When the Bears hired Matt Nagy as their head coach, assumptions were made that the former Chiefs’ offensive coordinator would have a significant hand in recruiting for free agency. That’s especially in regards to pending Kansas City open market players such as Albert Wilson, as the fit was clear. Nagy would lure away offensive weapons he already knew, and the Bears would have a solid foundation to launch a new coaching era. With the consideration of the recent failure to land top premium stars in Chicago by general manager Ryan Pace, this little boost from Nagy was earnestly welcome.
At last month’s Scouting Combine, Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach alluded to this recruiting secret: one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL. A secret that most already knew about Nagy and Wilson specifically.
“Well, Matt’s in Chicago,” said Veach when asked about the possibility of retaining the slot receiver in Wilson.
Based on that comment, Nagy, the homeward bound recruiter, was already working his puppet strings with Wilson: according to the general connecting-of-dots. But Wilson unexpectedly didn’t end up with the Bears. He agreed to sign with the Dolphins instead. Another moment where the Bears were apparently regrettably left in the dust in free agency, as they have been in the recent past. Another failure to take advantage of adding someone who was connected to them on the open market.
Alternatively, Pace - and particularly Nagy - had a more instrumental effect in a higher priority impact free agent for Chicago. On helping acquire a legitimate star player he had no established relationship with, with only a reputation of innovation and aggressiveness to draw back on. A move that set the table for a whirlwind day of offensive upgrades. One that ultimately pushes the Bears’ back to the brink of relevant competition or dare anyone say it: contention.
Allen Robinson was that player and match made in heaven for the Bears. He was always the Bears’ No. 1 target. The person they saw as perfect to pair with Mitchell Trubisky in a connection that should make Soldier Field sing in a raucous chorus for awhile.
But Pace needed a trump card to seal the deal. He not only needed to show Robinson the deserved money he was seeking as a free agent, he also had to convince him that it was worthwhile to invest in the Bears’ future. A future that has the Bears finally leaving the doldrums of the NFC.
That’s where Nagy, he of his lively nature as a player’s coach who understands the modern NFL came in. Nagy, being the leader who can galvanize a talented team of players merely looking for a spark he is, was the light that Robinson needed to leave his former team in the Jaguars and push his poker hand in with what the Bears are building.
““I like what Coach Nagy did from an offensive standpoint in Kansas City,” said Robinson to ESPN on why he chose the Bears. “Me being able to see what he did in KC, being able to know that he is an offensive-minded coach and seeing what he’s done before (helped me).”
Before he’s coached one game, Nagy’s reputation as an up-and-comer helped the Bears land a franchise player and give that player a sense of comfort. If anything, given how he accomplished things as an assistant coach such as unlocking Alex Smith enough to become a legitimate MVP candidate, Nagy’s reputation wasn’t assigned enough pull. As one of the faces of a new guard of coaches while being handed the reins to his first NFL franchise, Nagy’s reputation preceded itself. At least enough to impress a marquee player like Robinson to wholeheartedly believe in the Bears’ vision.
Once Robinson was confirmed to be locked in step with Chicago, the other dominos in the form of the versatile Trey Burton, the explosive Taylor Gabriel, and yes, even the Bears’ new starting kicker in Cody Parkey: fell into place in one of the more aggressive days of free agency for the Bears in recent memory. A day that brought back flashbacks of former head coach Lovie Smith successfully executing a hands-on recruitment of superstar defensive end Julius Peppers back in 2010.
In famous well-known Bears’ lore of back then, Smith met Peppers at an airport in Charlotte at the open of free agency. A gesture that caught Peppers by surprise, in a good way, as he saw Smith was genuinely invested in a relationship with the future Hall of Famer.
“I was caught off-guard by that,” Peppers told ESPN about Smith then. “My agent called me at midnight and told me that Lovie was at the airport. Actually, I was sleeping because I haven’t been sleeping at all this week. I’ve been a little anxious to find out what was going to happen.”
“I had no plans on coming, I just went by to say, ‘Hello,’ but I met him, it felt right, it felt good, and that’s when I made a decision to come (visit Chicago).”
The rest was history as Peppers’ acquisition acted as a catalyst for the Bears to break a three-year playoff drought and make a run towards the 2011 NFC Championship Game. A move that added to a dominant defensive core of Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, and Lance Briggs, and that started a run of consistency where Chicago was at minimum, playoff relevant over the next four seasons.
Peppers bought in then because he saw how close the Bears were. Because he believed in Smith, and because he saw that Smith’s Bears were on a mission to win.
Flash forward to the present, the Bears still have that head coach looking to make his mark, but this time with an offensive philosophy. Nagy wasn’t as aggressively hands-on with Robinson as Smith was with Peppers, yet his presence meant everything to convince him the grass was greener.
Instead of the all-world linebackers and franchise cornerback acting as the main attractions (although the current defense is no slouch), Trubisky, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and company acted as the core Robinson and new friends saw as enticing. The missing offensive weapon puzzle pieces joining the band to help a franchise quarterback grow up and take the Bears to the stratosphere.
Nagy helped accomplished that. Pace quickly capitalized on what his coach meant to these upgrades, and assertively pushed forward with his agenda to make the Bears a contender immediately. Not three years from now. Not next year. The Bears’ window, while Trubisky is on his rookie deal, is now. And it’s been cracked open.
That happened thanks to Nagy. That happened thanks to Pace shedding a previous risk-averse attitude, an attitude that changed once he saw most of his pieces were in place for a run such as this. This type of initiative is attractive to free agents. It’s resourcefulness by the two lead men at Halas Hall forever reversing roles around the idea that top players don’t want to play with the Bears.
Which contrary to popular belief, it was never that stars such as Robinson didn’t want to play with the Bears because of their existence alone. It was that they saw no future and no ingenuity with which to get comfortable in a head coach, a general manager, and a budding roster: the same mix needed for any NFL team to succeed in free agency. Attain a future, step out of the Stone Age (and pay out a handsome sum of cash), and lo and behold stars flock to your foundation.
The Bears set the table for what is shaping up to be a thrilling era on Tuesday, and they know they did it thanks to Nagy and Pace’s efforts. It was a reminder to the rest of the league that the Bears have planned on arriving immediately and will pull out every stop to do so. That means one slight adjustment to how other teams view keeping their own free agents in relation to the Bears.
“Well, Matt and Ryan are in Chicago.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.