CHICAGO — I realize the last thing voracious Justin Fields fans will want to hear this morning, after seeing him have a B or B-plus preseason opener Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field, is that he might not play much this year. I really have no idea how much he’ll play, or when he’ll take over for Andy Dalton, if he does. That’s because it’s unknowable right now.
But a few notes about how much various quarterbacks who debuted in this century played as rookies:
• TOM BRADY. Mopped up in one game as a rookie in 2000. Threw three passes all year. Second on the all-time passing-yards list.
• DREW BREES. Played in one game as a Charger in 2001, completing 15 of 27 throws. First on the all-time passing-yards list.
• CARSON PALMER. The first pick in the 2003 draft didn’t play a snap till 2004. Ended up throwing for more yards than Dan Fouts and Joe Montana.
• AARON RODGERS. Threw 16 passes as a 2005 rookie. Didn’t start a game till his fourth season, 2008.
• PATRICK MAHOMES. Played one game as a 2017 rookie behind Alex Smith in Kansas City. Won it. Carried the clipboard for the rest of his five rookie months.
“And,” said the offensive coordinator of that 2017 Kansas City team, Matt Nagy, “I was in that meeting room every day for those meetings. I saw how Patrick earned Alex’s trust. What I mean by that is like from the start, we would watch tape and Alex would ask me and Alex would ask [backup] Tyler Bray what we thought about the certain coverage that we saw against the defense. He’d ask us. He wouldn’t ask Patrick. He didn’t trust Patrick yet. By about Week 10, he was asking Patrick. ‘Patrick, what do you think they’re doing right there?’ That’s trust. He earned that. That red-shirt year was so huge for Patrick’s development. He grew in practice. He really grew in the meeting rooms.”
It’s folly to suggest Mahomes would been an incompetent player as a rookie. Lots of quarterbacks play as a rookie and prosper. But Andy Reid’s plan with the best young quarterback in football—sit Mahomes, play a good vet in 2017—sure looks good now.
I met Nagy at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Bears’ hotel, four hours before they kicked off the preseason against Miami. Nice opening performance for the 11th pick in the draft, Fields, who played about two quarters and completed 14 of 20 passes and threw for one TD.
The topic: When to play Fields, how long to stick with Andy Dalton, and when exactly to move on to the future.
The answer: Unknowable, as of 8 a.m. on this morning, Aug. 14, 2021. Whatever happens, Nagy says, will happen organically. And he’s at peace with that.
But he also has a riff: He’ll be darned if he puts Fields in the lineup before he’s ready, and before it’s best for the team. Both must be true for Nagy to make the call, barring an injury to Dalton.
“If we play Justin early to satisfy our needs, and not to do what’s best for Justin and the Chicago Bears, we’re going to ruin Justin and hurt the Bears,” Nagy said. “We need to do is what’s best for the Chicago Bears—not only right now but we want this to be something that lasts 15 years. Not two years. See what I’m saying? What happens is, people get stuck in the moment, and they do it to satisfy themselves. I’m gonna do what’s best for Justin Fields. Not for Matt Nagy. People can say the save-your-job deal. Let me tell you how much I care about that part, okay? I don’t. When you start doing things to do things for yourself, you’re wrong. You’re dead wrong. You’re dead wrong. I’m not letting that happen. We are going to develop Justin right, and we’re sticking to it.”
Seems pretty definitive. I like it. Every player’s different. But the last time Nagy had a rookie high pick in his charge was Mahomes, and he sat, and it worked out well. Others have played the first year recently—Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert last year, for instance—and that turned out great for their teams (at least till Burrow tore his ACL in November). But look at the five greats of this century I listed a few paragraphs ago. And don’t tell me the fans are tired of bad quarterback play and deserve a great young player NOW and blah, blah, blah. The Bears need an adult in the room and a 15-year plan that works with a quarterback, finally. We’ll see if this works with Fields, but I can’t see how it’s a bad plan, particularly with a reputable if limited starter, Dalton, likely playing come September.
Nagy must be patient and stick to this plan. For 35 minutes at the dawn of the new season with a franchise quarterback in the saddle, he swore he will.