Bears coach Matt Nagy wanted to maintain the mystery about his starting quarterback all the way to kickoff against the Lions on Sunday, but the team announced Justin Fields will start after downgrading Andy Dalton to doubtful.
Dalton, Nagy’s preferred starter, is working back from the bone bruise he suffered in his left knee against the Bengals two week ago. Nagy has maintained that Dalton is
No. 1 on the depth chart since his injury, but he has yet to fully practice.
The offense should look vastly different with Fields, who is more mobile than Dalton and has elite speed. In the Bears’ 26-6 loss to the Browns last week, however, Nagy seemed to be running the same offense — something he spent most of the week regretting after the Browns figured out his plan almost immediately and smashed it to smithereens.
He can’t possibly repeat that mistake, and he hinted Friday that he had divergent schemes in mind.
“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.”
If he wants to maximize Fields’ skills, Nagy can begin with everything that was missing last week.
There were minimal designed runs to use Fields’ incredible speed — he runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, in case anyone hadn’t heard by now — and few rollouts 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.
Every bit of that better change, even against an 0-3 Lions team that has allowed a league-worst 123.2 passer rating.
It’s a prime opportunity for Fields to move past the memory of his disastrous starting debut. Regardless of Nagy failing to assist him, Fields completed just 6 of 20 passes for 68 yards while taking nine sacks and getting hit six other times. The Bears finished with 47 net yards of offense, which was their lowest since 1981.
Given that Dalton couldn’t practice and Fields was full-go all week, Nagy almost certainly knew who would start after practice Friday but appeared to be using the situation to his advantage by keeping the Lions guessing.
He sidestepped the straightforward question of whether Dalton could’ve played in an actual game Friday — “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.
His insistence on waiting for Dalton might’ve hampered Fields’ preparation. 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.
Nagy has talked since spring about his trust for Dalton and liked what he saw in the first two games. He shot down the notion that he isn’t fully confident in Fields.
Whether he believes Fields is the best choice is irrelevant now, because the injury situation has forced Nagy’s hand.
There’s no reason that has to be a bad thing for the Bears, though. Fields is the future of the franchise, and every start he gets provides valuable experience and moves him closer to taking over permanently. He’s a tremendous talent, and now it’s on Nagy to figure out how to help him thrive.