The Calculus of Justin Fields, Andy Dalton, and Nick Foles
Justin Fields entered Bears training camp wedged between Andy Dalton and Nick Foles on the Bears' quarterback depth chart.
Talk about being the meat in a mediocrity sandwich. How on earth did Matt Nagy manage to parallel park Fields between Dalton and Foles? That's not a spot on the depth chart, it's a speck. Foles' DVOA in 2020 was -16.3%, Dalton's -16.7%. Nagy really threw his rookie quarterback into a tight window.
Not to go off on a tangent, but the Bears' quarterback situation reminds me of a calculus exercise I used to teach: estimating the value of a derivative at, say, x = 3 by finding the slope of the secant line between 2.99999 and 3.00001. The quality difference between Dalton and Foles appears infinitesimal, like a limit approaching zero. Nagy and Ryan Pace claim to have found it and ordered Fields to squeeze into it, at least temporarily.
Nagy and Pace have every reason to make Fields' development appear to be as complex as differential calculus. If they hope to keep their jobs, they must make it look like they're the only ones qualified to handle it.
Pace built the Bears quarterback depth chart out of two terrible decisions and one stroke of almost outrageous fortune. Now he and Nagy must create the illusion that it was all part of some master plan. They're like cartoon cats balancing the fine china on their tails and whiskers after overturning the dinner table while chasing the mouse. Inserting Fields as an immediate de facto starter, like Trevor Lawrence for the Jaguars or Zach Wilson with the Jets would A) be admitting that the acquisitions of both veterans (particularly Dalton, signed in March and heralded as the starter) were short-sighted blunders, and B) create early expectations for Fields that could get a coach and general manager fired if the rookie stumbles out of the gate. Declaring Fields the third-stringer, on the other hand, would strain both Pace and Nagy's credibility to the breaking point.
Nagy and Pace aren't like Urban Meyer or Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas. Meyer is a Designated Franchise Savior with carte blanche, a long leash, and a mandate to rebuild. Saleh also has low early expectations and plenty of benefit of the doubt. Douglas has been cast as both Adam Gase's adversary and the "real brains" behind the Super Bowl Eagles and can coast on his not-entirely-earned reputation for another year. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have also earned lots of leeway when handling the Trey Lance/Jimmy Garoppolo situation, especially since Lance is more of a mystery box than a quarterback right now. And the Patriots are still the Patriots: Bill Belichick can handle a quarterback competition any way he chooses.
Pace, however, spent six years demonstrating that he's a blind squirrel who sometimes stumbles into an acorn. Nagy's work with Mitch Trubisky didn't earn him any quarterback guru cred. Fields is less of a boon to them than the warhead they must delicately diffuse: snip the wrong wire, and both of their careers go "boom." With so little margin for error, look for Nagy and Pace to retreat into the final bunker for every overmatched NFL insider: this stuff is really complicated and you outsiders have no idea what you are talking about.
Case in point: last week's camp report from Adam Hoge of NBC Sports Chicago. "Fields held onto the ball too long and forced the ball into coverage too many times," according to Hoge, but Nagy addressed those concerns in the next day's presser. "Yesterday was kind of a unique day of practice in the fact that it's all carded and we're telling you, 'You've gotta throw here, you've gotta throw there.' So it's not really fair that way."
So Fields looked bad because Nagy was ordering him to make bad decisions. Sounds like a great way to foster development, amiright? In fairness, lots of coaches use variations on the Kobayashi Maru to prepare their offenses for FUBAR situations. Few make sure the media pool knows they are doing so, however. Nagy is protecting Fields by pulling back the veil, and I would love more transparency from coaches about what fans and media are seeing in training camp. But this strategic deployment of information is also a spin-control maneuver: don't believe what you are seeing and hearing in camp; there are forces at work that mere outsiders cannot comprehend.
As mentioned earlier, Foles had an incrementally higher DVOA than Dalton in 2020, though it's better to think of their 2020 performances as "even." Foles played with a far weaker supporting cast than Dalton did last year and should know the Bears system. Dalton has had one decent year in the last four; Foles, of course, helped a team win a Super Bowl in that span. Foles would be the marginally more qualified starter in a logical universe. So why is Dalton the starter to open training camp? Because Pace paid Dalton $10 million and the Bears PR department spent March and April marketing him as the solution to the team's quarterback problem. And why is Foles the third-stringer? To reassure fans that Fields is not Dwayne Haskins, who could not fight his way past Case Keenum and Colt McCoy as a rookie in Washington.
