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Ready or Not, Here Comes Justin Fields

Will the rookie's development be stunted by throwing him out on the field behind an offensive line still trying to figure it out? We're going to find out if Matt Nagy was right.
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It’s always overwhelming, the moment when you get the thing you’ve been clamoring for all along. From the second Justin Fields was drafted (a decision from Bears general manager Ryan Pace that achieved near universal praise for its situational aggressiveness and acknowledgment that he could not survive with the quarterback room as constructed at the time), we imagined what Matt Nagy’s offense would look like piloted by an athletic quarterback with a deft passing touch and a temperament to handle high-pressure situations.

We all rolled our eyes together when Nagy did what most coaches do, forcing Fields to win the job out of training camp. We all balled our fists and pounded the table when Nagy actually went through with his decision, seemingly out of some stubborn adherence to the old-fashioned coaching bible, and started Andy Dalton in Week 1.

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But now that Fields is actually taking the field as a starter against the Browns on Sunday, some of us aren’t necessarily cheering, especially with Nagy’s affirming Dalton’s role as a starter once his bruised knee heals. It’s a good-natured concern, like biting one’s nails while watching a kid ride their bike without a helmet. It’s more out of fear that Fields’s development will stunt rather than some anonymous scout projection that he doesn’t possess a requisite tool to survive as an NFL starter. In little glimpses, Fields shows promise, though we’ve seen how quickly a doomed offense can sink an NFL starter. What if that kid riding his bike with no helmet is heading for a pit of live alligators?

Dalton isn’t a fun choice when Fields is on the bench, but there is a reality to his situation. Chicago is doing its best with the offensive line. Jason Peters’s being one of Pro Football Focus’s top-rated pass blockers during his age-39 season is stunning. ESPN’s pass block win rate metric has Peters winning on 87% of his pass snaps, which is better than all but five tackles in the NFL. Aiding the line in its pursuit of survival was that Dalton has gotten the ball out faster than all but four other players in the NFL: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott.

One of those quarterbacks (Prescott) plays in the most efficient offense in the NFL. Two more (Garoppolo and Brady) were bred in a system that awards expedited decision-making. The last (Roethlisberger) is doing as much to compensate for his age and pocket athleticism. He’s also been playing the sport professionally for almost two decades.

This is not to say Fields cannot get rid of the ball quickly; it’s merely an acknowledgment that he’ll have to, and that maybe that isn’t the best option for him. Dalton has always been a player who relied on a timely release and had offenses built around this advantageous trait. Fields is sturdy and mobile, with better arm strength and markedly better pocket tools to help him evade the rush. Will Fields bail too quickly when the pass rush mounts? Will he get too risk-averse in an offense built for Dalton, thus negating his best qualities as a passer? What happens on the snaps that Peters is clearly dusted off the snap by a speed rusher like Myles Garrett?

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If the Bears had a potent Fields-specific offense ready and beta tested, we wouldn’t be talking about Dalton coming back. If Chicago felt good about its offensive line, we wouldn’t have been talking about Dalton in the first place. If Nagy is still so concerned about the development of his quarterback that he’ll reinsert Dalton once Dalton is healthy, then Fields doesn’t belong in the huddle Sunday for his own protection. This is especially true when considering the Bears have Nick Foles just sitting on the bench.

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Quarterback development is a delicate path. We’ve seen presumed ruined passers, like Ryan Tannehill and now possibly Sam Darnold, find second lives elsewhere. We’ve also seen others holding clipboards, incapable of erasing the bad habits drilled into their bodies during frantic periods such as this. The Bears are 1–1 and see an opportunity to stay afloat in their division with the Lions’ and Vikings’ reeling. Fields represents an advantage in that there is little tape available on him in Nagy’s offense outside of the preseason. Perhaps the early versions of Nagy’s vision will be displayed Sunday, providing a slight schematic edge over what he’d get from Foles.

But there’s also this: As much as we hated Nagy’s decision, lampooned it and wished Fields—like Mac Jones, Zach Wilson or Trevor Lawrence—was handed the offense at the start of the summer, maybe this is one of the few times a coach was right to slow-play it. We know, we can hear Nagy’s eyes roll from here. That’s the thing about getting what you wish for and having it come true. It could always come at a cost.

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