Bernstein: Matt Nagy Has Some Joe Maddon In Him

Like Maddon, Nagy too often makes perplexing in-game decisions.

Dan Bernstein
October 22, 2019 - 1:36 pm
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(670 The Score) It's starting to feel like there are two Matt Nagys: the guy who coaches the Bears and talks to reporters all week and the guy on the sideline with the visor and headset and laminated play card in front of his mouth.

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The first version is deliberate and reasonable, self-effacing and earnestly upbeat. The other is nervous and rash, prone to decisions that betray self-doubt and insecurity more than the confidence exemplified by his alter ego.

And it's almost like Nagy comes close to acknowledging this himself, routinely agreeing with criticism of his play-calling in a way that makes you think he's unaware that such responsibilities are actually within his own control. He says everything you'd want to hear about game-planning and balance and sequencing, then reverts to desperation and disconnectedness in the only moments when it actually matters.

Related: Behind Bears' stagnant running game is a lack of trust

It's understandable if it reminds you of someone, another respected coach who saved most of his questionable activity for the games themselves. He just left town after leading the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title and three trips to the National League Championship Series in his five seasons, and part of the reason he and the franchise headed in opposite directions was a similar divergence.

Joe Maddon was and will be as talented a tone-setter as there is in a baseball clubhouse. A manager is a creator of culture and a team's forward-facing media frontman as much or more than he is strategist and tactician, and his people skills will always mean that on balance, he's really good at the job. But that never has stopped us from examining other aspects with equal fairness, be they his lineups, deployment of relief pitchers or risk/reward calculations in any number of specific situations. 

Look no further than Game 7 of the 2016 World Series -- as defining a time as one can have in sports -- as evidence of both channels on display. It was Maddon's relaxed and unflappable presence over eight months that must be credited with helping the 2016 Cubs blossom into an historic powerhouse of offense, defense, pitching and baserunning -- and his surprising stubbornness with Aroldis Chapman that almost kept it from its ultimate validation.

Maddon has deftly inoculated himself from public second-guessing, however, insisting that a decision isn't necessarily wrong just because it didn't work because of the ever-present variance. And while he's technically correct, it was never quite enough to keep his bosses from admitting freely that they too would occasionally come away from a game scratching their heads.

If this is a shared trait between Maddon and Nagy, what magnifies the current issue are the differences between the two sports.

Decisions come out in the wash of the large sample sizes afforded by 162 games, with managers beyond a minimum threshold of ability generally not making as big a difference as their counterparts elsewhere. Baseball is an individual game that masquerades as a team one, and there are fewer ways one person in charge can affect outcomes. That's not so in football, the ultimate team sport and one with success or failure most determined by planning and deployment.

The NFL is a series of mostly strategic contests, with the execution of a specific plan for both sides of the ball usually winning the day, often above and beyond the collective individual abilities of most of the players. A caller of offensive plays in modern football holds disproportionate sway over everything, dictating action. Defenses can at times cause results as well, but rules and their application have been engineered to facilitate protection of quarterbacks and the scoring of points.

In fact, that's exactly why Nagy was hired by the Bears.

His in-game struggles simply have to stop, because they can't be adequately counterbalanced by his Monday-to-Saturday leadership in the same way that Maddon's tactical quirks have been by his mastery of so much else.

There's just no hiding play-calling that doesn't work and sometimes doesn't seem to make sense.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.