LAKE FOREST -- Matt Nagy has seen the downside of resting his starters in the preseason. In 2018, he surprisingly sat his starters in the third preseason game against the Chiefs and in 2019 he took it a step further by sitting them the entire preseason.
The Bears went 12-4 in 2018, but after an 8-8 record in 2019, Nagy expressed some regret about his preseason strategy and planned to play his starters more before COVID-19 wiped out all four preseason games in 2020.
Now with three preseason games at his disposal in 2021, Nagy expects to go with a more traditional playing time deployment, while acknowledging that the reps are “going to be more individual based than it is by like first team, second team, third team per se.”
Reps for Saturday’s first preseason game against the Dolphins will also be impacted by what happens Wednesday and Thursday in joint practices between the teams at Halas Hall.
Tuesday morning, Nagy detailed the plans for the week -- both in the practices and the game -- including the expectation for rookie quarterback Justin Fields:
Joint practice plan
Nagy and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores have been in frequent contact over the last several weeks planning for these practices. Nagy said that communication has included e-mails, texts and calls.
“We’re talking all the time because we want to make sure that this thing goes the right way,” Nagy said. “You always have the rules of engagement. Guys get juiced up and go. You want to eliminate fighting. You just want to just be competitive. Be smart. When you have two head coaches that believe in the same things like we do, we’ll talk to the guys up front on that and let the guys compete.”
Both teams want the practices to be competitive, but without fighting and major injuries. Since Ryan Pace became the Bears’ general manager in 2015, the team has practiced against the Colts, Patriots and Broncos and were supposed to practice against the Broncos again last year before the pandemic wiped those sessions out. This will be the first time the Bears host another team at the newly renovated and expanded Halas Hall and the value of the practices lies in players being able to get valuable reps against an actual opponent.
“Our guys are so used to seeing the same stuff. Offense and defense, they’re seeing all the same players, the same plays, the same techniques and how you do things. It’s a total changeup now. Somebody’s going to have a different move coming off the edge. So that part is great,” Nagy said.
Preseason game plan
For many seasoned veterans, the practices might provide enough valuable reps that the coaching staff decides to hold them out of Saturday’s game completely. That’s why Nagy said the playing time might be “individual based.”
But Nagy won’t hold the entire first team out. The plan is to play the starting unit for a series or two, as is typical for the first preseason game. It’s really the play count that matters and Nagy said the ideal number is 8-10 plays.
“Some guys might be less and some might be a few more,” he said.
Plan for Justin Fields
So where does Fields fall on the rep scale? Well, you better believe that some of Nagy’s regret of the 2019 season came from the obvious observation that Mitchell Trubisky could have used those reps. Would they have changed the trajectory of his career in Chicago? Probably not, but they still would have helped him during that season, which was a step backward.
That mistake won’t be replicated with Fields, especially in his rookie year.
“The only way we can evaluate is by seeing him play. He’s gotta get valuable reps,” Nagy said. “As we go through these three games, being able to just see what he can do with different players and different teammates, it could be first, second or third team across the board.”
Insert the “thinking” emoji here, because that might have been an admission that Fields could receive a few reps with first-teamers in the preseason. It’s certainly something to watch.
Of course, keeping Fields healthy is still a priority and Nagy admitted that the attrition on the offensive line will have an impact on how the rookie is used.
“It definitely does. I think when we say that, there’s some ways to work through some of that. If you flip it and you say, OK, what is the other team gonna do? Most of the time, too, they’re playing their starters for 1-2 series. We’ll just have to make sure that schematically we do some things we need to do.”
Translation: The Bears will make sure the offensive linemen in front of Fields aren’t at an obvious disadvantage against the Dolphins’ starters. That goes back to the game planning with Flores for the practices and the game this week. Both teams should be on the same page.
It also could mean getting the ball out quicker to make sure Fields doesn’t take any big hits.
As for what Nagy wants to see from Fields?
“I want him to be able to cut it loose and play without thinking. Stay within what we do and the progressions, but just kinda let your personality show on the football field,” the head coach said. “The other stuff that we critique him on — the tempo in and out of the huddle and all that — that’ll happen on its own. Now we get to truly see what we can do when the lights are on and he’s playing full speed and it’s live.”
The fans can’t wait to see it either.