1st-and-10: To play or not to play? That is no longer the question

The NFL preseason has devolved so much in recent years that even playing starters isn’t worth that much. Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense will have to grow up quickly once the bell rings against the Packers on Sept. 10 at Soldier Field.

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Bears quarterback Tyson Bagent (17) dives across the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown run in the Bears’ 24-17 loss to the Colts on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Bears quarterback Tyson Bagent (17) dives across the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown run in the Bears’ 24-17 loss to the Colts on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

When the Bears’ starting offense hardly played in preseason games in 2019 — with Mitch Trubisky taking three snaps without throwing a pass — its sluggish performance in a 10-3 loss to the Packers in the regular-season opener was so stark that even coach Matt Nagy acknowledged the error and vowed to try a different tack in 2020.

‘‘I look back and I say if I could change something in 2019, it would be playing our starters more — 100%,’’ Nagy said in May 2020.

That never happened because the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the 2020 preseason. And the Nagy era continued to unravel from there.

Fast-forward to 2023, and the Bears are in a similar situation — with a developing offense in its second season under coordinator Luke Getsy, seemingly in need of every snap it can get.

But after sitting out the Bears’ second preseason game Saturday against the Colts, quarterback Justin Fields and the starting offense have played only seven snaps in the preseason. And coach Matt Eberflus doesn’t sound too keen on the starters playing in the preseason finale Saturday against the Bills.

So it’s possible the Bears again might go into a regular-season opener against the Packers at Soldier Field with a designated franchise-quarterback-in-training having played minimal snaps.

Here we go again? Right? Wrong? Boneheaded?

None of the above. The preseason already was changing in 2019, and it has devolved even more in the last four years — to the point where preseason games don’t seem to help anybody.

Once upon a time, playing an established Bills defense that finished second in the NFL in points allowed in a preseason game would have been the best thing for Fields and the offense. It would have been much better than even joint practices against a Colts defense that finished 28th in points allowed last season.

But those days are going, if not gone. Bills coach Sean McDermott expressed a desire to get more ‘‘dress rehearsal’’ time for his starters this preseason, but they’re not expected to get extensive snaps, if any, Saturday.

Whether they do or not, preseason NFL football is withering. Fields and the rest of the Bears’ offensive starters need the work — and perhaps they’ll get some Saturday. These days, however, it’s not going to make that much of a difference. More than ever, it’s the regular season that counts.

2. For the record, that 2019 opener meant more. The Bears were coming off a 12-4 playoff season. They had the best defense in football. They expected to be contenders.

This time, the Bears are in full development mode on both sides of the ball. The mediocrity of the NFL can make them a contender for the postseason, but the playoffs aren’t an expectation.

An opening loss to the Packers could end up being critical. Right now, though, the most reasonable expectation for the 2023 Bears is to be better at the end than at the beginning. All the hard work is done in the regular season these days. It’s not so much how well they play; it’s how well they learn.

3. Even more so today than four years ago, most of the NFL is in the same boat with regard to preseason preparation. The Packers’ defense that Fields & Co. will face Sept. 10 hasn’t played a lot in the preseason, either.

Defensive tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker Rashan Gary and Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander have yet to play. Linebackers Quay Walker (25 snaps), Preston Smith (seven) and De’Vondre Campbell (three) have had light duty so far.

The Packers were a hot-and-cold defense last season. The opener will be a good early indicator for the Bears’ formative offense.

4. No Bears quarterback has started every game of the regular season since Jay Cutler in 2009, so the P.J. Walker issue (a 14.6 passer rating in two preseason games) can’t be dismissed.

It’s a quandary that’s fit for the Bears. The designated backup has been as uninspiring as a designated backup can be (Walker). The backup who looks most like an NFL quarterback is an undrafted free agent from a Division II school (Tyson Bagent from Shepherd University). And the safe alternative right now is Nathan Peterman, who is 1-4 as an NFL starter and didn’t even finish the one game he won (with the Bills against the Colts in 2017).

Bagent looks like someone who could walk into the 49ers’ huddle and get the job done in a pinch. He has to show a lot more to be a serious contender for the Bears’ backup job, but he has earned that chance.

5. You Gotta Love Football Department: On the same October weekend that Bagent was throwing three touchdown passes to lead Shepherd to a 47-14 rout of West Chester in front of 2,123 fans in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Walker was outplaying Tom Brady, throwing two touchdown passes for a career-best 126.5 passer rating to lead the Panthers to a 21-3 victory against the Buccaneers in front of 71,941 fans in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now they’re on the same, level playing field.

Walker still figures to be the backup when the regular season begins. After all, he has $2 million in guaranteed money and has won three NFL games. Then again, Nick Foles is still out there.

6. Did you know? Bagent (13-for-15, 113 yards) has a higher passer rating through two preseason games as a rookie (98.0) than Brock Purdy did through two preseason games as a rookie with the 49ers last season (80.8).

7. Rookie defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens seemed to make progress in Week 2 of the preseason. Pickens made the bigger impact in the game, but Dexter was happy with the improvement he made with his get-off from the opener against the Titans. He’s learning.

‘‘It’s no secret to getting off the ball,’’ Dexter said. ‘‘You get down. You get set. Key the ball. Key your man and get off the ball. That’s what I did today.’’

Dexter said he can feel it coming — eventually.

‘‘For sure,’’ he said. ‘‘It’ll definitely be there. Things are slowing down for me. [Against the Colts], I felt like I got off the ball the right way, was in the backfield a pretty good amount of times, and that was due to just the get-off.’’

8. The offensive line is the Bears’ most critical question mark heading into the final weeks before Week 1.

The line came into camp with expectations of continuity, with a set lineup of Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins, Cody Whitehair, Nate Davis and rookie Darnell Wright. But with injuries to Davis, Jenkins and now Whitehair, the line has been a bit patchwork for most of camp.

This line has to establish itself before ‘‘next man up’’ can be an effective weekly battle cry. And time is running out.

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Steelers backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed 10 of 13 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown for a 116.8 rating in the team’s 27-15 preseason victory Saturday against the Bills.

10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 — vs. Packers (L); at Buccaneers (W); at Chiefs (L); vs. Broncos (L); at Commanders (W); vs. Vikings (W); vs. Raiders (W); at Chargers (L); at Saints (L); vs. Panthers (W); at Lions (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Lions (W); at Browns (L); vs. Cardinals (W); vs. Falcons (L); at Packers (W).

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