Bears coach Matt Nagy had no update Monday on the status of rookie quarterback Justin Fields for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.
Fields is recovering from the broken ribs he suffered against the Ravens on November 21. Andy Dalton started against the Lions at Thanksgiving, giving Fields two weeks to recover.
But what is the rush?
With Fields clearly in the development stage, and Dalton arguably giving the Bears an equally good chance – if not a better chance – at winning, it is up to Nagy and the Bears to take their time with the prized rookie and make sure that he is fully recovered from his injury. Why risk making the injury worse?
That’s the beauty – perhaps the only beauty – of the 17-game schedule the NFL has extended to this season. This allows the Bears to take their time with Fields and give him four or even five more games of the NFL experience he needs heading into the 2022 season.
At this point, it’s basically load management – an alien concept in the NFL with its 16 and 17 game schedules where each game equals 10 MLB games or five NBA or NHL games. .
But with wear and tear more important than ever in the NFL, free time matters. And giving players more time to heal from injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken ribs could be an overall benefit.
It’s a sacrilege in the NFL, where players are conditioned to play whenever they can. In fact, for years the NFL has despised the “100 percent,” a player who will only play when he is 100% healthy, in a sport where there is added value for players who do. will empty for the team.
But as heroic as it is, the “player” mentality has its own drawbacks in a sport where the physical toll adds up quickly.
The heart and desire of Bears linebacker Khalil Mack is undisputed – he’s played through bumps and bruises or worse throughout his career with the Bears. Last season he was on the injury report for 13 of the Bears’ 17 games with various injuries (knee, back, ankle, shoulder) – and listed as questionable for 10 of them. Yet he never missed a game.
But at 30, it caught up with him this season when a relatively minor foot sprain turned into end-of-season surgery.
Mack injured himself against the Browns in Week 3 – and still wanted to finish that game. He played through the injury for the next four games, and instead of improving, the injury became more of a problem. Mack missed games against the 49ers and Steelers and after the week off he was put on the injured list and is expected to have surgery.
If Mack had been managed and hadn’t played against the Lions winless the week after initially suffering the injury, would he be in IR today? No one knows, but it’s likely that the tack would have done more good than harm.
Nagy had no regrets for letting Mack play despite the injury rather than taking a more cautious approach. They never do.
“No,” Nagy said emphatically. “No for him, and for us and for everything we’ve done.” You just get to the point where you try to gamble and make the right decision every week for him. And whatever he is able to do for himself will help us if he can play.
The Bears had started to lighten the load on Mack this season. Mack had played 91% and 90% of defensive snaps in his last two seasons with the Raiders and 91% of snaps in the last six games of the 2018 season with the Bears after being relaxed when he missed the entire camp. training and pre-season in a waiting contract. He played 86% of snaps in 2019, 84% in 2020 and 81% of snaps in the first two games of this season before the injury.
Linebacker coach Bill Shuey hasn’t ruled out the idea that the NFL may be heading into load management territory.
“It could be,” Shuey said. “I don’t think it’s as common as you see it in the NBA, but it’s something that comes into play in terms of the number of reps. You want to make sure that when you have guys at certain stages of their careers, you take care of them. You want to make sure that the reps they have are effective when you can.
Lightening the load is watching the Bears’ defensive stars grow old. Defensive end Akiem Hicks – another notable warrior – injured his groin in the first snap against the Lions on October 3. The Hicks, 32, missed the next game against the Raiders but came back against the Packers and aggravated Aaron Rodgers’ sack injury. He missed the next game against the Buccaneers and came back against the 49ers, but injured his ankle and hasn’t played since.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan missed time at training camp with knee pain, made the preseason final against the Titans – making an interception in his last game – but started the season on the reserve of the wounded. He returned in Week 5 against the Raiders and played five games (with one start) before being put on the injured list with a recurrence of the knee injury.
Football, however, is a sport that lives by the “next man in place” philosophy – even if that means replacing Khalil Mack with Trevis Gipson and Cassius Marsh, or replacing Akiem Hicks with Mario Edwards, Jr. and Angelo Blackson. The sport just isn’t designed for load management – although that might have kept Khalil Mack from missing the last 10 games of the season. In the NFL, it’s all about now and today. It’s a sport that lives in the moment rather than thinking about tomorrow.
“It’s not like other sports where you play a lot of games,” Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “Every game here matters. When you come across the tiebreakers and those [playoff berth] scenarios, everyone counts.
“So these guys are gearing up for a full year of playing 17. And we’re going to be operating on a week-to-week basis on all the guys – whether they’re injured or not – on the best plan to make sure our players are best placed to make games.
Fields, 22, could be a special case. Although we’ll see about it, because Nagy loves his tenacity.
“Everyone probably handles an injury differently,” Nagy said. “Some are able to do it and get away with it. Others may think about it more. I think with Justin he’s super tough and I think I know which side he’s on.
But it’s hard to believe Nagy would take unnecessary risks, especially with a quarterback who loves to run.
“Once the coaches, medics, and players are okay with getting them ready, you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re rolling now,’ right? Nagy said. “But at the same time you have to be aware of [Fields] taking no additional hits or vulnerabilities. This is definitely something we want to look at.
“Not always just the racing part. When you step back and go to throw, you sometimes expose your chest or ribs. We put it all together and do what’s best for him and for us.