(670 The Score) In the span of one week, two straight losses to playoff-caliber opponents provided a reality check for the Bears.
The Rams made them look physically soft. The Saints exposed coach Matt Nagy’s team as mentally weak. Both were embarrassing.
Which was worse?
Unfortunately for the 5-3 Bears, that has become a bigger debate at midseason than whether they still can make the playoffs in an expanded NFC field. After Saints kicker Wil Lutz kicked a 35-yard field goal in overtime to deliver a 26-23 defeat to the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field, doubts mounted as high as the frustration around Chicago and questions outnumbered answers at Halas Hall.
If an NFL team lacks talent on offense, it must compensate with smarts and discipline. Nagy’s team too often lacked all three elements against the Saints, who brought out the devil in the Bears. Forget about who’s calling plays for an overmatched and undermanned Bears offense. Who’s holding players accountable after mental mistakes? Leading the league in penalties, as the Bears do, suggests Nagy needs to worry more about providing structure as a head coach than putting together game plans as the play-caller.
The Saints tried giving the game away, but the Bears tried a little harder, something a team with such a narrow margin for error can’t afford to do. The most egregious example of Nagy losing control of his team came with 9:11 left in the third period after a five-yard completion to Allen Robinson. On the other side of the field, receiver Javon Wims walked over to Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson after the play and hit him in the helmet twice with his right hand. Wims initiated the conversation and the contact with Gardner-Johnson, drawing an immediate ejection.
Instead of second-and-5, the Bears faced second-and-20 and Nick Foles threw an interception to cornerback Marcus Lattimore on the ensuing snap that gave the Saints the ball and momentum.
“You go from second-and-5 to second-and-20, that’s hard,’’ Nagy said postgame. “I felt that took the sting out, the fire out. We had to regroup offensively on the sidelines and get on track and get out of that.’’
By the time the Bears regained their composure, the Saints had built their lead to 23-13. The wheels already had begun to fall off the offense on the opening series in the third quarter when the Bears received a delay-of-game penalty on third-and-4, allowed a sack on third-and-9 and committed a false start on fourth down. Too many drops. Too many missed assignments. As many concentration lapses as the Bears suffer each game in the third quarter, Nagy needs to re-evaluate his halftime routine – but only after he deals with Wims. That’s priority No. 1.
Wims attacked Gardner-Johnson without provocation, regardless of whether he wagged a finger at Bears teammate Anthony Miller on the previous snap. The Bears must respond by immediately suspending Wims and, depending on how strong of a message Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace want to send, the team could justify cutting Wims. In the NFL, tolerance comes down to production and Wims has caught four passes this year. And given how distraught Nagy sounded, nothing seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
“There’s issues there (and) that’s what bothers me and that’s what pisses me off – excuse my French,’’ Nagy said about his team’s lack of discipline. “I’m struggling with that right now. It gets you into a hole. That has to change. When you have somebody throwing punches and things that are going on with us … it takes away everything you work hard to get to and fight for. What bothers me is we’ve got a lot of guys doing things the right way and that takes it away … I’m really, really bothered by that third-quarter incident.’’
It greatly contributed to making a winnable game a loss.
Surprisingly, the Bears went into the locker room at halftime with reason to feel good offensively. The offensive line played without starting center Cody Whitehair and right tackle Bobby Massie left with an injury, yet running back David Montgomery found holes and exploded for a 38-yard run, his longest of the season. Foles threaded the needle on a 50-yard bomb to impressive rookie Darnell Mooney and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Robinson.
But the thing with streaky quarterbacks is the bad comes with the good, which explains the poor decision on Foles’ interception when he threw off his back foot again. At times, as the Bears erased another 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, Foles made clutch throws that reminded everyone why the Bears traded for a veteran with his NFL pedigree. At too many others, he failed to execute so badly that Fox television analyst Troy Aikman wondered aloud why Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t warming up to replace Foles.
Overall, Foles finished 28-of-41 for 272 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for a 92.7 passer rating that looks higher than it should be. His lack of mobility hurt the Bears more than in any other game this season, as he ran into sacks and, most notably, declined to pick up the first down with his feet despite an open field on a late sequence. If Nagy’s play sheet has “BE YOU” written on it, Foles’ wrist band must have “DON’T RUN” in bold letters.
Trubisky, whose biggest strength was his ability to use his legs to pick up first downs, took a snap out of the Wildcat formation – mimicking Saints weapon Taysom Hill – but Nagy didn’t sound postgame like a coach contemplating a quarterback change or increasing Trubisky’s role. That would be an overreaction anyway. Nagy’s most exasperated moment concerning Foles came when asked about the delay-of-game penalty when he vaguely referenced a wrist band. That only underscored how poor the in-game communication process remains between Nagy and Foles, whose headset went out during a series.
It was fair to wonder if Foles might function more efficiently without hearing Nagy’s voice in his head. Not that Foles would ever agree, at least publicly. As for Foles, he appeared physically and mentally fatigued as a guy who had been sacked five times and endured his second loss in seven days – a far cry from the football evangelical he was celebrating when the Bears were winning ugly.
“We want to win, but we didn’t win today,’’ said Foles, who declined to comment on the Wims situation. “It’s another step of building this team and this culture of what we want to be. This one is tough.’’
It was tough to accept, from blowing a 10-point lead to rallying from 10 down to tying it at the end of regulation with a 51-yard field goal by Cairo Santos – the surprise player of the first half of the season? – and ultimately losing it in overtime. It was because the Saints arrived without their two best wide receivers, Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but found a way to win thanks to Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. He completed 31 of 41 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, but gone are the days where he wows anybody with pinpoint throws nobody else can make.
Against a proud defense that kept the Bears in the game, Brees made the big throw when needed, such as his 20-yard touchdown pass to Hill, and averted disaster twice when linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Eddie Jackson couldn’t hold onto potential game-changing interceptions. Running back Alvin Kamara did more damage receiving (nine catches, 96 yards) than running (12 carries, 67 yards) yet the Bears tackled well, particularly Smith, who was everywhere, and Danny Trevathan. Was it a good enough defensive effort to win? For most teams, it was.
The Bears offense makes it unlike most teams. If you think you’re frustrated at watching the Bears offense, imagine how the Bears defense feels.
Nagy alluded to that delicate dynamic in trying to figure out where the Bears go after one of the most trying weeks of his tenure in Chicago.
“Now, we’ve got to figure out where are we going,’’ Nagy said. “Are we going to go against each other or come together?’’
Only a strong head coach can answer that question – and he can’t be preoccupied plotting game plans to address it properly.