There’s no doubt Justin Fields is the right quarterback for the Bears.
Poise from Day 1. Miles to his deep ball. And speed. That sweet, sweet speed the franchise has never had at the position. He has the potential to be everything his predecessors over the previous century weren’t.
But, as Bears great Jim McMahon so harshly — and precisely — put it recently, Chicago is “where quarterbacks go to die.” So the real question is whether the Bears are the right franchise for Fields.
More specifically, is Matt Nagy the right coach to develop him into the maximum version of himself?
When the Bears hired Nagy in 2018, they saw a quarterback whisperer who helped get Alex Smith on track, supervised the infancy of Patrick Mahomes’ career and was a protégé of offensive mastermind Andy Reid.
What they got is a likable coach who is an exceptional leader, but that offensive boost never materialized.
The Bears were ninth in the NFL in scoring in 2018 (helped substantially by defensive scores and short fields on offense), 29th in 2019 and 22nd last season. Nagy’s quarterbacks combined for the 12th-worst passer rating in that span and the ninth-lowest yardage as Nagy shifted among Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles and Chase Daniel.
The best quarterback success stories of his career have been helping Smith become serviceable and being part of the group that chose Mahomes in the 2017 draft. But it wasn’t as though the Chiefs at large were unconvinced by Mahomes and Nagy insisted they take him, and Smith has a vastly different skill set than Fields.
No matter how much Nagy might insist otherwise, coaching a quarterback like Fields is new ground for him.
“I’ve coached a lot of different quarterbacks,” Nagy rebutted. “I started as a young coach in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb. . . . I’ve been with Kevin Kolb, I’ve been with a rookie in Nick Foles, I’ve been with Michael Vick, I’ve been with Alex Smith, I’ve been with Trent Edwards, Patrick Mahomes as a rookie. So many different scenarios.
“They’re all different, and what makes it so much fun is for me to say, ‘OK, here we are. How do we put a plan together?’ That, for me, is the fun part. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, as we do as coaches.”
Nagy preaches keeping it real, so let’s do that quickly: Most of the quarterbacks he listed were underwhelming. He was an intern when the Eagles had McNabb and was not yet a position coach when Vick played for them. Also, Mahomes played one game as a rookie when Nagy was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
That being said, general manager Ryan Pace’s belief is that whatever Nagy helped instill in Mahomes in 2017 was integral to his monumental success thereafter. That takes faith, but it’s plausible.
One element of Mahomes’ greatness is that the Chiefs did not insist on coaching out of him the very qualities that made him special.
“I’ve been blessed, even from high school, with [coaches] letting me be who I am and scramble around and throw the ball and do what I do,” Mahomes said the day after winning Super Bowl LIV. “[Coaches have been] trying to work on the fundamentals and everything like that but still letting me be who I am.
“And now with coach Reid, knowing the right time to rein me in, but at the same time letting me be who I am. Having all those coaches support me and let me be who I am helped me get where I am today.”
A lot of what Mahomes does is unconventional, but why change something that has gotten him this far?
That seems to be what Nagy and his staff did with Trubisky. The organization fell in love with his athleticism, then Nagy hammered, “You win from the pocket,” into his head every day. It’s possible no one could’ve fixed Trubisky anyway, so Nagy is not necessarily at fault for him fizzling, but he can’t take that approach with Fields.
Nagy’s motto, “Be You,” needs to mean exactly that for Fields, not “Be Who I Want You to Be.” The goal is not to turn Fields into a competent QB. He’s too good for the Bears to settle for that. Nagy loves to point to Smith, but don’t forget that it took Smith seven seasons just to be adequate, and even at his peak, the Chiefs were making plans to replace him.
There should be no thought of turning Fields into Smith. Or Foles. Or Andy Dalton. It’s fine for him to learn behind guys like that, and there are parts of how those quarterbacks see the game that will benefit him, but the last thing anyone should want is for Fields to morph into one of them.
Nagy’s challenge is to enhance what Fields already has rather than change him. Doing less is actually doing more in this case, and that’s how he can legitimize his reputation as an expert on quarterbacks.