LAKE FOREST -- Justin Fields threw – err, shoveled – an interception, and yet, by the time the whistle had blown, he still managed to impress.
The interception was somewhat understandable, even if it would have been disastrous in a game. The Bears were in live goal line drills Friday and ran the ol’ shovel pass that Matt Nagy has used many times since he arrived in Chicago in 2018.
You’ve seen it. Roquan Smith has seen it.
“Yeah, so Ro made a good play. He just shot up the middle, came unblocked up the middle. It was a little shovel pass,” Nagy said Saturday. “There's not much Justin, you know, that's a hard one, a shovel pass and expect a guy to shoot up the gap like that. Then Roquan to catch it, run.”
But Smith’s catch was only the second most impressive part of the play. The linebacker caught it in stride and appeared to have a free run to other end of the field for a touchdown.
“Not with Justin though. Justin is going to get him,” Nagy said. “But in practice don’t get him. Let him go. Stay away.”
That’s not how Justin Fields is wired though. Even in Saturday’s practice, he jokingly pretended to tackle defensive back Michael Joseph after a turnover. Mind you, Fields wasn’t even on the field for the play.
But the play Friday was special. Smith would have been gone for a touchdown against almost any quarterback in the league. Instead, Fields ran him down and pushed him out of bounds around mid-field.
“We joked around, showing it to the whole team, we were teasing whether Justin was going to bring Roquan down,” Nagy said.
Of course, this is where the fun turns serious. Bears fans remember when Jay Cutler injured his right thumb making a tackle after an interception against the Chargers in 2011. The Bears were 7-3 after the win but lost their next five games and missed the playoffs. Then in 2015, Cutler got hurt on a tackle against the Cardinals and missed the next game against the Seahawks.
So you can understand why Nagy very sternly repeated, “Stay away,” in his press conference.
While not throwing interceptions fixes that problem, the emphasis on keeping Fields upright and healthy will likely be a continuing topic throughout the rookie quarterback’s career. His electric speed and athleticism will be a dangerous weapon for the Bears, unless those gifts become a dangerous detriment because he takes too many hits.
“Probably the biggest thing on those types of hits is just get down a little sooner,” Nagy said. “Sometimes that's hard when you're running the football more than others.”
Earlier in Saturday morning’s press conference, Nagy referenced his experience coaching Michael Vick in Philadelphia and tied it to the “burst” you feel when you watch Fields. But Vick provided another valuable reference point when it came to sliding.
“The other day when Justin was in practice, we saw he made that scramble and then what did he do? He slid, right? Very natural,” Nagy said. “And Michael Vick? I mean he's one of the most gifted athletes in the history of this world and couldn't slide. Didn't know how.”
According to Nagy, the Eagles literally brought a Slip N’ Slide out in practice to teach him how to slide.
“That's a true story. Bill (Lazor) even confirmed it too when we left and he was over with Chip Kelly. They did it for Michael,” Nagy said.
The topic is especially relevant for Fields because the rookie admitted this week that he is still “scarred” by the brutal hit he took against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Fortunately, his extensive baseball experience has resulted in a textbook slide on the football field.
“Literally every time I tuck the ball down and run, I'm thinking about getting out of bounds or getting down,” Fields said. “There's of course going to be times when you have to try to fight for extra yardage. I'm definitely smarter and trying to protect myself more.”
In practice, Fields can’t be hit. But that doesn’t mean Nagy isn’t constantly yelling at his defense to stay away from the quarterback. However, when the rookie takes the field next Saturday in the Bears’ first preseason game against the Dolphins, his ability to avoid hits will be monitored closely.
“There's that timing element too because some guys, if you slide too late and they hit you -- even if it's a penalty -- you're still getting hit,” Nagy said. “We had that with Mitchell (Trubisky) a few years ago, right? And we lost him for a few weeks. You've got to be smart. That's where we've got to educate him.”
There will likely be a fine line between dazzle and danger for Fields. Even in Saturday’s practice, backed up in his own end zone, Fields uncorked a perfect throw over the middle to tight end Jesse James in a muddy pocket with big bodies in his face. In a game, he could have been taking a hit as he delivered that same exact pass.
“Things happen a little faster,” Nagy said. “Don’t be stupid.”