When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend indescribable amounts of time playing Super Smash Bros: Melee. It boggles the mind as to how much time exactly we spent cycling through a game that somehow never grew tiresome, but I’m not proud of the figure. I also won’t reveal it. The classic mash-up fighter of iconic Nintendo characters was my first experience with the fighting franchise, and it enthralled me from the moment I managed to knock my sibling out of a stage with a home run bat while playing as Yoshi.
But try and practice as I might, I could never consistently beat my brother. I was the overzealous kid mashing a combination of random buttons on a Mad Katz controller hoping it would lead to something, anything, good happening. I spent hours playing when my brother was away dealing with typical teenage rebellion and angst, but it never made a difference. After an initial surprising jump at the start of every session together, I would get my ass kicked and the cycle would start anew. In each of these instances, I’m surprised he didn’t patronizingly give me a second controller that wasn’t connected so I could “play along” with him. Thinking back to those days, I suppose he enjoyed winning that much. The appeal of beating down his younger brother was obvious.
Eventually I realized that all the defeats weren’t teaching me anything, at least directly so. They weren’t giving me a humbling lesson based on their existence alone. They didn’t invigorate me and remedy what was offset in my extremely lacking video game playing skill-set.But I told myself that taking the same approach, only attempting to master and fine tune it with every instance, would work. I told myself that in being pummeled over and over, I could twist around this low stakes duel of the fates.
It never worked. I can still hear my brother cackling.
Kill them with kindness
It’s been days since the Bears suffered a 24-21 defeat at the hands of the much-improved Raiders. While Chicago managed to climb out of a 17-0 first half hole, that initial lofty deficit became too much to overcome by the time the game clock hit all zeroes. A fatigued defense enjoyed a second wind with a myriad of turnovers forced in the second half, but couldn’t hold up in the clutch. An offense led by Chase Daniel, built out of matchsticks and paper, had no answer when asked to save the day.
The latter drawback of offensive limitation is far more concerning as to the Bears’ immediate and long-term future. In their last 10 games, including the playoffs, Chicago has scored 20 or more points on a mere three occasions. They haven’t produced 400 yards of offense (a low benchmark by today’s standards) in any individual performance since a 34-22 blowout win over the Lions early last November—not by coincidence, only one of two afternoons they’ve scored 30 points in their last three months of play.
Something is broken with the Bears’ offense. If not broken, then thrown out of whack enough to the extent where nothing perpetually works.
If you ask Matt Nagy, all his group ostensibly needs is to try harder, to humble themselves, to pull their bootstraps up.
“It’s all right every now and then to have a little kick in the ass, and I’m OK with that,” Nagy told reporters after Sunday’s loss in London. “They deserve that. We deserve that.”
Nagy has built his early coaching career in Chicago on a mantra of being uncommonly positive. The 40-year-old has alluded as much in preferring not to “dwell on the negative.” In his eyes, there is nothing that can’t be improved with a smile and a warm heart. To a degree, this modus operandi has mostly worked: the Bears have suffered back to back losses only once under Nagy. When an opponent makes the Bears undergo an existential crisis one weekend, Nagy has routinely made sure his players get up off the mat with enough time for an appropriate response the following Sunday.
Sometimes, however, getting up off the mat isn’t enough.
The definition of insanity
The Bears have seen everything through 22 games of the Matt Nagy Experience. A jump on an unsuspecting NFC North; somewhere Kirk Cousins still finds himself dealing with a form of post-traumatic stress after being terrorized by Khalil Mack. A division championship season filled with memorable moment after memorable moment after memorable moment. And, not to be overlooked, one of the NFL’s statistical best defenses ever. If easily the most successful campaign of an entire decade of professional football in Chicago wasn’t enough, Nagy capped it with a Coach of the Year honor: the first Bears head coach to win it since Lovie Smith in 2005.
It’s difficult to argue with Nagy’s status as a “leader of men” (whatever that means in a league where every player is male), given everything he’s already added to an impressive resume. It’s not exceedingly hard to argue with his labels of an “offensive genius” or, generally, “sound offensive mind.” Save for the occasional trick play leading to 300-plus pound players scoring touchdowns, there’s nothing else to suggest Nagy has a keen grasp of quality offensive football when its his burden alone.
The results, no longer on a small or misleading sample size, speak for themselves.
Nagy can be as positive as he wants. He can find a way to connect with every player in his locker room in a manner that will profoundly resonate. That’s the benefit of being a man who lives with such optimistic principles. What Nagy’s process conveniently leaves out is any marked offensive improvement. It excludes nuance in the idea that positivity can gloss over the complicated, the confusing. Maintaining that “a kick in the ass” is what always gets his team on track ignores that it’s never helped the one facet of the game he’s supposed to hold an expertise in. The Bears may return with a renewed focus against the Saints after their bye week. It might assist them in overcoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender. It’s fair to doubt whether their offense, regardless of whether Mitchell Trubisky features or not, will play as much of a role as necessary in said hypothetical victory.
