The uncomfortable issue confronting coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, given that they were fortunate enough to avoid getting fired at the end of last season, is whether they are committed to doing what’s best for the Bears or what’s best for their own jobs.
Nagy just clarified it — by accident.
Rather than give the Bears’ quarterback of the future an opportunity to cleanse the foul memory of his starting debut against the Browns by getting back out there Sunday against the lowly Lions, Nagy intends to start Andy Dalton over Justin Fields.
‘‘Intends’’ is the key word. Dalton left the game against the Bengals in Week 2 with a bone bruise in his left knee and didn’t practice last week. He was a partial participant in practice Wednesday, but Fields was a full-go despite a wrap on his right thumb and wrist from an injury he said was minor.
Regardless, it’s shortsighted to send Fields back to the bench after a disastrous day in which Nagy did next to nothing to help him schematically and he tumbled to a final line of 6-for-20 passing for 68 yards and a 41.2 passer rating with only three runs for 12 yards.
If the mission, as Nagy and Pace always say, is to do what’s best for the Bears, isn’t Fields’ ongoing development the most important factor?
‘‘More-than-fair question,’’ Nagy said before not really answering it. ‘‘Justin did a good job in many ways, just keeping composed in that environment. . . . That one was a rough one, and I put that on me. That’s on me for why that went that way.
‘‘I’ve gotta learn from that. . . . I think we have some answers, which is good.’’
Sure, he has answers. But the fear all along, for Fields’ sake, is that they aren’t the correct ones.
When the Bears signed Dalton, it felt desperate. When they drafted Fields, it restored some faith that Pace and Nagy were being responsible stewards of an organization that might be handed over to a new GM and coach at the end of the season.
But they’ve tipped their hand by insisting on Dalton as the starter and Fields as his understudy. There was, indeed, a lot for Fields to learn after the Bears drafted him No. 11 overall, but they limited his opportunity from Day 1. Dalton was assured of the job, and Fields was put on a slower track that included offseason homework of practicing calling plays into a phone and sending the audio files to the coaches.
If the Bears had gone full speed with Fields, he would be further along. Everything about his makeup suggests he’s a quick learner, which should compel Nagy to start him again. It’s a much better education than story time with Dalton and Nick Foles.
But Nagy played Fields against the Browns only because he was forced to, and that’s the only way Fields will start against the Lions.
Nagy might be right that Dalton gives the Bears a better chance to win Sunday than Fields, though the fact this is being debated ahead of an opponent that might be the NFL’s worst team is profoundly sad. But that’s a preoccupation with the short term.
And that’s the biggest problem at Halas Hall: In what world did it make sense to go all-in on this season, financially or otherwise, with a team that went 16-16 in the last two and had minimal salary-cap space to make improvements? It’s a problem of chairman George McCaskey’s own making by bringing back Pace and Nagy for one more season when it was obvious the Bears needed to rebuild.
It’s not worth stunting Fields’ growth just to go 9-8 — an unambitious record that increasingly seems as though it’ll be difficult for the Bears to reach — and hope that’s enough to make the playoffs.
Fields has tremendous potential, but it’ll take time to reach. He needs to ride out early struggles. There’s no fast-forwarding through that part. Long-term thinkers would see that.