In Matt Nagy’s first year as a head coach, he guided the Bears to their second-biggest single-season turnaround since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and Nagy’s accomplishments were recognized Thursday when the Professional Football Writers of America named him the NFL Coach of the Year.
The Bears’ 5-11 season in 2017 represented their fourth straight last-place finish in the NFC North and a fourth consecutive season of double-digit losses. But Nagy transformed the perennial losers into division champions for the first time since 2010, which also was the last time the Bears qualified for the playoffs.
The Bears’ 12-4 record was the best the franchise had produced since 2006. Their 16-15 loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs was a bitter setback made even more gut wrenching by Cody Parkey’s missed 43-yard FG attempt with five seconds remaining.
But for all he accomplished in Year 1, Nagy clearly was not satisfied.
“It’s sickening to be sitting there doing what we did last week,” Nagy said, when he addressed the media this week. “I don’t want that. None of our guys want that. I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t watch the (divisional-round) games. I just got that junkie in me that wants to watch it. I just figured you just get better doing that.
“It almost makes you hurt more when you watch them, when you’re away from them. But we’re all competitors, and we all, in the end, want to be playing three more weeks down the road here from where we’re at.”
But that did not distract from the monumental shift in the fortunes of a franchise that was resurrected under Nagy’s leadership.
In less than 12 months, Nagy transformed the culture at Halas Hall, urging to players to be themselves and to think in terms of “we,” not “me.” A favorite mantra of the 40-year-old Nagy’s was: “Be You,” which was written on his play-calling chart lest he forget his own advice.
After a year together, that’s what general manager Ryan Pace said most impresses him about Nagy, who took what he learned from eight years on Andy Reid’s staffs in Philadelphia and Kansas City and put his own spin on it.
“I know he says it all the time, but (it’s) just how comfortable he is in his own skin,” Pace said. “Just be yourself. Just be you. He has a blueprint from Andy Reid, and he respects him, but Matt is just himself. I think the players feel that. The staff feels that. Because if you do that every day, it comes off as natural and organic, and I think it’s very attractive.”
Nagy, as the offensive play-caller, took chances that most NFL coaches wouldn’t; dialing up trick plays at the most unexpected times and utilizing personnel that shocked even his own players. In a refreshing twist, he wasn’t afraid to take responsibility when his best-laid plans blew up in his face.
“I know you guys are going to call me an idiot when things don’t work,” he told the media. “But I’m a big boy; I can take it.”
Truthfully, there weren’t many opportunities to disparage Nagy’s decision-making.
In one year, the Bears improved in scoring from 29th to ninth. Their average gain per pass play rose from 25th to 14th and their passing yards went from dead-last 32nd to 21st. In total yards, the Bears improved from 30th to 21st.
It’s the first PFWA Coach of the Year honor for Nagy, and the sixth Coach of the Year honor for the Bears’ franchise. Jack Pardee was the NFC Coach of the Year in 1976 (the PFWA selected separate AFL/NFL and AFC/NFC winners from 1967 to 1976 and 1978 to 1989), Mike Ditka was the NFC Coach of the Year twice (1985 and 1988), Dick Jauron was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2001, and Lovie Smith was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2005.
Vic Fangio, who left as Bears defensive coordinator last week to become the Broncos’ head coach, was named PFWA Assistant Coach of the Year.
“We couldn’t be happier for him,” Pace said. “Talk about a guy who’s done it the right way. He’s just kept his head down and worked and earned this opportunity, and there’s only 32 of them. Matt and I met with him a lot over those last couple days, and you’re just so happy and proud of Vic to be in that spot.”
Fangio’s defense was No. 1 in points allowed, takeaways, interceptions, rushing yards allowed, lowest passer rating allowed and highest percentage of forcing three-and-outs. Four of his players were voted to the Pro Bowl: Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks.
With 50 sacks and 27 interceptions, the Bears became the first team since the 2006 Ravens to have 45 or more sacks and 25 or more interceptions in a season. The defense also forced multiple turnovers in 11 of 16 games.