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Bears need to be smart with Justin Fields’ injury

Matt Nagy loves the rookie’s toughness. But after the equally tough Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan aggravated injuries by playing through them, Nagy should be sure Fields is fully healed from broken ribs before playing again. Load management matters, even in the NFL.

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack (52) sacked Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield twice in Week 3 but suffered a sprained foot that ultimately ended his season after playing seven games.
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack (52) sacked Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield twice in Week 3 but suffered a sprained foot that ultimately ended his season after playing seven games.
David Dermer/AP Photos

Coach Matt Nagy had no update Monday on rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ status for the game Sunday against the Cardinals.

Fields is recovering from broken ribs he suffered against the Ravens on Nov. 21. Andy Dalton started against the Lions on Thanksgiving, which gives Fields two weeks to recover.

But what’s the rush?

With Fields clearly in a developmental stage, and Dalton arguably giving the Bears as good of a chance — if not a better chance — to win, it behooves Nagy and the Bears to take their time with the prized rookie and make sure he’s fully recovered. Why risk aggravating the injury?

That’s the beauty — maybe the only beauty — of the 17-game schedule this season. It allows the Bears to take their time with Fields and still get him four or even five more games of NFL experience he needs heading into the 2022 season.

At this point, it’s basically load management — a foreign concept in the NFL with its 16- and 17-game schedules in which every game is equal to 10 MLB games or five NBA or NHL games.

But with wear-and-tear a bigger factor than ever in the NFL, time off matters. And giving players more time to heal from injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken ribs might be an overall benefit.

That’s sacrilege in the NFL, where players are conditioned to play whenever they’re capable. In fact, the NFL for years has disdained the “100 percenter,” a player who will play only when he’s 100% healthy. It’s a sport that puts a premium value on players who will gut it out for the team.

But as heroic as that is, the “gamer” mentality has its own downside because the physical toll adds up quickly.

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack’s heart and desire are unquestioned — he has played through bumps and bruises or worse throughout his Bears career. Last season, he was on the injury report for 13 of the Bears’ 17 games with various injuries (knee, back, ankle, shoulder) — and listed as questionable for 10 of them. Yet he never missed a game.

But at 30, it caught up with him this season when a relatively minor sprained foot turned into season-ending surgery.

Mack suffered the injury against the Browns in Week 3 — and still wanted to finish that game. He played through the injury for the next four games, and instead of getting better, the situation became more problematic. Mack missed games against the 49ers and Steelers and after the bye week was put on injured reserve and slated for surgery.

If Mack had been load-managed and not played against the winless Lions the week after suffering the injury, would he be on IR today? Nobody knows, but it’s likely that tack would’ve done more good than harm.

Nagy had no regrets about having Mack play through the injury rather than take a more cautious approach. They never do.

“No,” Nagy said emphatically. “No for him, and for us and for everything we’ve done. You just get to the point where you’re trying to play and make the right decision each week for him. And whatever he’s able to do for himself will help us if he can play.”

The Bears had started easing the load on Mack this season. He had played 91% and 90% of the defensive snaps in his last two seasons with the Raiders and 91% of the snaps in the last six games of the 2018 season with the Bears after being eased in when he missed all of training camp and the preseason in a contract holdout. He played 86% of the snaps in 2019, 84% in 2020 and 81% of the snaps in the first two games this season before the injury.

Linebackers coach Bill Shuey didn’t discount the notion that the NFL could be heading into load-management territory.

“It could be,” Shuey said. “I don’t think it’s as common as you see in the NBA, but it is something that factors in, in terms of rep count. You want to make sure when you’ve got guys at certain stages of their career that you’re taking care of them. You want to make sure the reps that they have are efficient when you can.”

Easing the load bears watching as the Bears’ defensive stars age. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks — another notable warrior — suffered a groin injury on the first snap against the Lions on Oct. 3. Hicks, 32, missed the next game against the Raiders but returned against the Packers and aggravated the injury on a sack of Aaron Rodgers. He missed the next game against the Buccaneers and returned against the 49ers but suffered an ankle injury and hasn’t played since.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan missed time in training camp with knee soreness, played the preseason finale against the Titans — making an interception on his final play — yet started the season on injured reserve. He returned in Week 5 against the Raiders and played five games (with one start) before being put on injured reserve with a recurrence of the knee injury.

Football, though, is a sport that lives by the “next man up” philosophy — even if that means replacing Mack with Trevis Gipson and Cassius Marsh or replacing Hicks with Mario Edwards Jr. and Angelo Blackson. The sport just isn’t wired for load management — even if it might have prevented Mack from missing the last 10 games. In the NFL, it’s all about now and today. It’s a sport that lives in the moment rather than thinking about tomorrow.

“It’s not like other sports where you play a lot of games,” defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “Every single game here matters. When you go down to tiebreakers and those [playoff-berth] scenarios, every single one matters.

“So these guys prepare for a full year to play 17. And we’re gonna operate on a week-to-week basis on all the guys — whether they’re injured or not — on the best plan for us to make sure our players are in the best position to make plays.”

Fields, 22, might be a special case. Though we’ll see about that because Nagy loves his toughness.

“Every person probably handles an injury differently,” Nagy said. “Some are able to do it and get through it. Others may think about it more. I think with Justin, he’s super-tough, and I think I know which side he’s on.”

But it’s hard to believe Nagy would take any unnecessary risks, especially with a quarterback who likes to run.

“Once we get the OK from the trainers and doctors and players that they’re good to go, you’re like, ‘OK, we’re rolling now,’ right?” Nagy said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to be cognizant of [Fields] not taking any extra hits or the vulnerability. It’s definitely something we want to look into.

“Not always just the running part. When you drop back and go to throw, sometimes you expose your chest or your ribs. We put all that together and we do what’s best for him and for us.”