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1st-and-10: Justin Fields should start vs. Raiders

Matt Nagy keeps saying he’ll do “what’s best for the Chicago Bears” when it comes to managing Fields, but the time has come for Nagy to actually decide, what IS best for the Chicago Bears? 

Justin Fields (1) has started the last two games for the Bear, but coach Matt Nagy said Andy Dalton will start at quarterback against the Raiders if he’s healthy.
Justin Fields (1) has started the last two games for the Bear, but coach Matt Nagy said Andy Dalton will start at quarterback against the Raiders if he’s healthy.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Pick a lane, Matt Nagy.

The path for managing the Bears’ quarterback quandary is clearer than ever for their beleaguered coach: Play Andy Dalton and perhaps win more games, or develop rookie Justin Fields.

Nagy keeps saying he’ll do “what’s best for the Chicago Bears” when it comes to managing Fields, but the time has come for Nagy to actually decide: What is best for the Chicago Bears?

Is it better for the team if Nagy plays the veteran Dalton for — arguably — a better chance to make the playoffs? Or is it better if Nagy plays Fields and allows him to make all his rookie mistakes as a rookie and not a second-year player?

Before Week 3, Nagy could hide behind the unknown and stick with the general Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes game plan, letting Fields mostly sit behind Dalton. But now that Fields has made two starts, that template has been fractured.

Fields was overwhelmed in his first start against the Browns, lending credence to the idea he’s not ready to play. But then he responded against the Lions with an impressive performance that provided evidence of why he should play — including downfield throws for gains of 21, 64, 28 and 32 yards that led to three touchdowns.

Regardless of Dalton’s health, it would almost be a dereliction of duty to not give Fields a chance to build on his momentum, allowing Nagy a better chance to see what he’s got. This is a rookie who, by the Bears’ own admission, learns well, isn’t rattled, practices well, already is showing improvement in reading defenses and gets along well with others. How is he not ready for this?

The outside evidence is starting to mount, as well. Rookie starters Trevor Lawrence (96.5 passer rating for the Jaguars at the Bengals), Zach Wilson (97.3 for the Jets vs. the Titans) and Mac Jones (101.6 for the Patriots vs. the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers) all had impressive performances in Week 4 after coming in with a combined 64.2 passer rating (nine touchdowns, 17 interceptions).

It’s almost as if talented, first-round rookie quarterbacks learn and grow as they get more experience. That leads to the sometimes-overlooked third scenario Nagy should consider: that playing Fields might also eventually give the Bears the best chance to make the playoffs.

Whether that scenario ensues, it seems obvious which direction Nagy should go.

2. Fields’ 82.7 passer rating (11-for-17, 209 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) actually was the lowest for a Bears quarterback against the Lions under Nagy. In fact, he’s the first QB with a rating under 100 against the Lions in Nagy’s four seasons. Even Chase Daniel had a 106.8 against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 2018.

But the eye test told a different story. And even statistically, Fields’ 12.3 yards per attempt was the second-highest for a starting quarterback in Nagy’s four seasons — behind Mitch Trubisky’s 13.6 in a 48-10 rout of the Buccaneers in 2018, when he threw for 355 yards and six touchdowns.

Trubisky, though, averaged 10-plus yards per attempt just three times in 40 starts under Nagy. Fields is 1-for-2.

3. That said, the Bears’ offensive success Sunday came with an asterisk: It was against the Lions, a team against which Nagy’s offense has done anomalistically well.

In Nagy’s four seasons, the Bears have a 115.5 passer rating against the Lions and an 81.4 passer rating against the rest of the NFL. In that span, they have scored 24 or more points five times in seven games against the Lions (71.4%) and 18 times in 45 games (40%) against the rest of the league.

The Bears’ offense was least successful in the one category where the Lions’ defense is most credible: third downs. The Bears were 1-for-8 on third-down conversions against a Lions defense that came in ranked fifth in the NFL in that category.

4. When offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was asked before the season opener what he wanted to see from the offense this year, he said, “When you look at some of the things we committed to improving from last year, I’ll put third downs [at] the top of the list.”

That continues to be the biggest red flag. The Bears, who ranked 31st in third-down conversions last season, are in last place at 32nd after four weeks (13-for-45, 28.9%).

5. A new stadium was a pipe dream before the announcement in June that the Bears were bidding on Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. Now it appears to be a fait accompli after the Bears signed an agreement to buy the 326-acre site.

The city of Chicago’s underwhelming response to the initial volley underscored the reluctance of politicians (and Chicagoans) to spend even a dime of public money on a new Bears stadium — an understandable concern, with taxpayers still footing a $600 million bill for the 2002 renovation of Soldier Field.

There is a measure of civic pride in Chicago’s sports teams playing within city limits. But while economic realities in sports are often distasteful — does every single thing that happens in a baseball game have to be sponsored? — some actually drag us into the current century.

Like lights at Wrigley Field, a state-of-the-art stadium would accomplish that. Now it’s up to the Bears to make it happen. There’s a long way to go.

6. If NFL officials are given the latitude to determine when “hand-fighting” becomes pass interference, they should have the same latitude on roughing-the-quarterback and taunting penalties. But it seems as though they feel bound to go by the letter of the law in calling those infractions.

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack’s roughing-the-passer penalty against the Lions and Raiders tight end Darren Waller’s taunting penalty for spiking the ball at no one against the Chargers were the latest examples of officials getting it wrong.

7. Nagy went against convention by taking the ball when the Bears won the coin toss Sunday. It was only the second time in the 29 times the Bears have won the toss under Nagy that they have elected to receive. The other time was against the Vikings in Week 16 last season — also a Lazor-called game. The Bears went three-and-out but won 41-17.

8. Bits and pieces: The Bears’ defense is second in the NFL in sacks per play but 26th in third-down conversions (46.2%) — a dubious disparity. . . . The Bears had four pass plays of 25 or more yards against the Lions. The last time they had more than that was in 2018, when they had six, also against the Lions. . . . The Bears are second in the NFL in gross punting average (50.7) but 20th in net yards (39.6), the biggest “drop” in the NFL. . . . The Bears’ 17 pass attempts are the fewest in a victory under Nagy’s tenure. . . . The Bears are 14-3 under Nagy when they pass 30 times or fewer, tied for sixth-best in the NFL. . . . Cole Kmet has eight receptions (29th among tight ends) for 59 yards (39th) on 15 targets (23rd) through four games.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Falcons wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson caught three touchdown passes — for 42, 12 and 14 yards — from Matt Ryan in a 34-30 loss to Washington. Altogether, he had five receptions for 82 yards and six rushes for 34 yards.

Patterson (18 receptions, 235 yards, 13.1 average, four touchdowns in 2021) already has more receiving yards in four games with the Falcons than he had in two seasons with the Bears (32 receptions, 215 yards, 6.7 average, zero touchdowns).

10. Bear-ometer: 5-12 — at Raiders (L); vs. Packers (L); at Buccaneers (L); vs. 49ers (L); at Steelers (W); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (L); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (L).