If somebody were to point at where Matt Nagy ultimately got himself fired last season, most would say it was his handling of the Justin Fields situation. Everything about it, from start to finish, reeked of somebody who claimed he had a plan but didn’t have one. The former Chicago Bears head coach insisted from the start he intended to sit Fields for the 2021 season, similar to what the Kansas City Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes.
That sounds fine on paper. The only problem is Nagy never gave himself a Plan B. Everything was set in stone. Andy Dalton was the starter. Fields was the backup. He was so dead set on this that he even didn’t give the rookie reps with the 1st-team offense in training camp. Yet, despite this stance, he never made it clear who the team leader was supposed to be. That made matters even worse when Dalton injured his knee in Week 2, forcing Fields into the lineup.
Another confused, miserable season for the Bears’ passing game followed.
One would think Fields has moved on from that experience, but even now, there are signs that Nagy’s handling of him still resonates negatively. During an interview with Bleacher Report, he talked about how different he feels going into his second season. He couldn’t help but admit it was nice to have more clarity this time around. He lamented how Nagy never clarified what his role was supposed to be in 2021.
“I’m more comfortable this year,” he said. “I kind of know what’s coming and know what to expect. … Me not knowing if I’m going to be the leader of the team or not last year compared to this year means a whole different mindset. Just comfortability and knowing that I’m going to be the guy and that this is my team is definitely a different mindset as I try to be a leader for everybody on the team.”
It didn’t end there. Fields also hinted at an apparent lack of freedom he felt in the offense last year. Nagy was notorious for being strict with his system during his tenure, wanting things run a certain way, and not always willing to relinquish control. This was why Fields was often stuck trying to execute an offense meant for Dalton more than him. This year, he plans to seize much more control over how things operate on the field.
“Be a coach on the field,” he said when asked about his biggest individual goal of the offseason. “Of course we have a new offense this year, and the only person who really knows the whole offense is the offensive coordinator. Even the coaches are learning the offense. Just being a coach on the field and being able to control everything and have everything going smoothly out there.”
Justin Fields seems to have learned some harsh lessons.
Ben Roethlisberger once told Mitch Trubisky before joining the Bears that he should take control of his own career. It was good advice, meaning the young QB must do what he thinks is right when the situations warranted it. Trubisky never seemed to heed that advice until it was too late. He was a good soldier, trying to do what Nagy wanted. When he finally realized it wasn’t working, their relationship was already starting to fracture.
From the way Justin Fields speaks, he is learning the same thing Roethlisberger did. Playing within the offense is important, but he also has to make it his own. The best quarterbacks in the NFL seize control of the offense. Everything goes through them. Coaches may call the plays, but the quarterbacks make the reads and checks at the line to make it work. That is where Fields wants to get, and he’s been studying like mad to reach that goal.
His progress has impressed everybody thus far.
People talk about Matt Eberflus and his staff having to fix the damage done by Nagy last year. While that is true, Fields intends never to let himself get put in that position again. He’s taking over the locker room as a leader, and he aims to master the new offense before everybody else. Stand in his way if you dare.