Turnaround Year Brings Bears A Beginning

In Matt Nagy's first season as coach, the Bears built a firm foundation.

Chris Emma
January 08, 2019 - 2:12 pm
Bears coach Matt Nagy

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

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(670 The Score) Darkness filled the horizon along Chicago's museum campus as the lights of Soldier Field were shut off Sunday night one final time this football season. For all the Bears gave the city in their memorable turnaround season, it seemed gone so soon.

The disbelief of it all was ever present inside the Bears' home locker room in the northwest corner of Soldier Field, whether it was Cody Parkey's state of shock that he missed the game-winning kick by hitting the left upright and crossbar or Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack still stunned that for all their efforts it ended like this. 

History could ultimately remember the 2018 Bears season as just the beginning, like coach Matt Nagy and his players all seem to believe. But the heartbreaking manner in which this impressive campaign ended will live forever in Chicago -- and certainly for Parkey.

"That's one of the worst feelings in the world, to let your team down," Parkey said after his tipped 43-yard field-goal miss in the waning seconds left the Bears just short in a 16-15 wild-card loss to the Eagles on Sunday. "I feel terrible. I'm going to continue to put things in perspective, continue to put my best foot forward and sleep at night knowing that I did everything in my power this week to go and make that kick. 

"I have to move on."

To his credit, Parkey held his head high for nearly three minutes as he addressed reporters in the aftermath of the fateful field-goal attempts -- the double-doink, as it's now known in Philadelphia -- but it may be his last act with the Bears. For all their All-Pro players and promise on the roster, the Bears' glaring weakness at kicker doomed the season.

Nagy, Mack, Kyle Long and Mitchell Trubisky all supported the crushed Parkey, pointing to the three field goals and nine points he provided them before that miss and mentioning their personal mistakes that led to that point. They all searched for perspective that was difficult to find in that moment.

"It's OK to be upset," Nagy said. "It's OK to let it hurt a little bit. But we got to use this now to be better. We set the bar. I think anybody can say that we all felt like we grew as they year went on. We did get calloused, we did get stronger, we did become a tighter family."

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Third-year safety Deon Bush shut the door to his SUV on Monday morning and walked through a cold rain toward the main doors of Halas Hall. The Bears returned to their facility a day after their playoff loss to the Eagles to clean out their lockers and prepare for the offseason.

"I can't believe the season is over," Bush said.

The blaring boombox of receiver Josh Bellamy was silent and not pumping out music. The mini-basketballs used for shooting competitions rested on the carpet. The couches and tables for card games were empty. Silence prevailed as the Bears packed their belongings for the offseason.

Before the Bears shook hands, exchanged hugs and went on their way, Nagy wanted to leave them with two important messages: Every team from here would be different, but this was also only the start for those who return.

It was words like those from Nagy, officially hired to the Bears a year to the date Tuesday, that helped ease the pain as his players moved forward.

"You see the potential," Mack said. "It's up to guys to take this, learn from it and get better this offseason, including myself. That's what we have to look forward to now."

Tight end Trey Burton, who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles last February, was in agreement with his superstar teammate.

"Man, we can be special," Burton said. "Watching Mitch (Trubisky)  in the second half, I was so excited from the future. It keeps replaying in my head. There's so much positive to take from this year. It just makes us all that much more excited to come back."

The 24-year-old Trubisky is the centerpiece to what the Bears are building, and his performance in conjunction with his rookie contract window offers the team crucial financial flexibility to compete at the highest level. With two professional seasons behind him, Trubisky comes with a cap hit of only $17.155 million over the next two seasons, according to Spotrac, part of a contract that allowed the Bears to secure Hicks on a long-term deal in September 2017 and pay Mack a record-breaking contract for a defensive player this past September.

The Bears are also positioned for success in the years to come because of the youth on their roster. Safety Adrian Amos, nickel corner Bryce Callahan and tackle Bobby Massie are the team's only starters set for free agency, as is rotational outside linebacker Aaron Lynch.

When Ryan Pace assumed his role as Bears general manager in January 2015, he spoke of building through the draft and filling voids in free agency. Pace accomplished his goal. All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson, a fourth-round pick in 2017, has two years left on a rookie contract that has a $1.713 million cap hit over the next two seasons. Running back Jordan Howard, a fifth-round pick in 2016, has a $782,007 cap hit next season.

Last spring, Pace drafted a potential star in inside linebacker Roquan Smith, an interior lineman for perhaps a decade in James Daniels and a solid weapon in receiver Anthony Miller, then found an answer at the five-technique in the fifth round with Bilal Nichols.

Pace and the Bears secured key pieces to their depth chart through the open market, signing players like Danny Trevathan, Prince Amukamara and Allen Robinson while re-signing the likes of Long, Charles Leno and Kyle Fuller.

There are plenty of examples to what turned the Bears around this season, all linked to the detailed scouting and careful financial maneuvering of Pace and his front office.

The growth of Trubisky and potential that seems in store is only part of the equation for the Bears' future.

"No one, not one person, truly knows how far that kid has come this year (better) than me," Nagy said. "I mean, we're lucky. We're lucky to have him. I'm looking forward to the future. I really am. Because the city of Chicago is lucky to have that kid at quarterback."

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When Nagy was introduced by Pace and the organization as new Bears head coach one year ago Wednesday, he didn't offer lofty promises for the team's future or pander to the fans with Super Bowl vows.

Nagy, then 39, knew well what the Bears had for him to inherit -- a roster of players struggling with their collective disappointment of going 14-34 in John Fox's tenure. Nagy expressed his appreciation of the franchise's history but understood there was great work for its future.

It wasn't until training camp that Nagy realized the Bears had the chance of being good, perhaps great, in 2018. That was more than a month before Mack's arrival bolstered a top-10 defense into the league's top-ranked group.

"We got all the talent in the world," Nagy told Pace back at Bourbonnais in July.

What followed was the NFL's biggest turnaround in 2018, with the Bears improving by seven victories to finish 12-4 and win the NFC North crown in Nagy's first year. They all followed the lead and personality of Nagy.

The Bears danced a dozen times in "Club Dub," the concept Cubs manager Joe Maddon helped create for Nagy and his team. With each victory, the music pumped through the bowels of Soldier Field and road stadiums. A players' coach, Nagy would join in and swing the air-hammer as he and the team yelled "boom," now a kickoff custom for home games as fans salute their coach.

Nagy was hired by the Bears in part because of his cutting-edge offense and big plans for Trubisky, but scheme is only part of why this team had its success. Through strong communication and simply making the grind of a football season fun, Nagy helped instill a culture that had previously been absent.

"It’s incredible," Trubisky said. "The small things that coach Nagy has brought to this organization to create that camaraderie and bring the offense the defense and the special teams together, it’s something we’re doing as a team. 

"It’s not about individuals. It’s about enjoying this whole thing and then winning together as a team."

The Bears' brass of chairman George McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips and Pace set out during the first days of 2018 to find their own Sean McVay, the then 31-year-old  head coach who revamped the Rams in his first season. 

Now a year after identifying and hiring Nagy, the Bears believe they have the leader of lasting success.

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In the moments after Parkey's kick bounced the wrong way, Mack sat along the Bears' sideline bench with his hands over his face. He couldn't believe the way it ended either.

Mack helped bring the Bears a fast turnaround and then watched an even more sudden finish to their season. 

The Bears had experienced gut-wrenching pain early in the season. They blew the 20-0 lead to the Packers at Lambeau Field in the regular-season opener, letting Aaron Rodgers rally his team for a 24-23 win. Nagy vowed the Bears would become better from it, and they did.

That postgame scene from the visiting locker room in Green Bay returned to Nagy's mind as he addressed the defeated Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday. He collected the thoughts of their season, with his team proving itself as legitimate. The pride in Nagy was strong.

Lost in their collective darkness, Nagy shined a light on what's ahead for the Bears. Their future is bright. 

"We didn't hit the ultimate goal," Nagy said. "That's always what keeps you going. That pushes you as players, it pushes you as coaches. It's not good enough. That's not who we're going to be, and we're going to strive to be the best. We're going to do everything we possibly can. 

"But I know this. I wouldn't trade this year. I wouldn't trade a single day for anything."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​​