Rare opportunity: Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, John Harbaugh show Bears what they need from Justin Fields, Matt Nagy
The cohesion between Jackson and Harbaugh illustrates what the Bears hope to establish with Fields and Nagy, and that’s much more so on the coach than the player. Nagy is the one who needs to figure out a way to work with Fields, not the other way around.
Bears coach Matt Nagy hammers, “Be you,” as his mission statement, encouraging players to embrace the unique qualities that have the potential to make them extraordinary.
There have been times, though, when it seemed like what he really meant was, “Be who I want you to be,” which is quite the opposite and proved unsuccessful with former quarterback Mitch Trubisky — a player who built his career on athleticism but was constantly told to win from the pocket.
That experience left lingering concern that Nagy might be too inflexible to maximize a multi-faceted talent like rookie quarterback Justin Fields.
When the Bears host the Ravens on Sunday, Nagy will get a firsthand look at one of the NFL’s great success stories of a coach landing an uncommon quarterback and resisting the urge to make him conform. Lamar Jackson’s approach to the position was good enough to dominate college football and win a Heisman Trophy, so it made total sense to coach John Harbaugh to reshape his offense around Jackson rather than vice versa.
“We got a steal because everyone passed Lamar up because they didn’t want to go with a running quarterback,” Harbaugh’s wife, Ingrid, told ESPN in 2019. “But John goes, ‘We can do this. We can mold our offense to him.’”
That was a particularly big leap for Harbaugh and the Ravens, who had relied on conventional pocket passer Joe Flacco for 11 seasons.
Jackson is probably the most extreme example of “being you” working out, because he spent most of his childhood rebuffing doubts that he could play quarterback, then won NFL MVP at the position. All he ever heard was that he should be something else, but he was steadfast.
“He proved everybody wrong, and the Ravens proved everybody wrong,” Nagy said. “What a great credit to him to work as hard as he has to be an NFL quarterback. And he’s different. He’s unique in how he plays the game.”
College recruiters often left open the possibility that he could move to safety. A Chargers scout proposed he work out at the combine as a wide receiver. Former Colts general manager Bill Polian infamously said he should switch to that position permanently because he was “clearly not the thrower the other guys are.”
Make sure to congratulate him on his forthcoming $40-million-a-year contract extension, Bill.
Over the last three seasons, Jackson has completed 65% of his passes (nearly even with Patrick Mahomes), thrown 76 touchdown passes (sixth in the NFL) and posted a 102.7 passer rating (ahead of Dak Prescott).
He is averaging a career-high 271.9 yards passing this season and adding 71 per game on the ground. He has 16 total touchdowns, with 14 as a passer.
“There’s not many guys who are like Lamar Jackson,” Fields said. “He does stuff that some receivers, running backs can’t even do. All of the backlash he got coming out of college, [people] saying he was a running back and stuff like that, he’s just proving everybody wrong. He’s one of the best in the league right now.
“So just seeing that young, Black quarterbacks can get the job done, and we don’t have to be old-fashioned pro-style passers to get it done. It just shows that it’s a new wave coming and that athletic guys can play quarterback also.”
Fields’ path isn’t quite as dramatic as Jackson’s, but there are similarities.
There were Fields doubters, certainly, as Georgia started Jake Fromm ahead of him, ultimately prompting his transfer to Ohio State, and at least six quarterback-needy teams bypassed him in the draft before the Bears traded up to take him at No. 11.
Then there was Nagy’s handling of him, starting with a rigid plan to keep him on the bench his entire rookie season — an idea already shown to have been misguided — rather than give him a chance to compete for the starting job immediately despite him entering the draft as the most polished and accomplished quarterback other than Trevor Lawrence.
Nagy only turned to Fields as the starter when forced to by Andy Dalton’s knee injury, then faced a mountain of public pressure to make the change permanent. Even then, after spending much of the offseason fawning over Fields’ elite speed, Nagy unveiled a game plan devoid of plays that utilized his mobility.
It was ugly enough to force Nagy to surrender play calling to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. It was also an alarm going off about the possibility of the Bears misusing his skillset.
The cohesion between Jackson and Harbaugh illustrates what the Bears hope to establish with Fields and Nagy, and if Nagy can’t find it, they’ll look for a coach who can.
That’s a huge piece of what Nagy must prove over these final eight games, because Fields is assuredly part of the Bears’ future, but that’s far from guaranteed for Nagy. He’s the one who needs to figure out a way to work with Fields, not the other way around.