Chicago’s defense is special, and Nagy looks like the ideal player’s coach, but his offense nevertheless remains a dead weight. The Andy Reid disciple is more akin to the glorified, incompetent intern who somehow took nothing meaningful way from the decade he spent with one of football’s most legendary and most progressive offensive minds. Most, in the same situation, would experience some sort of learned osmosis by tangential association. You almost have to actively try to channel everything you’ve learned into dust in your first head coaching gig.
Nagy’s ongoing failure in constructing a competent offense is magnified when you note the Bears’ special teams and defensive units rank No. 4 and No. 5 in respective DVOA, but their No. 26 offense continues to loom in the dark background like a serial killer in a slasher film. Unless you have the heart and courage of Laurie Strode, eventually Mike Myers—or the deep gauntlet of the NFC in this case—will be your downfall. You can only hope to slow your inevitable doom.
On a team that fancied itself a championship contender as recently as, oh ... August, an offense acting like restricting chains weighing down any hint of progress should be distressing. It’s exacerbated when they can’t manage to do anything right.
The Bears can’t block. Their interpretation of blocking is flailing at empty space as defensive front after defensive front creates penetration at the outset of seemingly every snap. Bobby Massie is a competent right tackle and a reliable veteran. He’s earned every bit of a lucrative contract extension signed this past off-season. If he’s arguably your offensive line’s best performer after over a month of play, you’re in trouble. Meanwhile, Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller may exist in tangible physical forms as fully-fledged human beings, but their alter egos of special athletes have been present on milk cartons since every football aficionado believed Jared Goff could survive without Sean McVay’s micromanagement.
Outside of lobs and prayers to Allen Robinson—more prayers at this stage—the Bears don’t have a go-to play in their arsenal that they can lean on. What they’ll find is that if this isn’t remedied with another reasonable threat soon, eventually the well of low percentage throws to Robinson will dry up. Robinson’s very talented, but it doesn’t matter. Reality has a way of slamming the door shut on one-dimensional aspects of life.
There’s no identity on this Bears’ offense. Only a vague mix of disorganized plays that mostly end up resulting in losses of yardage and audible groans.
Technically, that might be the best description of the Bears’ offensive persona: listless, frustrating, and uninspired.
As I grew up, I started to take different approaches in how I played my brother in any video game, not only Smash Bros. I was more thoughtful in absorbing a competitive game’s intricacies. It became second nature to grind away many a summer night—productively, of course—with a goal of not only learning something, but learning how to apply it effectively once it was showtime. (We clearly had a very healthy relationship.) I no longer took pleasure in any thrashing my brother happily gave me. Losing again and again and insisting it made me a better player took me nowhere. Moral victories were plastic trophies to be tossed in the garbage, nothing more.
When I did this, I finally started to beat my brother in Smash Bros. (in a lot of games, actually), much to his chagrin. Once I started to realize that taking the same failing approach in defeat and making it all-encompassing afforded no actual improvement, I became my brother’s virtual equal. (It wasn’t as clear cut as finding out that Roy was certainly the best and most balanced fighter to choose from, even though that decision played a factor.) Staying positive for the sake of staying positive helped in no regard. This sibling rivalry only shifted once I took a calm step back and worked on the details behind becoming the greatest Smash Bros. player the Zeglinski clan has ever seen.
There will be no sign of the Bears this Sunday as they enjoy a deserved bye week. They’re likely spread all over the country on short vacations, resting battered and bruised bodies, attempting to reflect on what has been a tumultuous 3-2 start, to say the least.
Their leader, Nagy, would be best served to use this time to start taking a more measured and transparent approach as to how he game-plans his offense. Trying to implement the same methods ad nauseam and expecting glowing results is the definition of insanity. Throwing objects against the wall in the same fashion and hoping they stick isn’t a conducive recipe for success. Hoping the offensive situation will get better because that’s what happened before for the more cohesive parts of the roster that include titans such as Khalil Mack is asking for a let down. It’s pulling on a door and its bearings without realizing it needs to be pushed. If it’s broken and you have to fix it, but if you don’t realize what’s broken, it places you in quite the mental bind.
A kick in the ass isn’t going to keep the Bears afloat this time. Truthfully, it did little in each of the last few occasions they’ve suffered humiliating defeats. That’s the nature of hollow platitudes: they only serve to fill the air with an idea of promise and improvement. There’s no solutions manifested out of their existence, only false hope. Smiling through gritted teeth puts you on a fast track to a destination of nowhere. When you strip the words and these motivational pep talks away, and still have no answers, you’re left with no ground to stand on. Only the insightful and sincere work put in beforehand remains. And when that work is unproductive and largely aimless, a milquetoast product is the final result. The timeless cliche of actions speaking vehemently louder than words reverberates.
The only thing that can work in this instance is a coach enjoying a fit of meaningful introspection while admitting to his faults, and adjusting accordingly. Acting as if everything’s fine and dandy will only have him, and his offense, descend deeper into madness. Unlike in a fictional video game filled with animated, colorful characters, Nagy doesn’t get to pick up an overpowered home run bat to help his cause.
Robert tells himself he needs a kick in the ass every time his lottery ticket ends up valueless.
Find Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.