Can Matt Nagy find Justin Fields’ comfort zone?
If Fields starts against the Browns, it will be up to Nagy & Co. to put him in an offense he can be himself in — after the rookie looked out of sync in an uneven relief appearance against the Bengals.
It might be hard to believe now, but when Nick Foles replaced Mitch Trubisky at quarterback in the second half against the Falcons last season, he was sensational.
Coming in cold in Week 3, Foles threw three touchdown passes in a 4:27 span of the fourth quarter to lead the Bears to an energizing 30-26 comeback victory on the road. And Foles had a fourth touchdown pass to Allen Robinson that was controversially overturned into an interception upon replay review.
But once Foles became the full-time starter the next week and took first-team reps in practice, with all the preparation and attention a starter gets, he hit the skids — he was never even close to what he was against the Falcons. Circumstances played a part, but it’s almost as if he was Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles when he was mentally winging it and flying by the seat of his pants in relief — and turned into the pedestrian Nick Foles with the Rams and Jaguars once fully in the clutches of Matt Nagy’s developing/struggling offense.
Be that as it may, the Bears are hoping for the opposite effect if rookie Justin Fields starts Sunday against the Browns in Cleveland, as appears likely — that a full week of preparation as the starter and a complete immersion in Nagy’s offense will iron out the wrinkles of an uneven performance in relief of Andy Dalton against the Bengals.
Fields showed his athletic ability and his inexperience against the Bengals. His 21-yard completion to Darnell Mooney was a thing of beauty. His 10-yard scramble on third-and-nine with 2:55 clinched the victory. His 35-yard throw to Robinson in the end zone was perfection that would have been a touchdown had Robinson not dropped it.
But he made mistakes. He was goaded into an interception by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson that helped make that clinching third-down conversion necessary. He had two false starts. He fumbled on a sack — fortunate that Wilson whiffed on the scoop-and-score attempt, allowing Fields to recover it. He held on to the ball too long. He was better than his numbers — 6-for-13 for 60 yards, one interception and a 27.7 rating. But not that much better. Drops are part of the game — every quarterback ever has been victimized by them.
What Fields didn’t show was his intuition — that knack for making the right play, turning a bad play into a big one and putting the defense on its heels. You can see the potential for greatness, but Fields looked like he was running somebody else’s offense instead of his own.
That’s what this week will be all about if Fields starts in place of Dalton, getting him into a comfort zone that allows him to react instinctively instead of think — a mode he definitely was not in against the Bengals.
“We’ve just got to make sure that whatever we put in there, that he knows inside out he can play fast,” Nagy said. “So if there’s more plays that he knows or likes, we’ll get that in there, and he’ll play quarterback the way it’s supposed to be played.
“But we do have to be a little bit careful, and I think probably the biggest thing for us is making sure that he really understands and knows the plays, if [he starts]. . . . The last thing we want is him playing slow, then having to react to the defense.”
If Fields starts, this could be a bigger week for Nagy and his offensive staff than it is for Fields. The kid knows how to play quarterback. But can Nagy put him in an offense tailored to what he does best? We didn’t see that against the Bengals. It will be interesting to see if Nagy adjusts as well as Fields learns. Only then will the Bears have something.