The moment his organization traded for Super Bowl hero Nick Foles in March, Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy knew he needed a plan.
Not just to get the Bears back to their winning ways following an 8-8 season in 2019, but for handling something that pro football coaches especially hate: the dreaded “quarterback controversy.”
Having one of those, Nagy knew, threatened to make the ensuing showdown between Foles and returning starter Mitchell Trubisky a sideshow. So for the past five months, the Bears’ third-year coach has approached the decision with the care it demands, thinking long and hard about the structure of the competition and even asking his good friend and mentor, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, about the best way to organize it.
“He’s been through these situations before at certain times, and he’s been with other people that have been through them,” Nagy said of the future Hall of Famer, under whom he coached in Kansas City from 2013-2017. “I think he’s just too valuable not to use him.”
Reid will have no direct input on which man will be named the Bears’ starter, a decision that Nagy recently said will come next Wednesday, a mere four days before Chicago’s season opener against the Detroit Lions. But getting Reid’s thoughts on the way to divvy up practice reps to ensure both men had a fair shot to win the job, for example, or how to communicate with each quarterback was certainly helpful, especially with so much at stake.
Drafted second overall in 2017, Trubisky’s regression played a big role in the Bears’ fall from grace last season. Though he battled a shoulder injury for three quarters of the season, one that ultimately required surgery in January, Trubisky’s statistics plummeted as he ran less, airmailed passes more and played poorly enough that the team declined to pick up his fifth-year option in May. Now Nagy is not only faced with deciding if the Bears should pull the plug on Trubisky, but if so, when.
Nagy made it clear in an interview with Yahoo Sports on Monday that he has given lots of thought to how he’s going about evaluating the two men and how he’ll handle the aftermath of the decision. The only thing he promised either of them before training camp is that they’ll get a fair chance.
“[I said] we’re gonna be open and honest with you — in every single meeting that we have, we’re going to tell you exactly how we feel,” Nagy said. “And so far, we’ve done every bit of that.”
How Trubisky and Foles are being judged
In an effort to evaluate the quarterbacks on an even plane, Nagy has allowed the two quarterbacks to split reps between the first-string and second-string offense equally throughout camp.
This has extended to all portions of practice, he said, including 11-on-11, and from there, the quarterbacks are being evaluated on accuracy, leadership and mental toughness.
“How they handle a good play, how they handle a bad play,” Nagy offered.
Additionally, Nagy has made a concerted effort to tell both quarterbacks the unvarnished truth about how they’re performing on a day-to-day basis, just so whatever decision he comes to won’t be a surprise.
“We’re gonna take the gloves off and there’s gonna be tough love,” Nagy said, “but there’s also going to be arms around you and support.”
There’s a sense among some, at least nationally, that the Bears have no choice but to pick Trubisky to start the season. They’ve invested so much in him already, using a top-two draft pick on him instead of Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes, and while the easygoing Foles is comfortable and experienced coming off the bench, it’s unclear how Trubisky would handle a demotion like that, since he’s never had to before at this level.
Nagy insists he’s keeping a very narrow focus as it relates to making the decision.
“You step back and you just say, ‘OK, what is best for the Chicago Bears?’” Nagy said. “You just keep it really, really simple. There’s no agendas out there, there’s not a setup, none of that. And you’re just very fair.”
Neither quarterback has seemed to pull away in the competition, at least according to the media allowed to observe practice over the past month, but Nagy said both players are having good camps.
“Both of them are doing really well there,” Nagy said. “I circle back to [this] — we feel like we’re in a really good place right now at that quarterback position.”
What Nagy likes about each of his QBs
Take Trubisky, for instance, who has come into training camp with a laser focus — “He’s just totally locked in,” Nagy said — and perhaps more important, seems to have a good attitude despite the team’s decision to hedge its bets by trading for Foles.
“He’s playing football, he’s having fun, he’s smiling, and that’s a credit to him because he’s handling adversity right now, and there’s a lot of other people that would just go in the tank and just think ‘this is just not fair’ and just feel bad for themselves,” Nagy said. “And he’s done the exact opposite.”
In retrospect, Nagy says, Trubisky showed a glimpse of this when he met with him shortly after the Bears’ disappointing 2019 season ended.
“He came in with eight pages of notes of stuff that he wants to get better at and fix,” Nagy said. “From a leadership standpoint, I thought that was really cool.”
And that, it turns out, is the biggest area of improvement he has seen from the 26-year-old.
“Even without playing a game, he’s grown so much from the end of last year until today,” Nagy said. “You just feel it. You feel his presence in the huddle, you feel his own confidence of where he feels we’re going with this offense.”
Yet he’s facing a capable adversary in Foles, who spent a year with Nagy in Kansas City in 2016 and therefore has an understanding of the offense, not to mention the cache that comes with being a former Super Bowl MVP with a reputation for drawing the best from his teammates.
“He still needs to get, exactly, the intricacies of some of the stuff we do,” Nagy said. “But he has a natural presence to him as a leader — just a calm that he has, which is nice. I mean, he’s always had that. He’s kind of stoic, and the guys feel that.”
Unlike Trubisky, a one-year starter in college at North Carolina, the 31-year-old Foles also has the experience of seeing a lot of different defenses during his eight-year career, which has allowed him to display an awareness that Nagy values.
“He’s putting that into action as he’s out there in certain situational football modes, whether it’s two-minute or four-minute or red zone, you can see some of that come out,” Nagy said.
Bears ‘judgment day’ looms
When the time comes for Nagy to pick a quarterback, one of them will inevitably be disappointed. But the loser of the job better stay ready, he warns.
“Whoever the backup is, any human being is going to initially be gut-checked, right? And it’s gonna hurt them,” Nagy said. “If you say it doesn’t hurt you, you’re the wrong person [for the job]. So it’s gonna sting, it’s gonna hurt. It should.
“But you know in this league, it’s one play away, regardless of COVID or injuries or whatever. And so, if you’re named the starter, you better be mentally tough to be able to handle what we’re looking for from the starter, and if you’re not named the starter, you’ve better be mentally tough enough to handle that part. And we’ll give you the time to accept it, but then get right back at it and let’s go — we’re going to do this thing together.”
Nagy has seen enough thus far to be confident that once his choice is made, everything will work out in the end.
“With two good people like we have, I know that will be the result,” Nagy said. “Whichever one it is, I know they’ll handle it the right way and we’ll do it together.”