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Matt Nagy Set Up Justin Fields to Fail

The Bears’ disastrous offensive performance wasn’t just the result of a rookie quarterback learning the ropes—it was the byproduct of an offensive play-caller stubbornly trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. For Chicago to get better, Nagy needs to play to Fields’s strengths.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I, obviously, as the head coach did not do a good enough job of getting this offense ready to go to be able to play a football game. It starts with me, it ends with me, and it’s as simple as that.”

That’s Bears head coach Matt Nagy speaking after a truly historic loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Bears’ 1.1 yards per play was the lowest number of any team since 2004; their total offensive output—a towering 47 yards—was tied for the second-lowest number this millennium. Rookie QB Justin Fields, in his first career start, completed six passes and took nine sacks—just the third time that a player has completed six or fewer passes and taken nine or more sacks since 1970.

While Nagy’s sweeping assumption of responsibility is admirable, it’s worth noting that it takes a village to play as badly as the Bears offense did on Sunday. A lot of bad tackles have played in the NFL—nine sacks is still an absurd number. A lot of rookie quarterbacks have struggled in their first start—and most of them still produced more than 1 net passing yard. Justin Fields, Jason Peters, Matt Nagy, Allen Robinson—nobody’s lacking for fault in that debacle. Chicago is a blame pie, and everybody gets a piece.

But Nagy is correct in the sense that he’ll get the majority of the focus. Now in his fourth year as the Bears’ head coach, the offensive output of Nagy’s teams has been getting progressively worse since his debut season. His seat was hot entering the offseason, but with a new rookie quarterback in Fields, he had the opportunity to turn things around. Nobody had more riding on Sunday’s performance than Nagy—not even Fields, who, in his first start, was expected make mistakes no matter what—and accordingly, nobody face-planted harder.

Nagy’s offense looked like it was designed for some other quarterback—any other quarterback—besides Fields. The book on Fields out of Ohio State showed a Russell Wilson–like quarterback. He held on to the ball longer than you’d like, and invited pressure by doing so. He believed unfailingly in his ability to escape that pressure, and took some boneheaded sacks—but he also made some spectacular plays. Fields has a rocket arm and a gorgeous deep ball, and while he was often criticized for birddogging his first read, that criticism wasn’t fair; my charting showed that he got beyond his first read more than any other quarterback in the 2020 class.

Any offense designed around Fields should look to establish the deep passing game with posts, go balls, and deep digs and crossers. Those routes take time, so with play-action fakes, you could open up the intermediate middle of the field for those digs and crossers while simultaneously slowing down the pass rush; by moving Fields’s launch point with rollouts and sprint outs, you could further take the teeth out of the pass rush while giving Fields the ability to become his own checkdown by tucking the football. By using the QB running game deliberately—Fields is 230 pounds and runs a 4.44-second 40-yard dash—you could replace the quick passing game with a varied rushing attack, which would then buttress your play-action shots.

This model is not hard to construct—and there’s already a blueprint for it. Dive into the Ohio State passing offense in 2020, and you’ll see the groundwork. Fields was PFF’s top-graded passer to the intermediate area of the field (10 to 19 yards), and the 12th-graded passer deep (20-plus)—his adjusted completion percentages ranked second and tied for seventh, respectively. But again: Deep passes take time. Fields averaged 3.11 seconds before throwing the football, tied for fourth longest in the country; when under pressure, that number jumped to 4.10 seconds, and Fields was sacked on 25 percent of those pressures.

Ohio State knew what they had—a talented and explosive player whose amazing plays came with occasional cost. They maximized Fields by working their wide-zone and split-zone running games into play-action series that would let Fields attack downfield while helping protect him during his prolonged dropbacks. That’s how the Buckeyes got highlights like this throw against Rutgers: a play-action hole shot against Cover 2, with two extra blockers in to help protection.

Or this deep over against Nebraska off of split-zone action, with the tight end securing the edge in pass protection.

Or here, when the threat of Fields rolling out pulled the defense away from the tight end leaking to the other side of the field.

All of those designs fit the bill for Fields: They use backfield activity, whether a play-action fake or rollout or both, to slow down the pass rush. Then, they take advantage of Fields’s ludicrous arm strength and accuracy to rip off chunk gains. Why didn’t we see any of that from the Bears?

Well … we did. Just not on Sunday. Here’s Justin Fields’s preseason touchdown pass to TE Jesse James. This is also a TE leak idea, though here James gets much further downfield. But the same basic ideas—play-action fake, roll Fields out, push the ball downfield—apply.

And that deep over route? Two weeks ago, in his limited action against the Bengals, Fields hit Darnell Mooney in the hands on that same route twice—once with an under-center, split zone, play-action dropback. He threw a great ball off of a no-huddle tempo, too—that’s something the Bears need to continue utilizing with Fields.

And finally, that deep shot? The Bears went for a max-protect pylon bomb to Allen Robinson against the Bengals and nearly connected for a touchdown.

So the question for Nagy’s game plan against Cleveland isn’t “Where’s all the good stuff?” Rather, it’s “Where did all the good stuff … go?”

