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Bears mailbag: Dalton’s leash, Pace and Nagy’s job security

Week 1 has arrived but that hasn’t stopped the questions about Chicago’s immediate future.

Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Week 1 is here. After a month-long training camp and a trio of preseason games, rosters have been shaped, and teams will play real football this week. Better yet, all 32 teams will have 100 percent capacity stadiums (for the time being). The only thing better than football itself is football games with jam-packed stadiums.

For the Bears, the 2021 season starts on the road against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football. It’s not exactly the easiest start to a season, but as we’ve seen, anything can happen in Week 1.

What can we expect from the Bears in 2021? When will Justin Fields start? How long of a play-calling leash does head coach Matt Nagy have?

We answer all of these questions and more in the first edition of this year’s WCG Bears mailbag.

That’s a question a lot of people are wondering to themselves. How long can the Bears survive with Andy Dalton under center?

Here’s what I will say: I think the Bears have a real chance to finish out the first quarter of the season at 2-2. They face the Rams and Cleveland Browns on the road but will have the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions at home. Both home games feel very winnable, but the two road games appear to be the tough tasks at hand.

If the Bears can find a way to come out of the first four games with a winning record, I’d say that’s a good sign for the season. Per Football Outsiders, they have the hardest projected schedule in the league for 2021. These projections are somewhat meaningless because games haven’t yet been played, but Football Outsiders doesn’t just use 2020 records to make their calculations. It also shows that the Bears don’t have many easy patches in their schedule, which means a strong start is needed to compete for a playoff spot.

I expect 2-2, which may be enough to keep Dalton’s job. Anything below that, and Justin Fields might be seeing some early action. Even if they start 2-2, the schedule only projects to get harder from there. Dalton has his work cut out for him to start all 17 games, assuming he stays healthy.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Matt Nagy wants to compare the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs’ situation with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes, but the two aren’t very similar. Really, the only thing that is alike is that they each have a veteran quarterback starting and a first-round rookie waiting his turn on the bench.

Many people forget that it took Smith having a career-best season to keep his job all the way through. Even at that, they went through a rough patch in the middle of the year, and many were calling for a quarterback switch. The Bears don’t have nearly as good a team as the 10-6 Chiefs did, and Dalton isn’t likely to have a career season at 33 in a brand new offense.

I think as soon as Dalton starts to struggle consistently, Nagy will make a change. I believe that the offense will never get off the ground with him under center, anyway.

Justin Fields takes over somewhere around Week 4 or 5 as the Bears look to spark their offense and stay in the early-season playoff race. Whenever it happens, I fully believe that Fields ends up starting more games than Dalton.

As we’ve seen in the past, I don’t think general manager Ryan Pace will force Nagy into any specific coaching decision. Last year, Nagy was at the end of his rope with a struggling offense and poor quarterbacks. This year, he’ll have more to switch up before he has to question his own play-calling again.

Nagy has had a way of scapegoating everything around himself, except for his own play-calling issues. In 2019, it was former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s fault. Last year, it was the defense and even a guy like Anthony Miller. I know Chuck Pagano technically retired, but I don’t believe he was coming back either way. This year it’ll all start with the quarterbacks. If and when Dalton struggles, they’ll eventually move to Fields. From there, I think Nagy will have enough to work with that he’ll sell Fields’ skillset as the perfect fit for his offense.

Nagy may decide to give up play-calling again, but I find that unlikely. I don’t see any scenario in which Pace himself forces him to give it up. It’s a prideful part of his coaching identity with the Bears (for better or worse).

This is a question I think many people are asking themselves right now, as they try and make sense of why Dalton was handed the job over Fields, who clearly outplayed him in preseason game action.

Like any rookie quarterback, many of a player’s mistakes will come from the mental part of his game. I don’t see many weaknesses to Fields outside of maybe being a little smarter with his body than during his time at Ohio State. He’s acknowledged as much, which is good to see.

