Matt Nagy talks himself into a knot again when it comes to Bears rookie Justin Fields
Nagy insisted he would return to Andy Dalton when he returns from a knee injury. That had better be a bluff.
Coach Matt Nagy never does what everyone wants him to do with rookie quarterback Justin Fields unless he’s forced.
That’s happening again this week as his preferred starter, Andy Dalton, is out with a knee injury and won’t be available for the game Sunday in Cleveland. So unless Nagy wants to revisit his haunting experience with Nick Foles from last season, he has no choice but to give in and start Fields.
It’s obvious he’d rather not.
“When [Dalton] is healthy, he is our starter — it’s as simple as that,” Nagy said Wednesday when pressed to clarify whether his commitment to Dalton is absolute. “With that said, we want Justin to be the best quarterback that he can be so we can evaluate him, too.”
He’s still dragging his feet.
When Nagy says he already has decided to return to Dalton in Week 5 or whenever he is healthy enough to play, he had better be bluffing. There’s no sense in making that call now rather than waiting to see how Fields does against the Browns and — almost certainly — next week against the Lions.
If he’s serious, it again raises concern about whether he’s the right coach to guide Fields’ development. The Bears’ next several seasons depend on it, and no one questions whether Fields has the talent.
All the skepticism is pointed at the Bears’ ability to handle such an asset.
Nagy’s insistence that Fields isn’t ready to take over permanently, while also repeatedly indicating that he is — by his comments, by putting him above Foles on the depth chart and by playing him in the opener — traces back to the night the Bears drafted him.
Six weeks earlier, as part of their recruiting pitch, the Bears assured Dalton he’d be their starter. That’s not a secret, rumor or conspiracy theory. Dalton said it and added that he might’ve signed elsewhere if they hadn’t.
So whether it was loyalty or purely Nagy’s judgment of what was best, it was clear there was no quarterback competition. Dalton would be the Week 1 starter regardless of how Fields performed, and Fields would be put on a more gradual path to ideally take the job in 2022. It made no difference that he exceeded all expectations by the end of the preseason.
Nagy is making that same confounding choice again.
What if Fields is fine? What if he’s better than fine? Would Nagy really send him back to the bench? Even if he struggles, it would be unwise to yank him once his on-the-job training is underway.
“We’re not going to get into that what-if game,” Nagy said. “When that time comes, there’s a lot of stuff that can happen between now and then. I don’t really want to go there other than just saying when Andy is healthy, he’s our starter.”
Like many Nagy exchanges lately, a straightforward question gets a circuitous answer.
It happened just two days earlier with basically the same question: If Dalton is healthy, would he start against the Browns? Nagy dodged it because he believed the uncertainty gave him a competitive advantage. Then he sent a staffer to the media room to say that Dalton would be the Bears’ starter if healthy.
Nagy’s not an idiot — remember, he told us that two years ago in defense of setting the franchise record for fewest running plays in a game. But every time he talks himself into a knot, he chips away at any remaining public confidence that he can handle the complicated scenario of balancing the Bears’ desperation for a playoff berth this season with the chief long-term interest of growing Fields into a star.
The silliness of the entire charade from Monday must’ve stuck with him Wednesday morning, so Nagy called an impromptu news conference of his own on 15 minutes’ notice.
“It’s important for, really, everybody,” Nagy said. “You look at the pros and the cons of naming a starter or not naming a starter, but . . . we know where we’re at, and we’re ready to just attack this thing and [make it] clear to everybody. I’m not sure exactly where Cleveland [thought this was headed], but we’re worried about us right now, and that’s the way we want it.”
The drama and confusing explanations probably aren’t going away. This is just the beginning. For now, circumstances have made Nagy’s decision easy. But the swirling answers he gave about Dalton and Fields’ future Wednesday set him up for yet another mess in a few weeks.