Matt Nagy is a trick play enthusiast because he can be.
The cool nicknames such as Willy Wonka and Santa’s Sleigh, and the exotic formations such as two quarterbacks in the backfield and 10 linemen accompanying the Bears’ quarterback are surely a gas to imagine and put in action.
But they wouldn’t be fun if they didn’t work, and Nagy’s tricks wouldn’t hit at such an efficient rate if he weren’t so adept at putting the right players – at least in his mad scientist vision – in the right places.
“Coach always is so good at making things understandable for everybody that we’re not going to take this guy and have him do something … if he doesn’t do it perfectly, the play’s not going to work. So he doesn’t take me, who’s not great at blocking because I’m a defensive player, and put me in a spot that has to be perfectly blocked,” Harry Hiestand said this spring.
Hiestand would know. Not only did one of his (now former) linemen, Bradley Sowell, catch a touchdown last season, but the Bears’ offensive line coach was asked by defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, among others, to pull double duty beforehand in Week 15 in order to help Santa’s Sleigh prepare for liftoff.
“When he thinks of these things, they’re never putting guys in tough positions,” Hiestand said. “They’re things they can do, and that’s why he puts them in. So it’s not hard for us to match him and stick him in there.”
For Nagy’s next trick, he just might do away altogether with the premise of positions. In an offseason driven by his desire to stress defenses more with increasingly diversified personnel, the Bears signed triple threat Cordarrelle Patterson – the only player in the league last season with a touchdown rushing, receiving and returning a kick – and traded up to pick David Montgomery, one of the draft’s few true feature running back prospects.
Lest we forget, he already had one of the tougher players in the league to defend in Tarik Cohen.
“I think when you start looking at these players that are able to play in different positions, it just puts the defense at a disadvantage,” Nagy said. “Right now, we have that. We have a bunch of those [guys]. … That’s what’s fun.”
Taking it a step further, it’s hard to remember the last time an offense with such modest rankings – 21st in total yards and passing, 27th in rushing yards a play last season – was as much fun as Nagy’s Bears.
The belief this season with quarterback Mitch Trubisky taking ownership of that offense and Nagy’s growing influx of interchangeable parts is that it’ll be both fun and formidable.
“Once I’m out there on the field, let’s just say ‘Reek’ [Cohen] and I are out there at the same time,” running back Mike Davis said. “You can’t just key on Reek and think he’s just out there catching passes; he can also get a run. I can be out wide and he can be in the backfield, so it’s just something that we can go out there and trick people with.”
Like Davis, Patterson praised his new coach’s resourcefulness and innovation, qualities that made his decision to sign with the Bears a “no brainer.” And there were no shortage of ways in which Patterson was aligned and deployed this spring, including in roles previously held by incumbents.
When Cohen was asked about it, he didn’t seem too concerned.
“Mine is still going to be in there. But we have a lot of guys who can do multiple things on this team. Everybody is going to have something,” he said.
And, who knows, if a player thrives in being multiple, as offensive tackle-to-tight end convert Sowell showed daily in practice last season leading up to the scoring gift from Santa’s Sleigh, his opportunities can even grow.
“He moved me there for a reason,” Sowell said. “It’s not like he had to, but I think he thinks I can help the team there, and I’m just going to go with what he says and see what happens.”
Is there any wonder why Nagy’s players relish being in his locker room and a part of the team’s building culture, or any question of how much they trust him?
“Just seeing the things Nagy can do, how special he [has] been over the couple years and everything he did … I just want to be on the field no matter where they put me. I feel like I can play any position, any chance, any time they call my number, I’ll be ready.”
Rest assured, Nagy also will be ready. And the success he’s had designing trick plays but especially positioning guys to pull them off helps fuel the confidence of his players, coaches and Bears fans everywhere that he’s prepared to maximize the new weapons at his disposal.