Fields could (and probably should) win the starting job in training camp. It's far more likely that Nagy will send Dalton out to start the first few games so Fields can save the day and look great by comparison. It's a tried-and-true Real Football Genius maneuver. If Nagy times it right, Dalton can stumble all the way to the Week 9 bye, getting hammered by the Buccaneers and Steelers in his final starts. Fields flies to the rescue, beats the Lions on Thanksgiving, creates lots of late-season buzz, and reaches the end of the season before opponents really get a book on him. Nagy and Pace can then sell themselves to the McCaskeys as the only ones equipped to help Fields and the Bears take the next step, something they would not be able to do if Fields is the one having the six-sack/three-turnover/high ankle sprain performance against a Steelers defense that has figured out everything he can do.
Fields' actual readiness is a factor in all of this. So is the reading on Dalton's odometer: perhaps he still has a bit more to offer than he showed last year, when injuries and a serious COVID bout slowed him. But those are secondary variables. When forecasting how the Bears quarterback controversy will sort itself out, the primary input is management's need to control expectations and create plausible face-saving escape routes so they don't lose their jobs at the first sign of rookie lumps or a journeyman geezer collapse.
The Bears, like many teams with bad executives and beleaguered coaches before them, will use CYA reasoning to choose their quarterback. Unless Fields walks on water or trips over his shoelaces every time he takes the field, scrutinizing his training camp performances or preseason appearances or Nagy's press-conference mutterings would just be missing the point.
For wagering types: I'm seeing a -500 moneyline on Dalton starting on opening day for the Bears; my CYA theory confirms that this is a proper line and a bad bet. Fields at +225 is tastier for Ohio State fans and folks who somehow still believe in meritocracy.
Oh, and Foles is at +2500 to start the season for the Bears. You gotta admit that those are Nick Foles' kind of odds.
The Skeptic's Guide to the Start of Camp
Having spent 1,000 words being cynical about the Bears, it's time to be (mostly) cynical about the other 31 teams as training camp heats up.
Dallas Cowboys: There will be more posing and posturing on HBO's Hard Knocks than during New York's Fashion Week with both Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy preening for the cameras. McCarthy is so eager to prove that he doesn't spend workdays with cucumber slices over his eyes that he'll demand that HBO film a staged sequence of him building a barn by hand to store his "analytics" in.
Dak Prescott suffered what is being described as a minor shoulder injury about 45 seconds into his first practice. Call it the Football Outsiders Almanac Sleeper Favorite Curse.
Washington Football Team: With the arrival of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington's rebranding is complete: they're no longer a despicable, soulless, socially irresponsible corporation, but a quirky hipster sportsball co-op! It's now OK to like them and their rugged-yet-dreary style of play in the same way that you enjoy a regional "microbrew" that is actually owned by Das Bilgewater and Unionbuster Detergent Manufacturer and Brewery of Golden, Colorado.
Philadelphia Eagles: Blowing up your coaching staff and declaring cap bankruptcy to escape a bad quarterback contract while retaining Fletcher Cox/Zach Ertz/Brandon Graham/Brandon Brooks types and adding mid-tier veterans is a little like burning down the Bluth Banana Stand when there's still money hidden in the walls.
New York Giants: So much for Kelvin Benjamin's Comeback Player of the Year Award campaign: the wide-receiver-turned-portly-wide-receiver-pretending-to-be-a-tight-end got into an animated kerfuffle with Joe Judge and Dave Gettleman on the first day of camp and was quickly released. Zack Rosenblatt of NJ.com got Benjamin's side of the story. Read it if you want to discover what Wednesday's Aaron Rodgers Manifesto would have sounded like if Rodgers wasn't any good.
Green Bay Packers: Look, the important thing is that Aaron Rodgers is happy, and that means we can all be happy.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings, watching the Packers for the last six months:
Now that Rodgers is back in Green Bay, the Vikings are forced to revert to their usual slogan: "At Least We Have Team Chemistry!"
Chicago Bears: One more note as we watch Nagy and Pace play three-quarterback monte: We project the Bears defense to rank 10th in DVOA this year. Their defense ranked 10th in 2019 and eighth in 2020. If a team hopes to win using the bad offense/top-10 defense paradigm, it helps to do more than barely qualify on the defensive side.
