Justin Fields suffered through the Matt Nagy era as we all did. Here’s how the new-look Bears can get more from their young quarterback.
There are times when rookie quarterbacks enter the NFL, and the entire deck is stacked against them. Some are able to overcome it, and some really aren’t. Bert Jones of the Baltimore Colts threw four touchdowns to 12 interceptions in his rookie season of 1973, became the only rookie quarterback ever to post a negative and went on to become one of the NFL’s most dynamic passers in the later part of the decade — Jones was John Elway before John Elway to a degree. Terry Bradshaw threw six touchdowns to 24 interceptions in his rookie season of 1970, and it took a number of years before he gained Chuck Noll’s trust and became the Hall of Famer he eventually became. And most of us remember Peyton Manning barfing up 28 picks in his rookie season of 1998 before things eventually turned around in a positive direction.
Rookie yips are pretty common. There are other times when quarterback and coaching staff just don’t work well together, and you get some really bad rookie results. Think of Jared Goff’s 2016 season. The first overall pick was saddled with Jeff Fisher’s coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Rob Boras, and Goff produced some of the worst DVOA (-74.8%) and DYAR (-881) numbers in Football Outsiders’ long history. Not that Goff rebounded to become a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but he did manage to dig himself out of quite a canyon when Sean McVay came calling in 2017.
Moving to the case of Justin Fields, who the Bears selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2021 draft (trading their 2022 first-round pick to move up to do it), we have another situation in which a rookie quarterback was monumentally ill-served by his coaching staff. Fields had to endure all kinds of garbage about his NFL readiness in the pre-draft process — things that are sadly common for most young Black quarterbacks — when his Ohio State tape told a very different story.
On Black quarterbacks, the desire to be great, and the words we use
Once Fields was past all that, he had to deal with a far more tangible obstacle — the involvement of then-Bears head coach and offensive “play-designer” Matt Nagy. Nagy refused to let Fields play in the preseason with the starters, did all he could to promote Andy Dalton of Fields as the starter, and saddled the rookie with game designs that betrayed a stunning ignorance of Fields’ specific skills.
This would be one example — a bit of research I came across when I was writing this year’s “Best NFL quarterbacks for every type of throw” piece.
Fields showed that he was an adept passer outside the pocket, so Nagy didn’t let him do it. Fields was far better than Dalton when under pressure, and Nagy ignored it. Fields was far more dynamic when given the benefit of play-action, so, of course, he was barely ever given the benefit of it. Fields’ passer rating with pre-snap motion of 96.6 was far higher than his 63.7 passer rating without it, so guess what didn’t happen as often as it should have?
The only time Fields had any opportunity to do what he’s able to do in 2021 was when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor took the reins for a short time… and then, Nagy took them back.
Bears QB Justin Fields shows what can be done with a real play-caller
The Bears have never fired a head coach in-season in a franchise history that goes back to 1920, and Nagy should have been the first.
Now that Nagy is mercifully gone, replaced by former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus (and new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy), it’s time for Fields to be given even half a chance to succeed in the NFL after a season in which he was doomed before he ever walked into Halas Hall.
Not that Getsy needs our advice, but here are a few things he might want to consider.
(All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated).