When you have a young quarterback, ownership is highly motivated to limit any changes that could become obstacles to that quarterback’s development in the short term. In Chicago, the narrative is that Bears head coach Matt Nagy should start Justin Fields early in order to protect his job leading into 2022. In reality, the scenario that is most likely to get Nagy fired is if he starts Fields early and he plays poorly or even fair and does not seem to be thriving in the system.
There are really two scenarios in which Nagy is able to keep his job, and both might be better for Fields’ long-term development regardless. The first is they turn out to have a much better season than is expected, whether Fields is playing or not. The other is if Fields does not play until the last few games of the year, and it looks like he is getting along with the coach and picking up the scheme. In that scenario, ownership is very unlikely to change the head coach and offensive coordinator, so Fields does not have to relearn the offense.
If Fields plays in a few games and at least shows some potential, it would be really surprising if Nagy did not get another year after that. Everyone seems to be saying that Nagy needs to play Fields to preserve his job, but I just think starting Fields early puts Nagy at much greater risk of losing his job. If Fields starts right away, then it is no longer about developing him over time; it is about him being good right away. If he plays poorly right away, which happens with a lot of rookie quarterbacks regardless, the Bears ownership may feel there is no reason not to make a change. He did not flourish in the scheme in year one, and this will be the second quarterback they have tried to develop that has not been successful.
If we are just talking about Nagy’s self-interest — which I do not think is a factor having worked with him in Philadelphia – then sitting the quarterback off the jump best suits him. In reality, it also might be what is best for Fields’ development.
When should he start?
If I was running the team, it would come down to how quickly he was picking up the offense and adjusting to NFL defenses. The thing is, it is not that hard for a rookie quarterback to learn the basics of his team’s offense pretty quickly. The real challenge is learning other teams’ defenses and learning all the things they may do and how to read that before the ball is snapped. For me, the Fields question is simple: If he is picking all that up, I would be willing to put him in as soon as I can. If I loved everything I was seeing in practice but just felt he would be more relaxed by sitting a little longer, I would have no problem waiting a little longer.
For me, this is independent of how Andy Dalton looks. We know what he is. He is good in the quarterback room, and he can come in and win a few games under the right circumstance and against the right opponent. As much as Fields can learn in the classroom and on the practice field, a lot of times it is hard for a guy to grow without getting on the field. As soon as I feel he has the confidence to create building blocks, I think he is ready to go. For me, I think this is how it will play out. This also appeases ownership, because it shows potential growth from year one to year two, and they know it does not benefit them to have to start all over again after that.
How we handled Donovan McNabb
After we drafted Donovan McNabb in 1999, he did not start till mid-November of his rookie year. Before the season, everyone agreed we had a better chance of winning with Donovan playing, but we drafted him for the next 10 years and did not want to throw him out there with challenges that could hinder his long-term success.
One of the things Andy Reid decided when we picked him was that he was not going to start for 10-12 games that year, no matter what. No matter how good or how smart he looked, we were not focused on winning in his first year. Andy felt that was what was best for the organization and for McNabb, and no one pushed back. We knew we were not going anywhere meaningful that year, so all of our decisions were based on making us a contender into Donovan’s second and third seasons.
The difference with Chicago is that some of their decisions make it seem like they are ready to compete this year. I would be skeptical, because the offense still has some problems, especially along the offensive line. It is really hard to have a good offense without a good offensive line, and that becomes even harder with a young quarterback. Their defense is still talented, but they are switching to a first-time defensive coordinator, and they lost some key players in the secondary. These reasons and the immediate uncertainty at quarterback make it all the more likely that the 2022 first-round pick the Giants acquired in the Fields trade will be fairly high.
In the end, what Nagy does not want to do is have Fields play the whole year and not look like he is adjusting to his scheme. That will get him fired. If there is progress, I think all 32 owners would agree that changing coaches on a rookie after one season does not accelerate his development. I think the large majority of rookie quarterbacks benefit sitting at some point in their rookie season anyway. Hopefully for Chicago, the Bears can trust the head coach to make the right decision for the quarterback and the organization and put aside his self-interest, whatever that might be. That is how I expect Nagy to handle this.