Nagy is using Fields in a “gadget” role with Andy Dalton entrenched as the starter. While every snap he takes is a good thing for the Bears, he’s capable of much more than that.
It’s clear, at least for now, that Matt Nagy remains committed to Andy Dalton as the Bears’ starting quarterback. For as long as that’s the case, don’t expect to see rookie Justin Fields’ part grow much beyond the isolated opportunities.
He’s not on a planned progression, for example, of playing five snaps against the Rams, then 10 or so Sunday against the Bengals and so on until he inevitably takes over for Dalton permanently.
That means Nagy is using him firstly as a strategic piece within the game plan, as opposed to getting Fields increasingly involved specifically for the sake of his development. How much Fields plays will hinge significantly on how well those plays work.
The more common, albeit less respectful, way to describe it is that he’s being used as a gimmick or gadget player.
“You’re careful with the success or failure that you have with those plays,” Nagy said Thursday. “You don’t want multiple plays of it not being good because it could mess with [Fields’] mentality. If you have positive plays and you have a touchdown like he had, then those are good because it’s a building block for him.”
So it’s a mix of the two purposes, but with the clarity that it’s still Dalton’s show and Fields’ appearances will be limited to cameos. Every snap Fields takes is a good thing for the Bears, but Nagy isn’t going to give him those purely for growth.
The results from his debut should prompt Nagy to keep building out his role.
Fields threw a nine-yard pass on the opening possession to get the Bears to the Rams’ 3-yard line before they self-destructed with a Cole Kmet false start and Dalton’s interception in the end zone.
Nagy used him as a decoy on an end-around to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin that lost two yards late in the first quarter and gave him a read-option on David Montgomery’s five-yard run to open the fourth.
Fields also had a one-yard pass to Allen Robinson in the red zone in the third and outraced everyone to the right corner of the end zone on a run-pass option for a three-yard touchdown a few plays later.
The run-pass option is where he brings a completely different dynamic to the offense compared to Dalton, who has no intention of outrunning anybody and asked Fields in training camp, “‘What’s it feel like to run a 4.4?’”
But it’s not just his elite speed. Fields has an incredibly strong and accurate arm with the potential to open up the deep passing game more than Dalton.
The combination of all those abilities makes him unpredictable, which has not been said of a Bears quarterback in a long time.
That makes it difficult to understand why Nagy won’t budge, but he still believes Dalton is more capable of running the offense and that observing is a crucial part of Fields’ education.
“We know he’s the future of this team,” Nagy said. “Every snap he gets, it helps him for the future… But we can help him with practice and what he’s doing there.”
In the meantime, Fields seems to be doing well with his jobs of running the scout team against the Bears’ starting defense — “He is going out to try to rip people’s hearts out in practice,” Nagy said — and prepping for a limited set of plays on game days.
“I was just trying to do my best at practice and pretty much torch our defense,” he said. “I’m definitely taking every rep seriously and trying to get better every play, and whatever scout team play that they have, I try to kind of correlate it to our playbook and try to read it like our offense. I’m getting good work with those guys.”
Nagy mentioned that it was also valuable to get Fields “under the lights” for the first time, but acknowledged that he was as ready as any rookie could be after playing at Ohio State. He played more playoff games the last two seasons than the Bears.
None of this has ever seemed overwhelming to him. After his first preseason game, he remarked that everything moved slower than he expected. When Bills linebacker Andre Smith hit him so hard that his helmet bounced 15 yards, he brushed it off as a lesson and called it “a simple correction.”
He showed more of that poise in his first regular-season, even with the unnatural arrangement of coming in mid-drive for one play, then exiting.
“He’s focused, completely focused on being a pro,” said veteran tight end Jimmy Graham, who drew parallels between Fields and Russell Wilson during training camp. “It’s interesting to see, especially in his first game, how calm he is. Even in the pre-game, just how relaxed he is throwing the ball is pretty impressive to see.”
That’s a good sign for the Bears’ future, as Nagy noted, but the more we see from Fields, the more waiting until then seems unnecessary. Sure he helps as a gadget player now, but he’s capable of much more.