From the mental side of things, I think Fields is right about where most of this rookie quarterback class is. He’s still attempting to understand what defenses are trying to do with him while also getting through his progressions and making the proper decisions. In that Week 2 game against the Bills, there was the one play where Fields got lit up by a blitzer coming off the edge. Ultimately it was his responsibility to identify him, especially after changing his protection pre-snap. The good news is that a similar blitz happened later in the game and he was able to identify it, get off a good throw, and complete the pass without taking too big of a shot.

Whether it’s pre-snap (within protection adjustments and pre-snap reads) or post-snap (seeing exactly what type of coverages are being called and making his decisions with that in mind), that’s where all of these rookie quarterbacks need to improve, Fields included There were also times in the preseason where I would like to see Fields actually step up in the pocket and not scramble out to avoid the pressure.

Much was made about Fields’ out-of-context “The game was actually slow to me” comment but truly slowing down the game, and a better understanding of the mental aspects will be a big key in his development moving forward. That’s what separates good-to-great quarterbacks from “talented” guys who never reach their full potential.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the off-season, Nagy said he would love to get running back David Montgomery 20 carries-per-game. While that may sound fun, I’m not sure how realistic that is every week. Nagy’s run game seems to be hinged on how successful their offense is within the passing game that day, and committing to the run has never been his strong suit.

If Nagy held to his hopes, that would amount to 340 carries, which would be almost 100 more than he had all of last year. I don’t see that as a realistic prospect. Montgomery was already fifth in the NFL in carries in 2020. I think a more realistic expectation for Montgomery’s workload would be around 280 attempts. That factors an extra game and acknowledges that new acquisition Damien Williams will likely have a decent role.

As far as a reliable pass catcher behind the Bears’ top three targets, it’ll be one of Marquise Goodwin or Damiere Byrd. My guess would be Goodwin, and that’ll come from his deep-play ability in a passing game. I expect to try and go more vertical. The biggest issue with this offense is while they did add more explosiveness and reliable depth, I’m not sure there’s a true upside guy on the roster behind the top names.

NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, the sole focus was containing Aaron Donald and winning a key game late in a playoff push. That was actually James Daniels’ rookie year, and as a whole, the Bears’ did a good job of keeping the NFL’s best defensive player contained.

However, over the next two games against the Rams in the last two years, they’ve allowed Donald to rack up 2.5 sacks and five total quarterback hits. They also gave up a pair of sacks to an extra-motivated Leonard Floyd last year.

The Rams basically have two guys who can hurt you as pass rushers on that front seven in Donald and Floyd. Since interior pressure is likely to be more destructive than any pressure off the edge, I’d put more of my focus on Donald and hope the new-look offensive tackles can do their job with Floyd.

I’m most worried about how Sam Mustipher will fare since he lacks power and could become a liability. I’m not confident that the Bears will be able to keep Dalton clean for the game. I have winning the trenches as one of my biggest keys to victory for the Bears on Sunday night, for what it’s worth. It’s a must, but the Bears will be at a disadvantage, especially on offense.

I know that I am in the minority here, but I think it will take a seismic collapse for either Nagy or Pace to lose their jobs. The organization clearly likes, and more importantly, trusts Pace with the direction of this franchise. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the McCaskey family is not fickle and values loyalty.

I think it’s worth keeping in mind that switching regimes with a young quarterback under center rarely works out for the better. That’s why I was a big proponent of the Bears making a regime switch at the start of this past off-season. They knew they needed a quarterback, and if you’re not sure about your general manager or head coach, you pull the plug there and reset before you take a rookie prospect. Instead, they decided to keep things status quo while making another big first-round move for Fields. Now I think they need to sleep in the bed they’ve made as Fields develops for at least a couple of years.

The only real way I see something major happening is a season near the bottom of the pack, in which everything falls apart, and they actually look like one of the worst teams in the NFL. And it’s possible. They have a tough schedule and I think they are more overmatched on sheer talent than most. Even for as low as I am on the Bears heading into the year, I still think they find a way to hover around .500.

The Bears owe it to Fields’ future to give it another year with the same coaching staff. Don’t mistake that for me thinking Pace should keep his job. His moves over the past few years have crippled this team’s short-term outlook for a quick turnaround. A shortsighted approach with a talented young quarterback on a rookie deal is a good way to blow your easiest opportunity to capitalize on a potential Super Bowl window.