On Sunday, Chicago Bears fans got their wish. Justin Fields got his shot as a starting NFL quarterback, and all seemed right in the world.
By game’s end, a humiliating 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns, those wishes turned to nightmares. The harrowing reality that a quarterback change isn’t a cure-all was one takeaway. The other is that a quarterback change also doesn’t mean any deviation from “the system.” That might be the most sobering reality that came out of the game.
Will it change?
Bears head coach Matt Nagy warned us all along that Fields was not ready, and to his credit the coach was probably right. Running Nagy’s plays, the first-round QB was battered to the tune of 15 hits and nine sacks (the most taken by a QB since 2015) on 29 dropbacks. Fields completed only 6 of his 20 passes.
After the game, Fields had X-rays on his throwing hand. The tests came back negative, which you'd assume was a good thing. But Nagy wasn’t yet ready to give an update on Fields’ status for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, and de facto starter Andy Dalton remains "week to week." (The Bears are 3.5-point favorites, per BetMGM.)
The Bears finished Sunday with 1 net passing yard and six first downs. Two of those first downs came via Browns penalties. Cleveland had more than twice as many penalty yards (96) than the Bears had, uhh, yards of offense (47).
“You almost can’t make it up,” Nagy said after the loss. “It was that bad.”
It really boils down to this: If Nagy wants to keep his job, and the Bears want to see Fields develop, the coach needs to stand down as the team’s play-caller.
If not, Nagy risks running himself out of town. He can milk his winning record (now 29-21 after the Bears’ 1-2 start) for only so long before the wolves circle in closer. That winning percentage won't magically stay north of .500 forever. This can’t be about ego or pride and must start being about self-preservation — for himself and the talent he was all but begging the Bears to find after the Mitchell Trubisky experiment went south.
“I obviously did not do a good enough job of getting this offense ready to go,” Nagy said. “So it starts with me, ends with me and it’s as simple as that.”
If Nagy is to heed his own words, he needs to be the head coach, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor the play-caller and Fields can then be evaluated through the proper lens. Maybe only then will we start to have an idea what Fields can do in this league. Otherwise, Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace could soon be watching their handpicked savior being coached by someone else next season.
Asked Monday morning what changes he’s considering, Nagy kept it wide open.
“We’re looking at everything now, I think that’s being completely honest with you,” Nagy said.
“We have to figure it out and we have to figure it out fast.”
Does that mean someone else might be calling plays Sunday?
“Again, just to keep it super simple: Everything is on the table,” Nagy said. “That’s probably the easiest way to put it.”
Will Matt Nagy willingly give up his football 'love'?
This is no easy ask. Nor is it a perfect fix. Nagy turning over play-calling to Lazor, as the Bears did for a spell last season, can achieve only so much.
In doing so, the Bears’ much-maligned offensive line isn’t suddenly going to morph into the firm of Van Horne, Covert, Bortz and Hilgenberg overnight. The receivers not named Allen Robinson aren’t immediately transformed into natural separators and chain movers. The tight ends aren’t going to become replicas of what Nagy had when he cut his coaching teeth in Philadelphia and Kansas City.
Therein lies the issue. Nagy acts like he has those things. He calls plays like he has a war machine. He doesn’t. He has a Ferrari motor with a dented frame, bad rubber and poor steering. They can barely stay between the lines with that.
Nagy has always run his system, and it has always been my biggest gripe with him as a coach. Play-callers need to be malleable. They must mold their offense to the talent that’s on the field. Plays are just plays — X’s and O’s on a whiteboard or a tablet — if they’re not tailored to the best 11’s strengths.
As hard as it might be to let go, the coach who wallpapered his Chicago-area basement with play-call sheets needs to hand the Denny’s menu over to someone else.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than with the Baltimore Ravens when they had Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson. They ran two different offenses, depending on who was at quarterback. It’s an extreme example, but it’s applicable to what’s happening in Chicago.
What works moderately well for Dalton doesn’t necessarily fly for Fields, and vice versa.
Why was Fields not asked to roll out more? I counted four true rollouts in the game.
Anyone remember any read-option plays of note? Any designed QB runs? Maybe a handful at most.
Early on, there were only a handful of RPOs. A few more came later, but by then the damage was done.
And as for the pass protection, well, it was an abomination. There were maybe two max-protect schemes all game. That’s borderline criminal based on what we saw.
