CHICAGO — According to popular lore, when the American humorist Mark Twain was asked about rumors that he was gravely ill, he replied, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
The quote itself is somewhat exaggerated, but the gist remains the same.
Matt Nagy didn’t go quite that far Tuesday afternoon, but he did use the word “inaccurate” to describe a report that the Chicago Bears have informed him they will fire him after Thursday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
The fact the Bears let the Patch.com report by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Konkol sit out in the open all morning meant no one felt compelled to rally to Nagy’s defense, whether the report is true or they don’t want to get into the business of commenting on every report that comes along.
It was a weird day at Halas Hall, but that’s the way it goes sometimes when a team is mired in a five-game losing streak that includes blown leads in the final minute of the last two games. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor — who filled in as acting head coach for the Week 8 loss to the San Francisco 49ers while Nagy was out with COVID-19 — wound up being the first team employee to answer questions about Nagy’s tenuous future during his weekly session with reporters.
Tabor backed his boss, and then an hour or so later, Nagy came straight from the practice field — where the Bears held two walk-throughs in preparation for the winless Lions (0-9-1) — and addressed the swirling rumors.
“I have great communication with ownership, with (Chairman) George (McCaskey) and (President) Ted (Phillips) and (general manager) Ryan (Pace), but I have not had any discussions,” Nagy said.
That’s not surprising given the quick turnaround before the Thanksgiving Day game.
“My focus right now is on these players and on Detroit,” Nagy said. “That’s it, and I think that’s my job as a head coach and a leader is to do that. These guys, these players have been amazing. They’ve been great.”
In 1999, the Bears announced the hiring of Dave McGinnis as head coach to replace Dave Wannstedt. The problem was they didn’t have a contract finalized with McGinnis, and he wound up walking away after the fiasco.
Yet even by Bears standards, informing Nagy he has four more days and one more game to coach before firing him would be bizarre.
The Bears (3-7) rank near the bottom of the league in most key offensive categories that do not involve running the ball, and the offense has been stagnant since the second half of 2018, when the Bears won the NFC North with a 12-4 record and Nagy was named NFL Coach of the Year in his first season. The team has lost 15 of its last 21 games, including the playoff exit in January in New Orleans, and it’s becoming impossible for Nagy to say he has shown “progress” — to use the word McCaskey uttered nearly a year ago.
With no McCaskey, Phillips or Pace to clarify their coach’s weakening status, Nagy was left to fend for himself as the noise amplifies. Cary-Grove High School students chanted, “Fire Nagy,” during a playoff game Saturday against Lake Forest, where one of Nagy’s four sons plays. When the Bulls were being blown out by the Indiana Pacers on Monday night at the United Center, the crowd chanted for Nagy to be fired.
It’s the topic engaged and bored sports fans alike are rallying around, and it only got worse after the Bears’ late meltdown to lose to the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Soldier Field. Nagy was responsible for some critical game-management errors and the defense blew it, but all of that is minor in comparison with who ownership wants in charge of developing quarterback Justin Fields.
Jordan Schultz, who hosts a basketball podcast with Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, reported Monday that an “overwhelming number” of players want Nagy fired. Schultz doesn’t cover the Bears regularly, but there’s no reason to dispute his assertion — and there’s also no reason to overlook his ties to Robinson.
“I haven’t had any input with that,” Robinson said. “Me and him did a basketball podcast. Everything that we had from a podcast standpoint, a relationship standpoint, had been based on covering basketball and talking about basketball.
“You guys know me. Anything that I wanted to get across has come from me, and it’ll always be that way. It’ll never change. Anything I want to get accomplished, I want to say, I’m a grown-ass man. I can get stuff done myself.”
A team source said a “lot of players are pissed off,” even as those who spoke to the media Tuesday attempted to downplay the cloud this creates over the locker room. This is the last thing a team struggling to break out of a deep funk needs to contend with. Any players who have been around for three years or more endured a six-game losing streak last season and four consecutive losses in 2019.
The Bears never have fired a coach in season, but that doesn’t mean McCaskey wouldn’t make that move in the hours, days or weeks to come, especially with the NFL tweaking rules this season to allow teams that fired their coach to seek interviews with candidates in the final two weeks of the regular season.
If McCaskey has made up his mind he’s going to move on from Nagy — and it’s easy to imagine he has arrived at that conclusion — it becomes a matter of when and not if. When could be as soon as the Bears return from Detroit — win, lose or draw — or sometime before Week 17.
To fully take advantage of the early window to meet with head coaching candidates, the Bears need to be confident about their structure above the coach, and that raises questions about Pace’s future.
In the meantime, Nagy remains the face of the franchise — until the reports regarding his fate become final.
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Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy yells at an official in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS)