How one disastrous coaching decision destroyed 45 minutes of Bears brilliance
Chicago came out roaring and was one play away from moving on victorious. That’s when Matt Nagy blew it.
The clock reads 2:47. It’s third and two on the 14-yard line. You’re up three, and your opponent is out of timeouts. What do you do?
That was the decision Matt Nagy was faced with Sunday night in his head coaching debut, a dream debut for a few hours that ended in a nightmare on national television. Nagy made many great decisions and even better play calls, but his one decision here doomed his team to failure.
The Bears had come out roaring on the road at historic Lambeau Field. After the defense stopped Green Bay’s opening drive, the revamped Chicago offense took the field for the first time under Nagy. Nagy went wishbone on the first play, with Trey Burton and Jordan Howard blocking out of the backfield in front of Tarik Cohen, who scampered left for seven yards. Cohen touched the ball two plays later on a short pass, then again on a run to the right. Howard ran and blocked well, and Mitch Trubisky connected deep on a 31-yard pass.
Nagy also used Trubisky as a runner. From the get-go, he established that Chicago had three different players he’d attack with as runners, all of them on the field together at times. Chicago marched methodically down the field, spreading the ball around, picking up positive yardage on every play. Ten plays and 86 yards later, they were in the end zone on a designed Trubisky run, and the Bears took a 7–0 lead. This was a completely scripted drive, and Nagy scripted it to perfection. It resulted in a touchdown and had the Packers defense reeling early.
Chicago’s defense stopped Green Bay on a three-and-out the next three drives. The Bears offense couldn’t get much going either, adding just a field goal, but Aaron Rodgers left the game injured and Bears fans were feeling good.
And then new Bears cash cow Khalil Mack took over. Mack burst past multiple blockers en route to smothering Green Bay backup QB DeShone Kizer, stripping the ball on the way down and recovering it himself. The Bears went three and out. A few plays later, a hurried Kizer throw went straight to Mack and he intercepted it and took it to the house.
I could practically hear the roar from Chicago an hour outside of the city. This was going to be good. The Bears opened the second half on another impressive drive, again probably scripted, adding a field goal to take a 20-point lead.
And then Aaron Rodgers went to work.
Rodgers returned to play the second half on an injured left knee. He led the Packers downfield on a long 12-play drive that stalled just outside the red zone, and Green Bay got on the scoreboard with a field goal. Chicago went three and out. Rodgers responded with another long drive, 8 plays for 81 yards and a touchdown. The entire drive took under 3 minutes of game time as the Packers went hurry-up and marched right down the field, rendering the Bears pass rush tepid and exposing the secondary.
Bears 20, Packers 10.
Chicago got the ball back and another three and out. Nagy had gone full John Fox at this point, conservative, conservative, conservative. First and second down runs picked up nine yards, but Nagy dialed up a pass on 3rd-and-1 and didn’t get the first down. Interesting. Remember that.
You pretty much knew what was happening from here. Green Bay got the ball back and scored five plays later, with Davante Adams abusing Prince Amukamara on the drive. Chicago’s pass rush wasn’t getting home, and Rodgers was getting to the line quickly and systematically picking the Bears apart.
At this point, Green Bay had run 25 of the last 31 plays, averaging over eight yards a play. Chicago was reeling, only up a field goal, and any good NFL fan knew where this one was headed with a full nine minutes left on the clock. We’ve all seen this play out before. You give the ball back to Rodgers now, it’s all over.
Except that’s not how it went.
Nagy and the offense roared back to life. A gutsy third-down run by Trubisky picked up a first down and bought another couple precious minutes Chicago’s wind-sucking defense could recover on the sidelines. Three plays later on 3rd and 2, the Bears picked up another key first down on a Cohen run.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Two Howard runs picked up three yards, and on third and long, the Bears passed to rookie WR Anthony Miller for another first down. On the next play, Jordan Howard burst through for a huge gain all the way down to the Green Bay 22, only three minutes remaining. The Bears were really doing this.
An aborted snap on first down cost Chicago three yards, but a brilliant Howard cut-back run pulled the Bears to third-and-2 on the 14.
And so, we’re back to where we started.
Maybe you knew all that already. That’s okay. It’s important that you remember knowing all that, because Matt Nagy knew all of it too.
Here are some key things Nagy knew at that point:
1. Green Bay was out of timeouts, so every second mattered.
With 2:47 left, a first down essentially ices the game. Any play that takes at least seven seconds to run and spot the ball runs the clock down to the two-minute warning, and three kneel-downs does the job from there.
Even without a first-down, every second matters. Any play that ends with a running clock probably takes it down to the two-minute warning. Any running play would run 28% of the remaining time off the clock.
2. Gaining no yardage would result in a 32-yard field goal attempt.
That’s a chip shot. New Bears kicker Cody Parker was 30-for-32 on field goals of 30-to-39 yards for his career, a 94% success rate. Last year, NFL kickers went 258-for-301 in the same range, an 86% rate, pretty typical from this spot. This was a gimme.
Except 86% is not 100%. And Cody Parker is not an average NFL kicker but a journeyman, on his fourth team in four years, in a huge spot on the road on national television. Maybe the extra pressure makes this a 75 or 80% proposition — still admittedly good odds.
Of course, a field goal puts you up six points, which is not seven. That leaves the opponent two minutes to go the length of the field with no timeouts in need of a winning touchdown. And it would usually leave you feeling pretty good. Except…
3. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers.