Unless an intern accidentally printed out the Andy Dalton call sheet for Nagy on Sunday, the Bears simply seemed determined to fit a square peg into a round hole by forcing Fields to become a quick-game passer overnight. They ran routes just to the sticks, asking Fields to pick his favorite matchup in isolation instead of stressing defenses with multiple levels of routes. They barely ran any intermediate breaking routes at all, favoring underneath curls on one play and all vertical stems on the next play. They lived in empty sets and asked a weak receiving corps to win, head-up, against a really good secondary.

It didn’t work.

Of course it didn’t work. Here, on third-and-8, Fields is waiting in an empty backfield for Cole Kmet to uncover against Ronnie Harrison II—Kmet gets blanketed, and before Fields can look elsewhere, pressure is in his lap. He almost escapes, and is sacked.

This design pretty much offers nothing but pre-snap choice for Fields. He can take Kmet on the crosser against Harrison, Robinson in the slot against Grant Delpit, or the deep comeback to the top of the screen. He can only pick one, because they’re all developing at the exact same time—he can’t progress from one, to two, to three—and if the first one is covered, pressure is pretty much inevitable given the quality of the offensive line.

This was the common thread in Nagy’s plan of attack on Sunday. Here’s another snap with an empty backfield and four-down defensive linemen from the Browns. Fields wants Darnell Mooney, ostensibly the Bears’ second-best receiver, on a slant against a linebacker in Malcolm Smith. He could take either of the out-breaking routes to the bottom of the screen—and arguably should, given the advantage in pre-snap leverage—but he wants the mismatch, and when Mooney is gloved up by Smith, he has no choice but to try and deliver the ball: Once again, there’s pressure in his face.

That Fields likely picked the wrong side of the field to attack here is really important. When Nagy talks about Fields not being ready—when we talk about our blame pie, and how everyone has a piece—this is what Fields must focus on. If you’re going to win as a quick-game distributor, you have to pick the correct pre-snap matchup with remarkable success.

But Fields has never been an elite quick-game passer, and his traits don’t lend themselves to that type of quarterbacking. He’s got an elongated release; he likes to hold the football and extend plays. Nagy could say Fields is in the wrong on this play—and while he’d technically be correct, Nagy is also in the wrong for putting him in this situation. It is naive to believe that Fields could drastically alter his play speed and improve his decision-making process to fit this archetype of the empty-backfield, quick-game passer in a few short months of NFL tutelage in his first NFL start.

The idea that the quick game was necessary because it was the only possible plug for a leaky offensive line is also embarrassingly simple and shortsighted. Fields was rarely used on designed rollouts and sprint outs against the Browns, which would have offered the double bonus of relieving the offensive line’s burden while also opening up deep throws. Plays like this dropback on second-and-8 should have comprised the majority of Fields’s dropbacks, as the called rollout lets Fields know he needs to beat free rushers with his legs before the play even begins. Marquise Goodwin uncovers on the deep comeback, but doesn’t continue working back for the football as Fields is late to throw because of the pressure created by Jadeveon Clowney. As Goodwin waits for the ball to arrive, the defensive back recovers, and breaks up the pass.

The rollout and sprint out series of the playbook likely wasn’t featured because the Bears seem rather raw there in terms of execution. Jesse James was the blocker who released Clowney there, and he likely did it a tick sooner than he should have.

On this naked rollout to the left, Robinson is too quick to get into his curl route at the top of the screen, while Mooney decides to run into John Johnson III instead of releasing past him into open space. Fields is able to create a first-down throw to Robinson, proving the point: Even if these plays aren’t executed well, they can become positive gains for the offense because they immediately put Fields into scramble mode, instead of first asking him to cosplay as the quick-game, pocket-passing, nickel-and-diming quarterback that he’s never been or will be.

Does a script based off of rollouts and improvisation look pretty on the call sheet? Absolutely not. But there’s no chapter in the playbook written for the game in which your rookie QB is making his first career start and the majority of your offensive linemen wouldn’t start on most other teams. In the face of significant limiting factors, Nagy decided to do what all bad coaches do: run his offense, come hell or high water.

Even if Nagy had put Fields in a position to succeed, I don’t think the rookie would have won this game for Chicago. He still would have taken a lot of sacks, and missed a few quick game throws—because that’s what he’s always done. But for whatever reason, Nagy met an insurmountable challenge with rigid obstinance, and his offense was appropriately punished.

But how much more punishment can Chicago take? Andy Dalton, still recovering from a knee injury, is likely out for another week, and Nagy’s faced with more unanswerable questions. Does he shelve the star rookie QB with a phantom injury (Fields hurt his throwing hand near the end of the game but his X-rays came back negative) and leave him stewing over his one, disastrous career start? Or does he give him the same forsaken game plan against the Lions and hope things look better against a worse defense? Early, positive momentum is critical for a rookie’s career arc, and the Bears are already in danger of placing Fields behind the eight ball by putting him in an offense that has neither the personnel nor the designer to promote his development.

Everything was bad for the Bears on Sunday. It’ll get better because it literally cannot get worse. But the agent for actual, impactful change won’t be the rookie quarterback, or the 39-year-old free agent addition, or the second-year, fifth-round wide receiver. It must be the head coach, retained for this season on the promise that things would get better. It starts with him, it ends with him, and it’s as simple as that.