Keeping the Lions in the dark about who the Bears will start at quarterback only benefits coach Matt Nagy if he intends to spring a vastly different scheme on them with Justin Fields compared to what he would employ with Andy Dalton.
That seems to be why he’s being so secretive about a decision that seldom drags all the way to the morning of a game. Nagy almost certainly knew his starter by the end of practice Friday, but stayed coy to see if he could keep the Lions guessing until kickoff Sunday.
“We feel good right now with where we’re at with the game plans,” he said, emphasizing the ‘s’ for comedic effect and getting a rare laugh in a media room that has had more of a courtroom atmosphere lately. “Honestly, I think it’s good.”
It has the potential to be advantageous, but it definitely wasn’t last week in Cleveland. Nagy surprised no one. Rather than sketch a strategy that maximized Fields’ strengths, it looked like he was still calling plays for Dalton. The Browns figured out his plan almost immediately and smashed it to smithereens.
There were minimal designed runs to use Fields’ incredible speed and few roll-outs to add his mobility and downfield vision to the equation. Nagy also didn’t do much with extra blockers to offset his inexperience as a first-time starter and buy him a few precious milliseconds.
It was all disjointed, as though Nagy didn’t realize how different the two quarterbacks are. And if that’s the offense he wants to run, it makes sense that he’s pressing for Dalton to start despite a knee injury that took him out of practice entirely leading up to the Browns game and limited him all week ahead of facing the Lions.
It’s clear Dalton is Nagy’s preference at a time when his own job is in question, and Dalton seemed intent on playing despite his evasive answers Friday.
Nagy sidestepped the straightforward question of whether Dalton could’ve played in an actual game Friday given that he was limited in practice — “That would be hard to answer,” he said, even though it wouldn’t be — and Dalton followed dutifully by dodging one about whether he was physically able to complete a practice.
“I did some things out there and felt good about where I was and everything,” Dalton said. “So I’m just going to leave it at that.”
No wonder Nagy loves this guy.
Meanwhile, Fields practiced in full every day. It’s unclear which quarterback took the first-team snaps, though it would appear to be Dalton based on Nagy’s repeated comment that he was the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart.
Nagy has talked since spring about his trust for Dalton and liked what he saw in the first two games.
The Bears’ nickel-and-dime passing game — pennies would be the more appropriate coins, actually — led to Dalton completing 27 of 38 passes for just 206 yards and just two throws that traveled more than 10 air yards. But Nagy defended that performance as a product of his game plan, not a failing by Dalton.
Dalton followed by completing 9 of 11 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the first half against the Bengals in Week 2. He also ran twice for 25 yards, including the 14-yard scramble on which he hurt his knee on a non-contact play, and had the Bears on the verge of taking a 14-0 lead.
“I felt really good about where I was at and what I was able to do — driving the ball down and making a play with my legs and doing some things to really help this offense,” Dalton said.
It certainly needs all the help it can get. The question facing Nagy is which quarterback can provide that necessary boost, and he believes the answer is Dalton.