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What the Bailey Zappe experience could tell us about Tyson Bagent’s first start for Chicago Bears

Rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent offers the hope of the unknown as he prepares for his first NFL start. History says to enjoy it while you can.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, I witnessed one of the highest points the Chicago Bears have in the last three seasons, watching the scrappy underdog Bears stick it to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football and essentially end the Bailey Zappe fever dream in one fell swoop during Week 7.

Almost exactly a calendar year later, the Bears have their own budding “Zappe Fever” situation on hand as undrafted rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent takes the field for his first NFL start on account of starting quarterback Justin Fields’ injured right thumb.

Now, some of the fundamental circumstances around the two rookie debuts don’t quite match up. Most notably, Patriots incumbent starter Mac Jones was in his second year last season, whereas Fields is in his third now. As such, Fields’ absence feels more consequential to his Bears future, which seems all but nonexistent, assuming the team lands a top draft pick next spring. At least last season, all wasn’t completely lost for Jones. (It might be now, though, as Jones has become quite literally one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks.)

But one major element connects the two events: an embattled starting quarterback in a system that’s not working for him being suddenly compared to a rookie with a blank slate and the element of surprise behind him.

Many will view Bagent’s start against the Las Vegas Raiders as a referendum on the Bears’ offense: are the struggles most Fields’ fault or offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s?

So let’s take it back to Zappe’s first start of 2022 against the Detroit Lions — another game I watched in person — for a little perspective on what we might see from Bagent in his first game against a very beatable opponent and what it could mean thereafter.

First, remember Zappe had been thrust into the fire the previous week against the Green Bay Packers, thanks to an injury to Brian Hoyer, this week’s presumptive starting quarterback. Like Bagent, Zappe fought gallantly to keep pace against a veteran quarterback but ultimately fell short in a less-than-ideal situation.

But Zappe’s next appearance — his first start — demonstrated two things that worked hand-in-hand: a game plan more tailored to his skills and increased comfort in the offensive operation.

Whereas Jones had struggled to protect the football early last season and spent too much time trying to push the ball downfield — some of that was on then-offensive play-caller Matt Patricia’s “scheme” as well — Zappe didn’t take a single risk all game. His longest pass was a wide-open 24-yard touchdown to Jakobi Meyers (also now with the Raiders). Most other throws were short and quick — screens, stick routes, swings and checkdowns to running backs.

The result: a fairly pedestrian but perfectly safe performance — 17/21 passing for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception — in a 29-0 Patriots win over the Lions. (The defense added a scoop-and-score for some help and harassed Goff all day.) Still, some things, like pocket movement, sack avoidance and ball security, all looked clearly better with Zappe than they did with Jones.

The pick wasn’t even his fault: a catchable ball clanged off the hands of receiver Nelson Agholor into the defender’s arms.

Now, a few caveats: the Patriots offense failed to convert any of their four red zone attempts into touchdowns and settled for five field goals. So it’s not as if Zappe dominated the game; he just didn’t screw things up.

Also, that sort of passing line works when your defense is capable of pitching a shutout. It might not work for Bagent when he’s got the Bears defense backing him (though they’ve played better the last few weeks).

Still, the 2022 Patriots featured dysfunctional offenses that found momentary comfort in the simplicity a rookie quarterback provides, and the Bears may well discover the same on Sunday. Though Fields has been in offensive Getsy’s system the last two years, the fit simply isn’t there between Fields’ hold-the-ball, big-game-hunting style and Getsy’s desire to get the ball out faster into playmakers’ hands. The on-field product makes that clear.

Bagent, like Zappe last year, remains a relatively blank canvas in terms of NFL experience. This is the first pro offense he’s learned, and he will execute it more or less however he’s told to. (Even Fields looked like a different passer under Matt Nagy than he does now despite that style also not being a perfect fit for him as a rookie.) From that standpoint, expect to see a difference as Bagent runs the offense more the way it’s “supposed” to look.

For a while, at least.

As with Zappe and many a backup that’s made an NFL start, defenses make adjustments as more tape becomes available. The element of surprise can wane quickly. Look no further than Zappe’s second half against the Bears last year after his rousing entrance to the game in the second quarter. Once the wheels came off, there was no putting them back on.

None of this is to say Bagent’s career (or even his first game) will follow a similar track to Zappe’s. They’re two different players in disparate situations.

But it might be helpful to think of what’s realistic for Bagent in his first start versus the furthest extremes of what’s possible.

Fortunately for Bagent, he gets to throw to DJ Moore and Darnell Mooney versus Zappe having to work with the Patriots receiving corps led by Meyers last season. On the less-bright side, the Bears offensive line could have some issues due to health and the unrelenting menace of Maxx Crosby on Sunday. What will make more of a difference? We’ll soon find out.

The bottom line: Bagent will probably look better than Fields in some key ways against the Raiders — maybe enough so that some believe the Bears are more likely to win with him versus Fields. Perhaps if Fields misses more time, you might even see him get better for a game or two.

But if there’s one lesson to be learned from the Zappe experience — one I warned people about in real time — it’s this: beware the mirage. Scrappy underdogs with good stories don’t frequently make elite quarterbacks, and there are enough Caleb Hanies littered across Bears history to remind everyone of that.

It’s more likely Bagent looks exactly like the undrafted rookie he is rather than the next coming of Brock Purdy, not least because Bagent doesn’t have Kyle Shanahan, an elite offensive line, Christian McCaffrey and a top-notch defense supporting him.

Whatever happens on Sunday, let’s keep that in mind, even as we hope Bagent plays well enough in his opportunity to latch on when the guard changes next year.