As of right now, three of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft are starting: Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville (1), Zach Wilson in New York (2), and Mac Jones in New England (15). All three of them were chosen to take over as the starting QBs for their respective teams because they had proven themselves more capable of winning football games than any other QB their teams had at the time. This doesn’t have anything to do with Cam Newton being released or Gardner Minshew being traded, but it does shine a light on Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears.
For some incomprehensible reason, Andy Dalton is still the starter in the Windy City, even though Justin Fields (11) has proven himself a much more dynamic signal-caller throughout the preseason. Why? At the very least, playing Justin Fields throughout the first few weeks of the season would give the team an understanding of whether or not Fields could lead the Bears to the postseason for a second consecutive year. By playing Andy Dalton, the Bears do not gain that understanding.
I’ve heard the argument that the Bears’ schedule provides reason to start Dalton. Fans have already seen enough of Justin Fields getting blown up behind the line.
There’s no reason to put Fields out there Week 1 against Aaron Donald and the LA Rams defense. Not to mention that throughout the team’s first four weeks — @LAR, CIN, @CLE, DET — the best most people could see the Bears going is 2-2. The worst most could see them going is 1-3. If giving Fields a few weeks to sit back and learn the system a little more means the future of your franchise gets to avoid Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett (plus it wouldn’t make too much of a difference record-wise whether or not they started Fields), then by all means, rest your guy.
However, I can’t shake the feeling out of my head that there’s more to this than meets the eye. Matt Nagy is on the hot seat in 2021. Personally, I never thought he was a terrible coach. From what I’d seen, I thought he still had some great assets to offer the Bears. However, I know he has not used some of his players to their potential, and for that, he should take all the blame. Nonetheless, with Nagy on the hot seat, he will be pulling out all the stops in an attempt to keep his job. Yet, even when he does pull out all the stops, if the Bears don’t start performing to the level the fans and front office expect, Nagy will be gone quicker than a flat-earther at a science museum.
That’s where Andy Dalton comes in. Andy Dalton is Matt Nagy’s ace up his sleeve. Obviously, the team doesn’t have much to gain or lose from starting Dalton in Weeks 1-4, but the fans and NFL viewers will be able to tell whether or not the Bears’ offense looks up to snuff in those weeks. If they play poorly (which, let’s be honest, is going to happen with Dalton under center), then Nagy can backpedal and say, “Woah. Woah. Woah. Don’t blame me. We’re not even playing with our best quarterback. Give me a chance to prove myself with a full-strength squad.”
Now, you’re probably thinking: “Sure, but if the team doesn’t perform well with Fields then Nagy will still be gone.” Correct, but it buys Nagy time. Those few extra weeks that Nagy could earn from starting Dalton in the first few games not only gives Nagy more opportunity to figure out what he’s doing wrong, it could also give Nagy just enough leeway to start turning things around midseason and earn the fanbase’s and front office’s trust once again. It has nothing to do with money. NFL coaches retain all of their salary when they get fired, but keeping their jobs so they can earn more money down the line? Now, that’s a benefit that Nagy stands to gain.
I understand that Nagy told Dalton he’d be the starter when he signed on with the team. Nagy made a promise, and he does not intend to go back on that promise, but if Nagy really believed that Fields could give the Bears a better shot at winning (like most people do), he’d break that promise so fast. Dalton is a pro. He’s an NFL veteran. He knows that the NFL is a business. He knows the unfortunate realities of it. He has no legacy in Chicago, no reason for Bears fans to want to see him. Furthermore, I’m sure he’d actually have some weight lifted by becoming the backup. I know Dalton wants to prove he can still start in the NFL, but by taking him out of that role, the pressure of success is lifted from his shoulders, and he still gets to keep the money he signed for: $10 million in March. That’s over twice what the average NFL backup makes, according to BoardRoom. He’d earn eight figures to sit on a bench, and Nagy thinks Dalton would be upset at that? Come on now.
Of course, all that reasoning gets thrown out the window as soon as exterior motives come into play, just as I’ve been insinuating. From strictly a winning football standpoint, Nagy has no reason to sit Fields in Week 1. Sure, we haven’t seen him in an NFL game that matters, and maybe he won’t look as good against defenses actually disguising their coverages, but we won’t know that until he plays in the games.
If Nagy thinks even a little bit that Fields gives his team a better chance at winning against Cleveland or Los Angeles than Andy Dalton, he needs to play Fields. If he doesn’t, then I don’t know what more he needs to see Fields do. Perhaps Nagy’s experience as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City is playing a factor in this decision. He watched Patrick Mahomes develop into the quarterback he is today after a year under the tutelage of Alex Smith. However, trying to duplicate Patrick Mahomes seems like a fool’s errand. The Bears have playoff aspirations this season. Dalton is not someone who will meet those aspirations, and Matt Nagy knows it.