These are where Fields can thrive, or at the very least, grow.
Bears risk losing Justin Fields' (and everyone else's) confidence
After Sunday’s loss, Fields seemed to be staring into the abyss, fearful of what was staring back, even while saying all the right things about how he’ll improve.
“Kind of like, you’re in a dark place,” Fields said. “You just want to do everything you can to just get a win, like no matter what it is. Like no matter how long I have to stay in the facility and no matter what, you just want to come out and after the game on Sunday, you just want to come out with a win, no matter what you have to do.”
It has to be demoralizing for anyone in the Bears’ locker room, and it’s especially undermining for Nagy when the opponent is questioning his gameplan. The Bears surprised the Browns on their first offensive drive. They asked Fields to drop back and throw from the pocket, much as they had Dalton before he got hurt.
Gifted with great field position, the Bears gained 24 yards on five plays, then opted for a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Cleveland 29-yard line. It ended up being their second-best drive of the game.
If your quarterback isn't ready to run the offense the starter was, then change the offense. It's painfully elementary, but it must be said again.
The Browns weren’t about to question what Nagy was doing. Certainly not Myles Garrett, who turned in a career-high 4.5 sacks as a result. His postgame comments delivered another blow to the Bears, well after the final whistle.
“After [the Bears’ first drive], I think we kind of settled in and saw how they planned to use the flow of the game,” Garrett said. “It kind of came to us easily after the second possession and [we] kind of figured out what they were going to do and how we were going to adjust to that.”
Now it’s Nagy’s turn to adjust. He can’t keep playing the album cuts in Muzak form. The Bears need a hit — and fast.
Why Bill Lazor might keep offense on life support
Quietly in April, Nagy let everyone know he was reclaiming play-calling duties. Why? Lazor was implemented as the play-caller last November against the Vikings and held that responsibility through the end of the season.
The Bears scored five of their seven best point totals of the season with Lazor calling plays for Trubisky. The offensive line wasn’t so hot last year either. The change seemed to help. Trubisky completed more than 70% of his passes and took 11 sacks with six games of Lazor calling plays. In three games last season with Nagy calling plays, Trubisky was below 60% completions and took seven sacks.
Nagy has admitted he’s a Type-A personality. Many coaches are this way, unsurprisingly. They’re planners and crafters. They’re often the front-of-the-line leaders. This also helps them land head-coaching jobs, being this level of controlling and exacting. It also can help them lose said jobs if they’re not mindful of the big picture.
Nagy doesn’t care for others’ hands being put on his offense, his baby. We get it. Nagy was hailed as an offensive savant; it’s why he got the job in the first place. But part of coaching is delegating and doing what’s best for the team. Nagy seemed to recognize the necessity in it last year when the Bears’ offense was scuttling while also admitting how tough ceding those duties was.
“Is it hard to do? Absolutely," Nagy said last year in Week 10. "I'd be lying to every one of you guys if I told you that this is easy. It's not easy.
“It's one of my favorite parts of coaching. I love calling plays. I love it. I love it. … But guess what? If this is what's best for the team, then that's what I'm gonna do. We need to do what's best for us, not what's best for Matt Nagy."
After Week 1, when Fields played five snaps as a change-of-pace option, Lazor was asked why Fields hadn’t received more time.
“I think [Nagy] has probably addressed what his philosophy is on the quarterback position,” Lazor said. “I don’t think that’s any different. I don’t think there’s any reason for me to answer that.”
After Fields replaced an injured Dalton against the Bengals in Week 2, it was clear the rookie still had limitations. But they had little choice but to turn over the keys to him.
Nagy’s comments last week — while perhaps taken too hysterically by some fans and media — still sounded like a coach who was too obtuse to handle Fields’ precious development, even if we suspect Nagy’s quote was meant to be a friendly little nugget for the media. It had the complete opposite effect.
“We’re learning, too,” Nagy said. “This week, with [Fields] getting all the reps in practice, there’s things that we’re seeing that maybe we didn’t see in the first two weeks because he wasn’t getting those [first-team] reps.”
Is letting Lazor call plays going to be a magic salve? It would be foolish to tout it as the lone panacea. But it feels like it would be insane not to let someone else give it a try, short of Nagy changing his stripes.
One way or another, the wallpaper needs changing before the house comes crumbling down.