It gives one pause when one finds oneself on the same page as Bears coach Matt Nagy. He has made a number of odd/bad decisions the past few years, many of them having to do with the offense, so the instinct is to go in the opposite direction of whichever way he’s headed.
The page Nagy and I have landed on says, in bold letters, that there is zero reason to have rookie Justin Fields as the Bears’ starting quarterback when the season opens Sept. 12. I took it a step further last month, declaring that Fields and the franchise would be better off if he spent the entire season learning as a backup to Andy Dalton. This has earned me a good amount of condemnation, and I have alternated between wearing a scarlet letter ‘‘A’’ (for Andy) and mourning clothes when in public, such is my shame and sadness.
I’m glad Nagy is being smart about this and not giving in to the raging public sentiment that Fields is the savior who will deliver the Bears from their long, painful quarterback poverty. When the team traded up to take the Ohio State star with the 11th overall pick in the draft, fans and media reacted in a way that suggested an armored truck had spilled its contents in front of them.
Believe me, I get it. Or, at least, I get some of it. The logic goes like this: Fields was a fine college quarterback. The Bears need a quarterback. Therefore, Fields should be the starting quarterback in Week 1.
The argument against it, also using logic, is: WHAT’S THE BLEEPING RUSH?
Nobody gets hurt by being prudent. OK, that’s not exactly a slogan for a marketing campaign. And, yes, we all understand how rookie contracts work and the importance of getting as much out of a would-be star before he’s in line for a massive pay raise. But if the goal is what’s best for the kid and the franchise, making sure he’s absolutely ready for the job is the right way to go. I’ve seen many more unprepared young quarterbacks than I have built-for-the-moment young quarterbacks.
Nothing in organized team activities or minicamps is going to tell the Bears that Fields is ready. No amount of receivers’ rhapsodic quotes about the welcoming properties of a beautifully thrown ball from Fields is going to change that. There’s a chance Nagy will see more from the kid in training camp. Two thoughts: A) That would be great. B) He should resist the temptation to go back on his plan to start Dalton.
There is little downside to having Fields watch for a while or even for a season, unless you consider having to watch a mediocre Dalton a massive downer of a downside. I get that, too. You’re in it for the entertainment value, and how much more exciting could an athletic 22-year-old quarterback be than a 33-year-old quarterback with a career passer rating of 87.5?
But entertainment value shouldn’t be the criteria here. Readiness and what’s best for the Bears in the long term should be.
The Start Justin Fields Now crowd doesn’t like when Patrick Mahomes’ path to stardom is brought up, possibly because it’s too neat and tidy and possibly because, as an argument, it resembles a slam-dunk. But Nagy was on the Chiefs’ coaching staff when Mahomes was a rookie in 2017 and saw it firsthand. Alex Smith started 15 games at quarterback that season, and Mahomes started one (when the Chiefs chose to rest Smith before the playoffs). The next season, Mahomes was the NFL’s most valuable player.
That’s not an example of cause-and-effect. No one can know how Mahomes would have played if he had been a full-time starter as a rookie. What we do know is how the Chiefs’ approach to their young quarterback worked out: pretty good, if you consider a Super Bowl title in Mahomes’ third season pretty good. Learning in the background can do wonders.
The risk of starting a young quarterback too soon is greater than the risk of not starting him and missing out on a year of excellence. I’d call that common sense, but I know there are too many other factors involved than a common-sense approach. With his job in jeopardy after two 8-8 seasons, will Nagy feel pressure to get Fields on the field? Will general manager Ryan Pace feel that same pressure? Will the franchise feel pressure to inject energy and panache into what has been a dull product?
It would be silly to suggest those things won’t play a role this season. But Nagy’s first instinct is the right one: Let Fields watch and learn for a while, perhaps for a longer while than the fan base and media would like. Then we can watch a fully prepared Fields. Then we might learn what it’s like when a good quarterback takes the field for the Bears. Finally.