CANTON, Ohio – Two quarters into new coach Matt Nagy’s revamped passing attack, the Bears had thrown two interceptions, dropped three passes including one in the end zone, given up two third-down sacks, gone three-and-out four straight times, posted 41 net yards through the air, trailed 10-7 and …
Had a good excuse not to worry. At least not yet.
Why? Because Thursday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in front of an announced 19,876 fans at Tom Benson Stadium was played almost exclusively, start to finish, by backups for the Bears and Ravens. Baltimore, with Robert Griffin III starting and throwing a touchdown pass in his return to the NFL after sitting out last season, won 17-16 when Chicago third-string quarterback Tyler Bray failed on a two-point conversion pass with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left.
“It’s a blessing to be back,” Griffin III said. “I know it’s preseason, the Hall of Fame Game, but it was an emotional day for me.”
Nagy, the 40-year-old rookie head coach and former Chiefs offensive coordinator, didn’t play any of his offensive starters, except Michael Burton, the only fullback on the roster.
No quarterback Mitch Trubisky, despite early camp struggles that have seen the second-year pro average nearly two interceptions per practice. Since high school, young Mitch has started only 25 games — 13 at North Carolina and 12 as an NFL rookie last year — but with an extra preseason game, Nagy went with backup Chase Daniel, who played the first half and completed eight of 16 passes for 53 yards, a 4-yard touchdown pass to Burton, two interceptions and a 38.8 passer rating.
Daniel, who backed up Drew Brees in New Orleans last year, literally is the most inexperienced nine-year veteran quarterback the league has ever seen. With 78 career passes, he is, according to Pro Football Reference, the first full-time quarterback to attempt fewer than 100 passes through eight seasons since the league started keeping track in 1930.
But Daniel did make two starts in a three-year stint in Kansas City when Nagy was Andy Reid’s quarterbacks coach. So Daniel is familiar with the offense.
However, the best thing one can say about Chase on Thursday night is he’s no threat to Mitch.
“It’s Aug. 2,” Daniel said. “We’re out here trying to stay healthy. It’s preseason, right?”
Yes. Especially for the offensive linemen. The game featured 12 sacks, eight by the Bears and three by Ravens linebacker Kamalei Correa.
The Bears, who had the worst passing game in the league last year, are placing a lot of hope in Trubisky making a giant leap with expensive new targets in tight end Trey Burton and receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and second-round draft pick Anthony Miller, who has been the star of camp but didn’t play Thursday.
But questions abound. Robinson, a prized free agent from Jacksonville, missed all but one game last year. Gabriel’s best games have come with Matt Ryan at quarterback and Julio Jones on the opposite side of the field. Burton, who helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl last season, is too small to be Chicago’s version of Travis Kelce.
And then there’s Kevin White, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Bears haven’t given up on him, but they realize he is also a guy who has as many season-ending surgeries (three) as games finished.
Thursday night, Nagy showed a lot of four- and five-receiver sets rarely seen under John Fox. But these were backups who were out of sync.
Daniel’s first pick bounced off a helmet in traffic. His second interception, which came in a five-wide spread formation, was a short slant that Correa easily jumped.
But, so far, Nagy is doing his best to spin things positively.
“Our guys have picked up everything that we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “There have been mistakes, but they’re way ahead of the learning curve. So that’s exciting and that tells me once we get to the regular season we can do more than I initially thought.”
Believe it when you see it. Or at least wait until you see a starter play.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org