Flexibility and comfort. If you've paid any attention to Matt Nagy's approximate one month long reign as Bears head coach so far, these are the two buzzwords - rather key principles - his offense in Chicago will rely on. Whereas the previous regime led by John Fox and Dowell Loggains focused on fitting a square peg into a round hole, while hoping something thrown at the wall eventually stuck, Nagy and his cohorts will center in on tailoring an innovative offense. An attack that will take into consideration what their players are immediately capable of while also challenging them appropriately.
That ideal should be the bare minimum for every team, but it's nevertheless lost too often.
One of the guys who suffered most as a rookie and should be able to flourish with a coaching staff that doesn't let a defense dictate match-ups in the vein of Loggains, is Adam Shaheen.
The most egregious example of a staff that didn't know how to use their young tight end was in late November in a 31-3 blowout defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Recall when Shaheen missed a one-on-one block on Eagles' stud defensive end Brandon Graham early on. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't a position a still green player should've been put in, let alone a seasoned veteran.
To reiterate: the same Graham, who is regarded as one of the more underrated edge defenders in the NFL, and who effectively sealed a Super Bowl LII victory with a strip sack of Tom Brady.
After tearing through the Lions to the tune of four receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown a week prior (solid numbers for a rookie tight end only beginning to see regular action in November), Shaheen was effectively phased out of the Bears' offensive game-plan during the rest of regulation in Philadelphia following his miss. A mistake of leaving a guy on an island against a great defender that most sensible football minds would agree is a mismatch for almost every tight end. With rare exceptions of the all-around virtuoso types such as the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.
Shaheen wouldn't only miss most of the rest of the Eagles' game, he was also summarily punished by receiving but nine snaps against the 49ers along with zero pass targets the following week. A game where the 2017 Bears as usual struggled to maintain consistent offense with 147 yards against one of the league's worst defenses in San Francisco. A game Chicago lost 15-14. Surely a gifted tight end wouldn't have assisted against a defense that in all likelihood, wouldn't have been able to cover him, apparently.
This was the story for Shaheen all season long before a chest injury sidelined him for the final three games. Mind-numbing justification and decision-making of players that can indeed play: to contrary stubborn belief.
Have no fear, because it's clear Nagy knows what to do when he has a tight end that can run roughshod through a defense. We're talking about the Chiefs' Travis Kelce, of course, who has been a First-Team All-Pro the last two seasons: both of Nagy's years as offensive coordinator in Kansas City.
Now it needs to be understood: Kelce is one of the top-tier players in football. A legitimate franchise player. Someone who has proven himself as a reliable workhorse that can be the catalyst of a high-powered offense like the Chiefs had in 2017. Football isn't played in a vacuum where because Shaheen is now essentially Nagy's "Kelce" of sorts, it means he'll become the same kind of dynamic weapon. Not to mention that Kelce and Shaheen are inherently different players with different skill-sets. They're not the same player because they're both at least 6-foot-5, for example.
For Shaheen to get to that level of a reliable tight end an offense can through, he first needs to prove he can stay on the field and play well over 16 games. Then discussion can shift to his overall ability.
This isn't to say Nagy's staff won't attempt to squeeze the most out of one of their theoretical vaunted weapons. Shaheen will be an immense factor in how the Bears implement their mixed "Spread-Coast" offense.
Let's take a prospective look at how Shaheen might figure in this attack by mirroring some of Kelce's highlight plays in the first game Nagy ever took over as a play-caller in Kansas City. A 38-31 defeat to the Jets where Kansas City's offense put on a show. A game that ironically took place on the day Shaheen was punished by the Bears against the 49ers.
On the second play from scrimmage, Nagy elected to waste no time getting the ball into Kelce's hands in space.
This is what is referred to as a tight end delay. Kelce starts on the right side and intentionally works through the muck so the defense forgets about him. Out of sight out of mind. Once he gets into space with no one accounting for his presence, quarterback Alex Smith - who was patiently waiting for Kelce's release - hits him on a simple crosser in stride. Kelce as he's so known for, then makes the rest happen after the catch with an explosive 32-yard gain.
To Loggains' credit, the Bears actually did run a similar concept for Shaheen against the Bengals.
A play that resulted in an easy read for Mitchell Trubisky to his training camp roommate that Shaheen executed to a tee by selling the down block on the edge defender before releasing.
The only difference between Loggains and Nagy is that the Kelce's delayed release is an idea that the Chiefs regularly applied to their offense, rather than waiting until mid-December. Utilizing your strengths instead of pulling out a bag of tricks: relatively speaking. At any rate, Shaheen can obviously pull this delay off by design, which is crucial since it should be a chunk easy yard play for the Bears every time.
Jump to only a two plays later on the same Chiefs' first possession against the Jets, and here's where Nagy works his magic with Kelce even more.
With the Jets' defense on their heels, Nagy decides to go for the throat and attack immediately. A play action lets Smith have New York's linebackers take a bite out of the fake. That in turn, leaves Kelce against an overmatched safety. You know how this goes.
It's not evidently visible here, but Kelce sells the route hard to the inside while Smith goes through his drop. Once Smith is settled in the pocket looking downfield, a hard break from the terrific athlete back to the outside on a corner route leaves the Jets' safeties grasping at air. A route from Tyreek Hill drawing defenders to the middle of the field also allows Kelce to sell his fake to the inside properly, given the attention Hill receivers. Kelce, nary a step wasted technically and wide open, walks in for his first score on the day.
It's not exactly what Kelce did with his first touchdown against the Jets, but Shaheen is up to the task of as fine a route. On his biggest play against the Lions, a 22-yard reception, a head fake to the outside is all that Shaheen needed against safety Tavon Wilson. When in essentially between multiple defenders, the most subtle of moves make a difference in creating separation or getting locked down. Shaheen, while not as impressively as Kelce, accomplished that here.
Make no mistake: one of the biggest aspects Shaheen will have to improve to be a stud tight end is his route running. He can leave a lot to be desired in his less than fine, robotic movements at times. A full, rigorous NFL off-season should do the trick to at least attempt to reach this smooth model of Kelce on fakes without wasted movements. But like previously, he's certainly proven to be capable of this to a degree.
Finally, we finish up with Kelce's second touchdown on the afternoon. On the second consecutive possession, no less, that was facilitated well into New York territory by an electric 24-yard Hill punt return.
What's the optimal way to catch a defense off guard? After a sudden change or drop in emotion, take a shot, and make sure your best player - or at least most well-rounded athlete in frame and speed - is on the other end of it. You'll score touchdowns more often than you believe. Simple in theory for Nagy.
Another play action this time around, but without the Jets' linebackers biting as hard. They weren't the target to reel in, though. That was rookie safety Marcus Maye lined up on Kelce in the slot. Maye gets caught looking in the backfield on the fake, and by the time he recognizes his blunder, the stallion in Kelce is already running five yards past him. An easy pitch and catch between Smith and his tight end: who made it happen by being able to work out of the slot in the first place, which had a rookie designated on his assignment.
The only roadblock to this play became the late pressure from the Jets' stalwart Leonard Williams. The more athletic than he receives credit for Smith mitigates this and steps up in the pocket just enough to feed and reward Kelce in stride. The more athletic than he receives for Trubisky need not worry.
Unlike the previous play, there is no example of Shaheen carrying out a similar route concept on a play action. Meaning, running out of the slot and past a safety like a track star vertical downfield. Always timeless.
For one, Shaheen isn't the same runner Kelce is, so he wouldn't necessarily create the same space. But he can work out of the slot, or should be able to if Nagy's Bears have any hope of offensive pliability. A challenge for the still raw Shaheen to be prepared for. Since Shaheen received only 14 targets in 13 games played, it's a projection off a small (or no) sample size as to whether he'll accomplish this.
Expectations for Shaheen shouldn't be sky high as to completely emulate Kelce's game at tight end. Yet, seeing a valued starter because his existence will be remembered is reasonable.. A starter, that if all goes well, will at least be trustworthy enough to be relied upon in the same fashion as Kelce was with Nagy.
You don't have to be as talented as your position's standard to enjoy at least a moderate level of success if you're Shaheen. You just have to be well-schooled, refined, and prepared for the obstacle your aggressive coach is about to lay down.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.