Head coaches in the NFL have so much on their plate. They’re supposed to be a patient mediator between their assistants and players and a connector between the offense, defense, and special teams. In both victory and defeat, they are the public face with first remarks about how proud they are, how disappointed they are, or how little they have to say that (their belief) wouldn’t give away a competitive advantage. Some coaches, out of insanity or restlessness, sleep on a couch in their office at their team facility multiple nights a week so they can, indeed, get even more work done.
Being a head coach has never been a five-day, 40-hour workweek, punch in and punch out of a job. It never will be. But, despite all those responsibilities, there’s an element of self-preservation that the best coaches have nailed down with no additional stressors. At the same time, the overwhelmed, well, they can only shoot themselves in the foot.
After weeks (months?) of dismay and frustration, Matt Nagy announced that Justin Fields would be the Bears’ starter “moving forward” this week. There was no going back to the steady, unremarkable veteran Andy Dalton after the rookie Fields uncorked several big-time dimes downfield against the Detroit Lions. A week after being besieged by a terrific Browns front, Fields showed exactly why people around the NFL believe he’s a future star and why he deserves to be the starter.
Fields starting was the rational decision. Fields and the full-time reins: A slam dunk. Let him grow into the role, and see what happens. Unless, you overthought it. Unless, you were Nagy. Unless, you entered self-preservation without a second thought.
Nagy could’ve given Fields his full backing weeks ago. He could’ve said, “Justin is our man, and we ride with him for better or worse as he grows up” or something along those lines. No one would have questioned him or batted an eyelash. A complete and hearty endorsement from a head coach can go longer than one thinks, especially for a rookie like Fields, simply trying to get confidence.
But he didn’t. Instead, Nagy spent weeks obfuscating the situation. After Dalton suffered a bone bruise early on in a win over the Bengals, he maintained that the 33-year-old was the starter when healthy. Regardless of what Fields would or could accomplish, Nagy maintained that the Bears were Dalton’s team the moment he could move without restriction, and that was that. Stop asking questions, and disperse. In the process, he only began digging his own coaching grave. Someone, please hand him a shovel.
After almost two months spent deflecting away from Fields’ status as a starter, is Nagy going to get credit the next time Fields looks off a safety and drops a perfect vertical bomb into the bucket 50 yards downfield?
After downplaying Fields’ readiness, for seemingly no reason save for an arbitrary plan that looks worse by the day, is Nagy going to get credit when Fields makes an unblocked defender miss and gets the first down with his 4.40-yard dash legs?
With offensive coordinator Bill Lazor taking over as primary play-caller, despite Nagy insisting “everything runs through him,” is he going to get credit for Fields’ first wire-to-wire, clean sheet, dynamite performance?
No, no, and oh goodness, no.
There’s a reason the fourth-year head coach insisted the Bears’ success was still due to him, despite Lazor calling the shots last Sunday. He saw the writing on the wall and knew Lazor would get the admiration for unlocking the best part of Fields’ game. Nagy was already playing the long game, something a more savvy mind would’ve thought of weeks ago before the damage was done.
If Fields goes on to have an electric rookie year, or if he even shows occasional uncommon flash, no one in Chicago (certainly not) or league circles will believe Nagy is a primary catalyst of his success anymore. By putting a divide between Fields and the starting job for months, hell, by refusing to make a full-time commitment until the fifth week of the season while playing strange political games with the press, Nagy has distanced himself from the quarterback that was supposed to save his job.
And as the Bears head into the next three months of the season with Fields as the starter in tow, Nagy knows he’s fighting uphill. One can’t help but sense the palpable regret.
It was already the case before he took over as the starter, but Fields is now the most important person in the Bears’ organization. He holds the most influence and the most sway in regards to the future of the franchise. The powers that be will literally roll him out a red carpet everywhere he goes if need be while cutting off people like Nagy, who have made themselves dispensable. There is assuredly no shortage of coaches around the league that would love to work with Fields and help him reach his potential, or at least, attach themselves to his hip.
Nagy can take solace in one fact, no matter what happens over the rest of Fields’ rookie year: He is the starting coach when healthy.