Straddling the present and future, Bears get neither right

Bears coach Matt Nagy was busy explaining why he started Jason Peters at left tackle Sunday, 20 days before his 40th birthday, when he could have given second-round draft pick Teven Jenkins valuable playing time against the Giants.

Nagy reiterated what he’s said the last few weeks — “We’re gonna do everything we need to do, what’s best for this team right now,” he said — before saying how much he respected Peters.

“This is a Hall of Fame player that’s been playing a long time,” he said Sunday afternoon.

Peters didn’t need to play Sunday. The fact that Nagy believed otherwise shows the disconnect between the short-term interests of the head coach and the long-term goals of the franchise.

It’s not entirely Nagy’s fault. The conflict between the present and future was clear the second Bears chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips decided to keep Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace for a win-or-else season — and then the franchise drafted rookie quarterback Justin Fields.

The conflict could have been resolved if McCaskey had decided to fire Nagy midseason and install an interim coach who knew, in no uncertain terms, that his job was to give young players experience. The Bears, though, don’t do that.

Pace could have implored Nagy to play rookies and young players, too — but he doesn’t know his fate for 2022, either.

Instead, the Bears embodied the theme of their 2021 season: by trying to serve both the present and the future, the Bears managed to do neither. With one foot on each parallel track, the Bears merely split their pants. Fields played this season — but not enough. Jenkins returned from injured reserve — but then played seven or fewer snaps in three of his five games. Rookie cornerback Thomas Graham went from being a revelation against the Vikings to playing four snaps two games later against the Giants.

Two players represented that push-and-pull the best Sunday: Jenkins and second-year outside linebacker Trevis Gipson. Both play behind future Hall of Famers. Gipson, though, was forced into action when the Bears lost Khalil Mack for the season because of a foot injury. Gipson injury has shown the kind of development a 6-10 team should value — he had two strip-sacks Sunday, bringing his sack total to 6 1/2 this season.

It would have been beneficial to see that sort of week-to-week growth from Jenkins — or heck, just give him a chance to try. Nagy argued that, with a lead, the Bears were able to get Jenkins in the game anyway.

“We were able to get Teven in in the fourth quarter there too,” he said. “We’re trying to kinda balance that, but at the same point in time, work that dynamic with all those guys.”

There was no balance. Jenkins played seven snaps Sunday — all in garbage time.

The six he played at left tackle were all David Montgomery runs. On the first run, Jenkins did a good job of kicking linebacker Jaylon Smith out to the left on a four-yard gain. On the second, defensive tackle Leonard Williams threw a swim move on a lunging Jenkins and tackled Montgomery for a one-yard loss.

The sample size, though, was painfully small — particularly when you consider that, on the only pass play Jenkins took part in, he was out of position. After the six runs, the Bears called a trick play in which Jenkins played tight end next to Peters, who was dragged back off the bench to play left tackle. Montgomery took a direct snap, ran to the line of scrimmage and tried a Tim Tebow-like jump pass toward Cole Kmet in the end zone. The pass, which was short, was intercepted by Giants linebacker Tae Crowder.

Gipson was responsible for two takeaways himself.

On the first play of the game, he ran untouched off the right edge and sacked quarterback Mike Glennon, who fumbled as he was preparing to throw. Bilal Nichols scooped it and ran it 12 yards to the Giants’ 2. With about three minutes left in the third quarter, he raced around right tackle Nate Solder to sack Glennon; and the ball was recovered by nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, the seventh-round rookie who out-snapped veteran nose tackle Eddie Goldman, 21-15.

Gipson’s two sacks came on only three pass-rushing snaps. He said he’s learned to hunt the ball from two of the best: Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn.

“I think it’s sort of just setting in on me, like, ‘Man, you can still get the sack-fumble if you hit the ball — you don’t just have to get the sack,'” he said. “You get more when you hit the ball. That’s something I take into my pass rush, and I feel like I’m appreciative of those guys and what they are preaching all the time.”

Ironically, though, both Mack and Quinn will be the reason Gipson play more next year — despite the fact only 35 players in the league have more sacks than he does. Gipson will only get to start If the Bears’ 2022 general manager — be it Pace or otherwise — decides to move either veteran in the name of a teardown.

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