It feels like eons ago, but it’s only been a year since then-rookie Bears head coach Matt Nagy rather unconventionally decided to play most of his starters roughly 20 combined snaps — if at all — in last year’s exhibition season.
For a new coach implementing new schemes on a 5-11 club, even with the extra week of practice and contest as participants in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was met with more than a few raised eyebrows. Nagy’s Bears, of course, had their healthiest season in years en route to 12 wins, a division title and top NFL coaching honors.
So, after this year’s preseason debut, when Nagy had four first-string defenders and six first-string players on offense play a combined eight snaps, if Bears fans were hoping for a longer look at the regulars Friday night against the New York Giants, they can safely make other plans.
Indeed, perhaps lost a bit in the shuffle with Kyle Long losing his mind and Cody Whitehair injuring his finger Wednesday evening during the Bears’ mock game under the lights at Halas Hall, was the fact that Matt Nagy essentially chose that unique, “controlled” setting in lieu of playing his regulars perhaps any more at all over the course of the final three preseason games.
“You get a little bit of the outdoor night environment and setting, but more importantly than anything, I think the biggest thing is you can play, for us in addition to the preseason, you get your guys getting into more situational football, and I think that’s the biggest thing that these guys took and then they get a little bit of conditioning in there in game-like environment. And it’s all — it’s all controlled.”
The first-team offense and first-team defense, both opposed exclusively by Chicago’s reserves, ran 60 scripted plays that allowed them to practice every possible situation — from two- and four-minute to short-yardage and red zone and, as Nagy revealed, even some scripted sudden changes. That could help explain some the swath of interceptions — spectacular as some were, including a one-handed pick by Fuller with his head turned in the opposite direction of the quarterback, and Skrine’s lunging interception later toward the opposite sideline — thrown by Chase Daniel- and Tyler Bray-led backup units.
“I think that sometimes that’s what gets neglected in, really, anything that you do. You can’t predict when sudden change occurs in a preseason game,” Nagy said. “For whatever it’s worth, we were able to get that. The guys have a 10-play drive on defense. They sit down and then we scripted a fumble, interception, etc. whatever. Now, all of a sudden they got to run back out and do an eight-play drive. You cannot guarantee that in a preseason game, so we were able to do that.”
Of course you also can’t predict injuries or practice fights — the unfortunate and somewhat ironic part of Wednesday’s exercise — but credit Nagy’s Bears, on the heels of the franchise’s healthiest season in years, for doing everything in their control to extend their good injury fortune with virtually no tackling in camp. There was plenty of hitting, or “thuds” as Nagy called them. But there’s still only been one live tackling drill during the first 14 camp practices, and the Bears have thus far avoided any significant injuries.
“I don’t know about that,” Nagy said when asked whether this was the most beneficial practice format. “I think every team is different. Every coach is different. Every player is different. I, personally, think it’s good to add to what we’re doing for our specific team. But, there’s a lot of coaches out there that want to play their guys a lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And I don’t personally think there’s anything wrong with if you don’t want to play your starters as much as some others.”
Read: Enjoy your final weekends before the regular season, because it sounds as if Sept. 5 could be the next time fans will have an opportunity to see the regulars work.