The chance Justin Fields could start on opening day long ago fell from unlikely to almost impossible with Matt Nagy's reliance on "the plan."
"There will be a process and a plan," Nagy said during offseason work. "We will stick to that. That plan is not going to change tomorrow. The plan is not going to change in training camp."
What Fields' goal has to be is to make it change in preseason. Three preseason games will be critical to making this plan wind up in the same place as Nagy's 200 level offense for Mitchell Trubisky—the NFL trash heap.
Fields has to be spectacular to make this happen, not just good. Instead of moving the team and getting into the end zone, the only way he'll overturn this idea he must undergo weeks of sitting around like Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City is by producing spectacular plays in preseason after he practiced without repeated mistakes in training camp.
Considering the plan exists and Nagy's insistence on it, this might seem a fruitless endeavor. It's not, and a comment he made during the Chris Collinsworth podcast said as much.
This was the interview which started Nagy on the way toward revealing Fields doesn't have a chance to start the opener but that he is the backup immediately over Nick Foles if anything happens to Andy Dalton.
NFL Media columnist and former Sports Illustrated writer Jim Trotter pointed out this comment in a column last week, but it went largely unnoticed as all the Fields backers were still throwing their hands up in disgust over Nagy's stonewalling.
"Andy is our starter," Nagy said on the podcast. "Again, I can't predict anything. You know how it goes. There's so many things that can happen between today and that Week 1, but Andy is our starter and Justin's our No. 2. And we're going to stick to this plan."
As he said, there's so many things that can happen between the end of minicamp and start of the regular season. At least Nagy acknowledged this. He left this opening, and when he spoke with the media covering the team he hadn't acknowledged this.
Here's how Fields could really be convincing to the point where Nagy's plan for opening day could look much different.
1. Go Deep
The Bears offense has been begging for this for three years since Nagy arrived. This 6.5 and 6.6 yards per pass attempt won't do if a team is going to win consistently in the NFL. Dalton won't consistently hit those deep throws, and he's proven it over the last four years as his average yards per attempt have trended steadily downward. So Fields can make a few long passes go a long way.
When Mahomes made his debut he actually had a fairly mediocre day, but one thing he did do in a win to catch coaches' attention was average an outstanding 8.1 yards an attempt.
"It's a beautiful ball, man," Darnell Mooney said in summing Fields' deep passes.
What Fields must do is have a beautiful training camp and preseason.
One thing Dalton won't be able to do is elude the rush to pick up critical or steady yardage with his legs, or to create a completion later in the play by buying time with his feet. Nagy always wanted to see Trubisky do this because of his scrambling ability, but too often Trubisky would look downfield and not see the places where plays were developing. One of Fields' strengths is doing this. His other strength is a 4.4-second time in the 40.
"So he plays quarterback first and then uses his legs second," Nagy said of Fields. "So what happens when you naturally have that, defenses can collapse the pocket and they still can't get you and you extend plays with your legs. That's hard for defensive coordinators. When you become a runner, when they take it away and not just being able to run for 15 or 20 yards but you're able to take it the distance and go for 70 or 80, which he can do, that's a whole other element."
If Fields tosses in a few big passes with that speed between rolling around to buy time and then hitting a receiver to extend drives, it's showing an element Dalton never will possess. Considering the Bears plan to use a rookie left tackle, that mobility could come in mighty handy. Tackle Teven Jenkins wouldn't want it that way, but even if he's effective from day one he's occasionally going to get beat and mobility helps.
"When somebody uses their legs and has the speed that he has, that's a weapon," Nagy said. "And any defensive coordinator that sees that—and he's kind of on a different level because there is like the 4.6 number (in the 40) and then there is the 4.4 number and when you are 4.4 that's on another level and you are going to outrun everybody, really, that’s on that field—that scares defensive coordinators."
Fields needs to really scare some defensive coordinators with his legs and deep passes.
This might seem the easy part to the outsiders looking in at the NFL but to Nagy this is a huge key and it's not easy. It comes through repetition, and this is why they're making Fields send in voice recordings of himself making huddle calls. They want him to be convincing and clear to teammates about his command of the offense.
There is little doubt Dalton has a huge edge at this after a decade in the NFL and 4,782 passes. Still, Dalton is in this offense for the first time. If Fields at least shows he can be acceptable in this regard, know the offense as well as can be expected with the ability to execute the first two areas discussed, he will give coaches the opportunity to make that decision to "trash the plan." After all, if he's acceptable at this, the more he plays then the more he'll improve.
If Fields leaves nothing to chance, lets coaches know when or what he thinks about specific plays or against certain defenses, he'll show them the thought process going on as he's developing. If they know how he's thinking, it's a sure way to get them thinking about trashing the plan.
5. Steady, Incremental ...
The Bears want to see several other things from him Fields normally associated with younger players. Nagy used a familiar term from the Trubisky era: "steady incremental improvement," and said tempo, timing and the ability to "bounce back from any type of good and bad play" are huge for Fields.
The interesting part here is bouncing back from good plays. It's common to see quarterbacks trying to bounce back from bad plays. Fields did it himself in minicamp when he thew a red zone interception to Christian Jones, and immediately was talking with Nagy about it. But trying to bounce back from good plays means not getting overconfident when something works and continuing to focus on execution.