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Why Rookie Quarterbacks Should Consider Trade Demands

Three weeks is too early to know, with certainty, whether an organization will submarine a young QB’s career. But recent history has shown us the consequence of those QBs waiting to say something.

Matt Nagy appeared at his press conference refreshed on Wednesday, saying that the last 72 hours were full of honest and raw conversations between members of the coaching staff with one another, and members of the coaching staff with the players.

“I’m getting tested to see where I’m at with this,” he said.

Nagy struck the correct tone, appearing as humbled and mindful as any coach in the fourth week of a difficult season. Like other coaches, though, he remained expectedly secretive about what kind of changes will come from those revelatory 72 hours, whether he would remain the team’s play caller, whether the conversations lead to changes on the offensive line, or who will be the team’s starting quarterback on Sunday.

As of now, Dalton remains the team’s first-string quarterback, with Fields as the No. 2. Both have injury issues, which could ultimately factor into the decision for Sunday.

Nagy said that he’s not concerned about potentially sitting Fields back on the bench after the quarterback endured one of the most horrific first starts in recent memory. Fields was sacked nine times and completed just six of his 20 passing attempts. Analysts loudly pointed out the number of times Fields was left behind basic, five-man protections despite the rickety state of Chicago’s offensive line and the presence of generational pass rusher Myles Garrett on the other side (Garrett had 4 ½ sacks on his own). It was a game plan that seemed doomed from the beginning. He also intimated that Fields is on board with the direction the franchise is heading in.

These must be heady times for Fields, who got a chaotic taste of the NFL from an on-field perspective and is now seeing its business machinations first hand. Does what happened this week instill confidence?

If it doesn’t, Fields shouldn’t be shy about having raw and honest conversations of his own. In fact, no rookie quarterback should. After watching Fields flounder this week, after watching Zach Wilson toss four picks against the Patriots, after watching Trevor Lawrence try and sling his way through a Madden ’08 offense, it became clear that young quarterbacks should begin to exercise the kind of nomadic powers their veteran counterparts have.

Simply put: If they feel like the ship they’re on is really headed in the right direction, they’ll put their heads down and endure. If they feel like it’s sinking, they should be more inclined to request permission to seek a trade before their careers are irreparably damaged.

Justin Fields looks down at his arm between plays in a game against the Browns

Before dismissing this as some kind of click grab, consider the finite timeline quarterback prospects have to cement their perception around the NFL and how that ultimately affects their ability to attain a second contract that aligns with the top of the market. I would imagine, for example, that even if Sam Darnold continues to play as well as he has for Carolina over the remaining 14 games of this season, he will still be forced to prove his worth once again the following year on his fifth-year option before staging an epic battle for fair, market equivalent wages. The millions he’ll likely lose, along with the number of anonymous NFL types who have now populated and reproduced, whispering about his negative qualities and spreading those biases to other front offices around the NFL, was the tax he paid for patiently trusting that the Jets would eventually take care of him. They did not.

Quarterbacks who wait for the organization to catch up to their skills—as opposed to finding an organization that can already accentuate them—seriously increases the risk of their career washing out before it has the chance to begin. A player has little control over where and when they are drafted, and yet we all unconsciously label them busts when the situation does not work out. In many cases it was not a deficient player, but a coach or general manager unwilling to provide the right system or attain the right complementary personnel.

Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen may be two of the only quarterbacks in recent memory who waded patiently in murky waters before the best possible situation enveloped them, allowing their financial futures to become far more stable than they would have been otherwise. (Mayfield, unfortunately, still has not fully recovered from the errors made during the Freddie Kitchens era and went into this season without a contract extension.) Any team that is bad enough to draft a franchise quarterback is going to have some growing pains, but there is a difference between a stable rebuild and entering Dorothy Gale’s house in the middle of a twister.

Imagine you were a promising grade school student who was accepted into an elite boarding school to prepare you for college. The school had undergone some management changes since its reputation had been established, so it came as a surprise that, on your first day in the classroom, there was simply a man with his boots up on the desk smoking a Parliament light and thumbing through Reddit on his iPhone. After a few minutes of silence, he frisbees a textbook at your head, uses the lit cigarette to light off some fireworks and yells “LEARN IT ALL BEFORE THE SPRINKLER SYSTEM SOAKS YOU TO THE BONE” before running out of the school.

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Would you come back the next day, knowing that four years of this may greatly affect the way top universities think of you? Or, would you make the initially difficult, but ultimately satisfying choice of touring a few more schools and seeing if there’s something better out there?

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This decision would be unpopular with a segment of the NFL, but that would be the same group that wouldn’t be interested in tailoring a scheme to fit a player’s best interests anyway. Fields, Wilson, Lawrence and the rest are also at the dawn of a new era of quarterback empowerment, where the likes of Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have all publicly explored the free-agent space. Sooner or later, these decisions aren’t going to make us flinch as much as they used to. Players want to get paid, have fun and win football games, though for most, one of those components is necessary to fulfill the others. It is up to the franchises to create a hospitable environment conducive for success, just like it is the job of every business, competitive university, social club or piece of software, to start with the basic understanding that, in order for this to work, you’re going to need people to like it and be able to function comfortably with or within it.

Before the Bears named Fields the starter, I wrote that Nagy was right in keeping Dalton as the starter because it was clear that the offensive line could not buoy a rookie quarterback who does not get the ball out of his hands faster than almost any quarterback in the NFL (like Dalton does). And, after watching the Bears get shellacked by the Browns this past weekend, what was said at the time remains true. But Nagy was also wrong in not having a vision for Fields to begin with, or any kind of system in place to protect the quarterback.

This, if I’m Fields, is what would concern me the most. Not that I wasn’t chosen initially, but that when I was, I was thrust into a role designed for a completely different person playing at a completely different level of experience and possessing a completely different set of unique skills. I would also be wondering why there was not a Fields playbook being developed on cocktail napkins the second my franchise turned in the card to select me.

Nagy, like a lot of coaches, alluded to things happening behind the scenes that he won’t get into or that we’ll never understand. There is probably some truth here. Maybe there is a very good reason why some of this did not happen that we cannot know. Maybe a sprinkler alarm is going off and everyone is running around the building.

The reaction to suggesting a player should consider looking at a trade after one poor start will likely be vitriolic, contain some accusation of drumming up controversy and touch the nerve of the “these kids need to toughen up” crowd. But I honestly believe that, in a few years, this won’t be a strange occurrence. Teams will have figured out how to dump dead cap space more effectively. Owners will realize that fans are not going to stop coming, out of protest for some organizational incompetence. (Franchises have done far more twisted and cruel things to their fanbases and still watched as they loyally trudged back to the stadium—perhaps in a different state than it used to be!—every Sunday.) And from the opposite side, accommodating such trades earlier, before the organization diminishes their asset beyond the point of receiving a fair return (hello Cardinals!) will eventually look smarter as well. Plus, from the perspective of ownership, you get to draft another quarterback next year. That is almost always good for someone who pedals hope for a living.

Justin Fields slides down during a game against the Browns

Right now, Fields and some of his fellow rookies have just finished their first day at the fireworks school. They are soaked, sore from where the textbook struck them and are no better equipped to handle the next outing, whenever that might be.

Fields’s options are twofold: Stick it out, which, in Chicago, means dealing with an embattled head coach, a diminished offensive line, the subsequent hiring of a new coach or the turbulent retention of the embattled coach, and all the other issues that almost always contribute to the downward spiral of the quarterback caught in the rapids. We’re not saying that Nagy can’t figure this out. He has become a convenient target to dunk on this week despite lifting some bad teams to the playoffs in the past. He could very well install the Fields offense we’d been waiting for and shake the world off his back, eventually eliminating the confusion as to why it wasn’t utilized in the first place.

The second option is that Fields can start to look at how the rest of the league has worked forever before it’s too late. Coaches almost always have a chance to move on and coach elsewhere, even after sinking a rookie passer. Rookies who underperform high expectations do not. If they do, they are almost permanently relegated to a depth chart basement somewhere.

It’s not unreasonable to want to level the playing field a bit—to stay dry while you can.

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