No one was surprised by what Rodgers did, because that’s what Aaron Rodgers does. The Bears know that. Matt Nagy knows it too, whether he’s coached against Rodgers before or not. You can give the ball back to Mitch Trubisky with two minutes left. You don’t want to give the ball back to Aaron Rodgers. Ever.
Remember, the last three Packers drives ended in 17 points. Twenty-five Green Bay plays went for 201 yards. Chicago’s pass rush wasn’t getting to the quarterback, and Rodgers was doing anything he wanted.
A missed field goal would give Green Bay the ball at the 22 knowing that a field goal would tie it and give Rodgers a crack at overtime. But even a make gives the greatest player in the game who is scorching red-hot the ball with a couple minutes left.
Nagy knew what you and I knew. You can’t give Aaron Rodgers the ball back and hope your defense holds on. You have to go for the kill.
And so he did.
Nagy dialed up a pass out of the shotgun on 3rd-and-2, and he went for the end zone. But Trubisky couldn’t find Miller, the pass fell incomplete, Rodgers got the ball back with 2:39 left after a made field goal, and the rest is history.
Nagy received plaudits from the announcers and social media for going for the kill rather than sitting on his hands and running it into the line. He knew Aaron Rodgers was waiting, so he went for the touchdown strike to end it.
Right thinking — wrong play call.
Here’s something else Matt Nagy should have been thinking about:
4. The Bears run game had dominated.
Chicago had run the ball 27 times for 139 yards, over five yards a carry. Both Howard and Cohen had run successfully, each at 5+ YPC, and Trubisky had added 32 yards of his own.
Twenty of Chicago’s 27 runs had gone for more than two yards. Not one of them was negative, outside of the aborted snap “run” by Trubisky.
The Bears had run seven third-and-short plays. On four runs, they picked up three first downs. Three passes netted just one first down. Small sample size theater, but that’s a 75% success rate running and 33% on the ground.
A Chicago run probably on 3rd-and-2 has a pretty good chance of picking up a first down. And remember, a first down ends the game.
But so does a touchdown pass, right Nagy??
5. A touchdown pass does not necessarily end the game.
A touchdown pass puts you up 10 with two and a half minutes left, but it also takes control of the game script out of your hands. The outcome is now controlled by the Packers offense. You know… the one with Aaron Rodgers?
Let’s say the TD pass hits, and the Bears go up ten. Now what? Green Bay gets the ball back needing a touchdown, so the exact same scenario plays out. Rodgers throws a 75-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb three plays later, and now it’s a three-point game again with 2:13 left. Now Green Bay can go for an onside kick and, if they recover, have two minutes for Rodgers to move into field goal range. Or they can kick deep to a Bears team that hasn’t been moving the ball and hope to get the ball back on a punt around their own 35 or 40 with about 30 seconds left to get into tying field goal range.
Of course even a tie only sends the Packers to overtime, where they can still lose, but now it’s a clean start with Aaron Rodgers at home against not Aaron Rodgers, so guess who that one favors?
A touchdown doesn’t “ice” the game. A touchdown is a prideful exclamation mark on a marquee opening win for a new head coach.
A touchdown doesn’t end the game. It gives the game back to Aaron Rodgers with a chance. You never give Aaron Rodgers a chance.
6. Only one thing definitely ends the game: a first down.
That’s it. No glory needed. No headlines about brilliant play calling. Just one simple boring measly first down. A boring old first down that lets the Bears win this old school, with a nine-minute drive on the road to run out the clock on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, not even giving the Hall of Famer a chance.
The Bears had this game. They had it at 20–0, and they had it at 23–17, and they had it on 3rd-and-2.
That’s two yards away from a W. No guts or glory needed. Just run the ball.
Run the ball twice, if needed. Your run game is averaging five yards a carry. On this drive alone, you’ve run for 3, 0, 8, 5, 2, 1, and 16 yards. Five of those seven plays end the game right now. And you have two chances to do it.
Wait — run the ball on fourth down? Seriously?
Yes, seriously. Say you run on third and don’t make it. Now it’s 4th and a yard or two, hopefully at the two-minute warning. We’re right back where we started. A field goal is no sure thing, and a made field goal is no sure win. A made field followed by a Packers touchdown drive is a sure loss, in fact.
Heck, you can even pass on 4th down if you’re certain that’s the best way to secure the first down. An incomplete pass no longer hurts since the clock stops on a turnover on downs anyway. But that passing attack you’re so eager to get back to? It’s picked up 153 yards on 28 pass attempts. And by the way, 13 of those 28 pass attempts resulted in the team gaining less than two yards, either on an incomplete pass or one that went nowhere. So maybe just run?
Matt Nagy should have dialed up a run, and a second one if needed. Attempting two runs would’ve given the Bears something like a 90 to 95% chance of icing the game. And even if the Bears didn’t get the first down, the game still isn’t lost. Chicago can still win by stopping the Packers from driving for a field goal, or by them missing it, or by winning in overtime. So even in the remaining 5 to 10%, the Bears still have plenty of winning outs.
Chicago had this in the bag. Even with Aaron Rodgers doing Aaron Rodgers stuff. Even with the offense going in the can for much of the game.
Run the ball, and go home.
Matt Nagy wanted to go home a hero.
He should’ve just tried to go home a winner.