As Matt Nagy left the United Kingdom on Monday, he did so with an appropriate blend of agitation and optimism. The Bears coach was still seething over a 24-21 loss to the Raiders a day earlier -- and rightfully so after his team fell into a 17-point first-half hole, then blew a lead in the final minutes.
But Nagy is by nature an optimistic and energetic leader. Thus he had no intent of letting his competitive ire fester, of becoming overly frustrated at the many deficiencies restricting his team.
For better or worse, the open date on the Bears schedule had arrived. And in the middle ground between Nagy's aggravation and positivity was a chance for him to exhale, to zoom out, to formulate an honest assessment of who these Bears really are.
What exactly is it that they do well? And what is it that they don't?
Where do they ultimately want to go this season? And what detours must they make certain to avoid?
"It's not about complaints," Nagy said. "It's about answers."
One could imagine the driven coach fighting to remain resolved and self-assured, like an '80s sitcom character at a crossroads, listening to differing opinions of imaginary characters floating above each shoulder.
To Nagy's right, there's the nagging naysayer, worn down and raspy and taking a drag from a cigarette as he contemplates the doomsday scenario of the 2019 Bears missing the playoffs.
To his left, there's the unwavering believer, hopped up on life and wearing an ear-to-ear "Be You" grin that sparkles like the "Club Dub" disco ball overhead.
The impassioned tug-of-war should give Nagy a golden opportunity to identify the proper mindset for the next leg of this journey, a chance to weigh all of the assertions from the two illusory Nagys.
What? Me worry? The playoffs don't start after five games, so time is very much on our side. Let's not forget, our record after five games last year also was 3-2. And just like last year, this five-game snapshot features a three-game winning streak sandwiched between a dispiriting Week 1 loss to the Packers and a three-point probably-shoulda-won upset loss on the road. Heck, last year, we even lost our sixth game as well. But what happened then? We rallied to win nine of our last 10, captured the NFC North crown and earned a home game in the playoffs. Why shouldn't we believe that's all possible again?
This isn't last year, man. You always say so yourself. It's a new year with new challenges. New expectations. New pressures. New hardships. The good vibes of 2018 aren't meaningless, but they also aren't some magic cure-all to the problems this team has. Last year started with low expectations and hopeful curiosity, creating an environment in which every small taste of success felt invigorating to the players and intoxicating to the fans. This year? There was Super Bowl talk and off-the-charts anticipation for months, dynamics that have made every stumble feel more unnerving, every defeat carrying so much more sting. In this city, impatience is quickly winning the battle with forgiveness. Mental exhaustion threatens to overpower this group's impressive ambition.
I'll say this, though. This team has impressive heart and unity and competitive pluck. How else do you explain stealing that final-second win in Denver? How else do you explain the focus to dominate the Redskins and Vikings? How else do you explain the fight it showed to turn a 17-0 deficit into a 21-17 lead in 12 minutes against the Raiders last weekend? That's what gives me the ultimate trust in our guys. That collective belief means everything.
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Unless it doesn't, right? Going back to the first Sunday of 2019, this team has lost three times because of an inability to finish. Against the Eagles in the playoffs, after a poor punt late, the defense gave up a 60-yard touchdown drive on its final series and Cody Parkey double-doinked a makable game-winning kick. Against the Packers last month, Mitch Trubisky threw an inexcusable interception in the end zone on what could have been a game-tying and season-changing fourth-quarter drive. Last weekend, your special defense allowed Derek Carr and the Raiders to pull off a 13-play, 97-yard grand theft, a march that continued after a bad running-into-the-punter penalty on Kevin Pierre-Louis. If you ask me, that's a lot of evidence of game-losing lapses in game-winning moments. Heck, even the miracle in Denver came after blowing a late lead and required an officiating gift on the final drive.
I'll tell you this much: Our defense is the least of my worries. Through five games, it has produced 17 sacks and 10 takeaways while allowing eight touchdowns, comparable to the totals of 18, 14 and 11 in the first five games last season. The defense has played lights out in four of five games. So I'm willing to excuse the occasional letdown with the understanding that this group gave us the confidence and fuel to start all that Super Bowl talk to begin with.
But what if Akiem Hicks doesn't come back for a month or two, or even longer, because of the ugly elbow injury he suffered last weekend? What if Roquan Smith's personal issues aren't fully behind him and his potential Pro Bowl breakthrough never gets back on track? What if this defense, with more setbacks than last year and more frustration from constantly having to carry the offense, burns out a bit and is no longer elite but only very good? Top 10 instead of top three? Can you identify other team strengths that could compensate? Your offense has had two good quarters this season. Out of 20.
We're going to get this solved. I promise. I'm convinced I can find answers to jump-start a running game that ranks 26th in the league in yards per game and 29th in yards per play. I know, as I said after the game in London, that numbers like that don't lie. And I know that our 17.4-point scoring average is abysmal, putting us in a class with the Bengals and Broncos and Bills. But we'll get this figured out. We'll get David Montgomery going. We'll get Mitch back healthy and playing at a higher level. We'll start putting points on the scoreboard, and support for this team will spike again.
Based on what? All we ever hear about Trubisky is that his best days are ahead and coming soon. Isn't it time his best days come right now? With your championship window open? Doesn't it irk you that in Season 3, Trubisky's career numbers (30 starts, 6,004 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and 21 interceptions) don't come anywhere close to the other 2017 first-round quarterbacks? Look at Deshaun Watson and his 27 starts, 7,228 passing yards, 56 touchdowns and 18 picks. Wouldn't he be a nice complement to this nasty defense? Wouldn't your old buddy and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes (22 starts, 7,212 passing yards, 61 touchdowns and 13 picks) position this team to be the Super Bowl favorite?
I can't worry about those guys. And Trubisky certainly can't spend energy trying to keep up in that individual race. This is about our team and what we can do right now to become a true championship contender. And part of what we need to do is show Mitch some of the plays Chase Daniel made the last two games. Conviction throws. Shot plays. That touchdown-to-checkdown mentality with the gusto to give our playmakers a chance to make plays. You saw the 32-yard jump ball Anthony Miller won in London. You saw Allen Robinson's two touchdown catches. You saw Robinson's Cirque du Soleil 32-yard grab along the right sideline to convert a key third-and-8 from near our goal line. All we need are a handful of plays like those every game and the offense will start to roll. I know Mitch has it in him. Now I have to bring it out of him.
Have at it. And best of luck. Especially with that anemic running game and an offensive line that has been mediocre at best. I know you say time is on your side, but November is closing in fast. A sense of urgency is needed. From you. From everyone. Otherwise, you can kiss those Super Bowl dreams goodbye, and it will be an exhausting struggle just to stay in the wild-card hunt. Plain and simple: There's no time to waste.
Maybe so. But all this team can do right now is have a sharp focus on each task of each day. One thing at a time, attacked with confidence and purpose. That's how we rose to these heights to begin with. Maybe this city should take a few deep breaths and remember that in five seasons and 80 games under Marc Trestman and John Fox, the Bears enjoyed only one three-game winning streak. And that came in the first three games of 2013. In 21 games since my arrival, we've had separate winning streaks of three, five, four and three. This is a winning program now with a winning mentality and a winning edge. Struggles are never fun, but great teams and sharp leaders rise above their difficulties. I say bring on the Saints. Bring on Week 6.
With that, Nagy is left alone with his thoughts and his greatest gift: an energizing, think-big belief that must fire his players back up when they return to work Monday. From there, he also has to find a way to ignite an offense that has been lifeless through five games.
The challenge is immense. The pressure is even greater.