Already, there is an overblown controversy being stirred over Tyson Bagent’s solid first start for the Chicago Bears. There will be those who try to exaggerate his performance out of proportion to say that he should start in place of Justin Fields and there will be those who try to tear down what he did in order to defend the embattled third-year starter. It’s therefore worth putting what he did (and didn’t do) in context.
Bagent Played Well
To be clear–Bagent had a fantastic start for the Chicago Bears, and in addition to the win, he posted some impressive numbers. His 97.2 passer rating, in particular, would place him 9th among starting quarterbacks, between Jared Goff and Justin Herbert, if he could just sustain it for a season. Even if he were given the chance, he probably would not be able to do so, though.
It is exceptionally common for quarterbacks to have a good first start. Back when I studied how well quarterbacks did “out of the gate,” I assembled a list of 44 quarterbacks with at least 10 career starts. Three-quarters of them (33), had at least one start in his first four with a passer rating above 97.2. That list includes such players as Trevor Siemian, Drew Lock, Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler, CJ Beathard, Brandon Weedon, Jake Locker, Zach Mettenberger, EJ Manuel, and Christian Ponder. If you want to expand the list to include quarterbacks who hadn’t made it to ten starts by then but who had passer ratings of at least 100 in one of their first four starts, you can add Landry Jones, AJ McCarron, Brandon Allen, and Mike White. Rather than providing a floor to build on, the actual trend is that because defenses adapt and there is only so much simplification that can occur, quarterbacks almost never exceed the level of performance they put out in their first few starts.
This is not to say that what Bagent did was easy. It is not to say that there are not at least as many quarterbacks who–when given the opportunity–failed to perform as well. What Bagent did arguably places him solidly in the midst of professional quarterbacks. Bagent’s play, while not conclusive, strongly indicates that he belongs on an NFL roster. He made a clear statement that when given the chance, he was able to keep pace with players who would, in fact, earn at least multiple starts. That is not the same as saying that he proved himself to be a starter. Bagent still needs to show that he can perform once tape is out there on him, and once defenses adapt to how Chicago is game-planning for him. The outing against the Las Vegas Raiders is a point in his favor, though.
The Offense Supported Him
Bagent himself acknowledged that the team “had his back,” and it showed in his stats and in theirs. NextGen stats reports that his 2.1 air yards per attempt was the shortest of any qualified quarterback of the season. Despite that, he distributed the ball well and he took advantage of the plays that were there. The fact that he was able to get to 162 passing yards with such a “take what’s there” approach actually says very good things about the offensive weapons Chicago has around him and it suggests that while the offensive line continues to have its ups and downs, the ups are definitely present.
The Bears allowed only 3 quarterback hits (slightly lower than average from the Raiders) and only two sacks (also slightly lower than average from the Raiders). When one of these “sacks” is actually a bizarre non-play from Nathan Peterman, it’s clear that the line held up well for a unit that was missing its starting left tackle (and, to be clear, the line was missing Braxton Jones). This play corresponds well with the fact that while the Raiders had averaged nearly five tackles for a loss per game coming in, the Bears held them to three. Given that Chicago was down to its third running back, the fact that D’Onta Foreman helped them tally the second-highest yards per rushing attempt the Raiders have allowed this season was especially impressive.
In short, this was a strong team outing. We should not let this team effort obscure the fact that Bagent himself passed the first test in proving that he belongs on an NFL roster in the long term, but we also shouldn’t assume that it means Bagent is ready to be a regular starter.
The Defense Was Opportunistic
After only managing three interceptions prior to Sunday, the Bears had three in a single game. It’s fair to point out that they were facing a pair of backup quarterbacks. However, good teams (and mediocre teams trying to become good teams) take advantage of that type of situation. The Bears did exactly that. Jaylon Johnson recorded the team’s first defensive touchdown of the season and the team held the Raiders to a single touchdown (in the final minutes, up 30-6). That means that the defense has held opponents under 21 for three consecutive games.
In fact, just in the last three games, the Bears have been allowing only 5.7 yards per pass attempt (which in that same timeframe would have then as the tenth-stingiest defense in that regard), and they have in fact allowed the fewest yards per rush attempt in the NFL over the last three games.
They are not an elite defense. They are not a finished product. However, when this unit had a chance to show up, it did so. As a result, the team was able to close out a game under the leadership of a rookie undrafted free agent.
In order for a team to be able to win regularly in the NFL, it needs to be able to rely on strong performances on multiple fronts. By extension, it seems as if one of the reasons the Bears have had trouble winning at all is because they have not been able to rely on strong performances on many fronts at all. If the defense can stay opportunistic even against better offensive play, and if the rest of the offense continues to put in solid overall performances in the face of injury, then it will hopefully matter less (one way or another) who is in at quarterback.