His approach isn’t just about getting them to believe in grand goals. He tries to connect with the individual by asking about his kids or holiday plans, understanding a personal relationship can foster trust.
“Those little things go a long way, and for me it’s natural,” Nagy said. “I’ve always been that way. It’s having relationships with people more than as just players. The players thing is easy — you just coach ’em — but the people part is harder. … There are a lot of different people out there, and can you connect with different personalities? That’s been my favorite part, honestly, of this first year.”
Dec. 9, 2018. Soldier Field.
Fangio’s defense was well on its way to being considered among the NFL’s best by the time December hit, but this game was different.
“The score isn’t what I’d like to see as a connoisseur,” Fangio said dryly about that game.
He had another one-liner cued up for the week after the Bears intercepted Goff four times and held Gurley to 28 rushing yards in a 15-6 victory. The game solidified on a national stage what Fangio can do with a talented group of players, and it put this Bears defense among the elite.
“I tried to do a cartwheel but I couldn’t,” he said.
Opposing coaches such as the Rams’ Sean McVay and 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan see Fangio, in his 19th season as an NFL defensive coordinator, finding ways to maximize his players’ skill sets and constantly adjusting his scheme based on what’s best that week.
“I knew what he could do X’s-and-O’s-wise,” Nagy said. “You don’t really ever know until you do it how they handle themselves during the week with game planning. (Now that) I get to see the mentality that he has and his knowledge of the game — what he’s seen, how much he knows and different looks he can give to cause problems — I respect it even more. He goes about everything the right way, and it transfers to practice and out on the field.”
Wide receiver Allen Robinson said the personalities of Nagy and Fangio are like “fire and ice.” But what the coaches have in common is they have earned players’ belief in what they’re doing.
“Simple guy, simple mindset, but he gets the job done,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “He’s always ready to work. He loves personnel, game planning, being on top of that. He instilled that in us, just loving the game of football.”
Sept. 9, 2018. Lambeau Field.
The first thing to know about Mack is the guy can make a first impression.
On Mack’s first day of practice after general manager Ryan Pace acquired him from the Raiders on Sept. 1, Nagy recounted how Mack left a teammate wide-eyed during a pass rush. Shanahan, a former Browns offensive coordinator, recalled this week how he and left tackle Joe Thomas rated Mack as one of the best players they had faced — in 2014, seven games into Mack’s career.
And then there was Mack’s Bears debut.
Just one half into his Bears career — after practicing for all of a week following his training-camp holdout with the Raiders — he had strip-sacked Packers quarterback DeShone Kizer and had a pick-six against him.
“It really started from the very first day he walked onto that practice field. You could feel it,” Nagy said. “But every day, it’s the same with him. You feel a guy who has extreme confidence in himself, and yet he’s got lots of confidence with his teammates too. We love everything that he’s brought. He’s been everything and more to what we thought we were getting. And now, where we’re at as a team, this is where his leadership is going to really show up.”
Mack’s impact on the Bears extends beyond his 12½ sacks and 15 quarterback hits. The attention he draws from offenses opens paths for other members of the defensive front to make plays, and the pressure he puts on quarterbacks forces them into the bad decisions the secondary seizes upon.
“His attitude and aura is contagious around young guys and guys who look up to him,” Trevathan said. “The great players in this league, guys see that and they buy into it.”
The secondary’s continuity
March 16, 2018. Halas Hall.
About three hours after the Packers tried to pry away cornerback Kyle Fuller with a four-year, $56 million offer sheet, the Bears matched it to retain their 2014 first-round draft pick.
The move ensured the Bears would keep their starting secondary intact with cornerback Prince Amukamara and safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos also returning. Nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan re-signed a month later.
Fuller had a strong comeback year in 2017 from a 2016 season lost to injury, so it seemed like a good move. But it would have been prescient to predict how much of an impact the group could make with another year together under Fangio.
After recording only eight interceptions in 2017, the Bears have 26 through 14 games in 2018. The aforementioned five players have 20 of them, with another 60 passes defensed, and have accounted for four of the Bears’ six defensive touchdowns.
Fuller’s consistent season, with an NFL-leading seven interceptions, has made him a first-time Pro Bowler.
“It’s an overall process of (Fuller) gaining confidence through the time that we’ve been here and through the ordeal that he’s been through his first three years in the league,” Fangio said. “It’s putting in the time and study and being prepared.”
Jackson joined Fuller on the Pro Bowl team after his instincts and increased comfort made him a game-changer in his second season. Amukamara, who has three interceptions, two forced fumbles and a return touchdown, will return to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 2011 with the Giants.
McVay used the word “excellent” to describe all five players.
“It’s one thing to have the numbers,” McVay said. “But then when you flip the tape on, things jump off the screen and you see that, man, this is a legitimate defense that’s top tier.”
Sept. 30, 2018. Soldier Field.
The play was called “Willy Wonka,” and it was an early glimpse at the trickery Nagy has rolling around in his brain.
With the Bears leading the Buccaneers 28-3 in Trubisky’s breakout six-touchdown game, Nagy called for backup quarterback Chase Daniel to line up next to Trubisky in the backfield. Trubisky took the shotgun snap and pitched it to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel with one smooth motion and then faked the handoff to Daniel. Gabriel scooted into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown.
Several fun plays with wacky names followed over the next 10 games, from “Oompa Loompa” to “Freezer Left” to “Santa’s Sleigh,” showing off a risk-taking side to Nagy he vows to continue, even when the occasional trick goes awry.
That happened twice Sunday against the Packers — when the Bears tried a fake punt unsuccessfully and when Tarik Cohen fumbled a direct snap. Packers radio broadcaster Wayne Larrivee, who used to call games for the Bears, lost it after the Cohen miscue.
“More arrogance by Matt Nagy,” he yelled on the broadcast. “A trick play. All the tricks in the world, and they’re foiling the Bears now. … Now if they can just take it and shove it up you know where.”
Nagy wasn’t fazed this week.
“I don’t have to fight (the impulse to hold back) because I’m just going to do it again,” Nagy said. “I want to make sure that it makes sense though. I’m not doing it to just do it. Our players know that. … When you start striking out on them for a bunch of times, then maybe you stop — and maybe you don't.”
The plays have worked more often than not, and they’re another thing Bears players have bought into.
Robinson said he first recognized Nagy’s creativity when he was calling plays with the Chiefs, and Cohen called Nagy “a brilliant mind.”
The creativity goes beyond the occasional gadget play to Nagy’s ability to utilize the array of tools Pace secured over the last two seasons — from Cohen, Robinson and Gabriel to Anthony Miller and Trey Burton. Cohen said part of Nagy’s success is he puts players in positions they feel comfortable.
His offense often means different players will star each week.
“It’s not hard for guys to buy in once you’re winning games and see how things are going,” Robinson said. “That’s the biggest thing, as long as you’re moving the ball and competitive from an offensive standpoint.”
Sometime in January. Somewhere.
Because this memory machine doesn’t go into the future, it’s too soon to know how the Bears’ worst-to-first journey ultimately translates to the playoffs.
They have two more regular-season games to build on their 10-4 record and try to secure a first-round bye. As remarkable as their turnaround has been, they could make an even bigger splash with a postseason run.
Tribune headline: TBD.