Detroit Lions: The best argument to be made in support of Dan Campbell is that anyone who acts that much like Coach Toasterhead self-parody must be using it as cover for some brilliant and progressive roster- and culture-building philosophy. Experience has taught me that coaches who try as hard as Campbell does to sound like Bill Parcells are doing so because that's the only thing they will ever have in common with Bill Parcells.
That said, our win projection for the Lions (7.2) absolutely smashes the house over-under (4.5 as of July 30). Campbell mixes just enough Harvey Dent with Two-Face during his press conferences to make me think a 7-10 season is entirely possible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tom Brady keeps covering the spread as a heavy underdog against Father Time, so it makes sense for the Bucs to keep his supporting cast together for one more season, no matter the long-term price tag. I just can't wait until 2023 or so, when Brady is retired (???), the Buccaneers' salary-cap ledger is a disaster, and the boat parade(s) are a fading memory, when fans start saying things like "what the hell was Jason Licht thinking when he paid all these guys?" That's what happened in Philly this offseason.
New Orleans Saints: This year's version of the 2020 Patriots: a veteran team with a strong defense and a distinguished coach who has no clue whatsoever how to replace his legendary quarterback but knows that if he keeps scowling, we'll all assume that he does.
Taysom Hill took all of the first-team reps on the first day of camp. Those expecting Jameis Winston to win the starting job are still looking for the first sign that he will get a fair chance.
Carolina Panthers: Welcome to Year 2 of Matt Rhule coasting on: A) his reputation; B) fun-to-diagram GIFs of intricate offensive plays that netted 12 yards in 23-16 losses to mediocre opponents; and C) the fact that no one pays attention to the Panthers when they stink.
If Urban Meyer or Kliff Kingsbury traded for Sam Darnold to be his starter, we'd be roasting them until the meat fell off their bones. But Rhule is media-friendly, so we give the guy who once almost won a Boca Raton Bowl a little more benefit of the doubt.
Atlanta Falcons: This is what it looks like when the Cult of the Veteran Quarterback drinks the funky Kool-Aid.
Seattle Seahawks: A Seahawks team like any other, only more so. From a national media standpoint, the Seahawks are in an attention trough: no splashy acquisitions, minimal quarterback drama by 2021 standards, an established high level of play that's resistant to rising/falling storylines. Maybe that will work in their favor. Maybe Russell Wilson will get sacked five times in another playoff loss. Both things could happen.
Los Angeles Rams: In an NFL where teams are eager to unload (or be unloaded by) disgruntled/disappointing franchise quarterbacks, trading Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford was a masterstroke. It kept the Rams from becoming the Eagles (who are spending at least one year dead for cap purposes) or the Falcons (pretending to still enjoy vacationing at the timeshare because there are 36 payments remaining).
At the same time, it's remarkable how many folks became "longtime" Stafford stans the moment that tastemaker Sean McVay coveted him. Goff-to-Stafford sure looks like a hyper-expensive 5% upgrade for a team that's at least as close to cap-and-roster Armageddon as it is to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers: The core of a Super Bowl team is returning from injury. Trey Lance provides a viable alternative to Jimmy Garoppolo. And Kyle Shanahan has proven that he's one of the league's most brilliant and flexible game-planners. But the 49ers may have slightly overpaid linebacker Fred Warner two weeks ago, so they will go 5-12 the next three years as penance and then be relegated to the XFL. Am I doing analytics right?
Arizona Cardinals: I'm seeing a +1200 moneyline on Kliff Kingsbury becoming the first coach fired in 2021. I find it ghoulish to wager on someone losing their job, even if that someone only got that job through old boy privilege/executive-caliber stubblebeard, doesn't appear capable of handling it, and will land on his feet as the emperor of some Conference USA program three days after being fired. But if I weren't squeamish about such matters…
Buffalo Bills: They have everything they need to win the Super Bowl except antibodies.
New England Patriots: Year 1 of the Patriots/Brady divorce found Bill Belichick in a filthy undershirt eating a can of baked beans at his kitchen sink while muttering about how it wasn't his fault. Year 2 finds him maxing out the credit cards and trying to make his new main squeeze into a much-younger carbon copy of his ex. In both cases, results will be non-catastrophic but largely pathetic.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins really worked hard to temper expectations this offseason. They nearly made the playoffs in 2020, debuted Tua Tagovailoa, and entered the offseason gushing with cap space and draft capital. Then it was like "Woah, woah, woah—slow down, big shooter. Let's trade down from the third overall pick, draft the second-best receiver from Alabama, avoid all the big names in free agency, and signal as much low-key ambivalence as possible about our quarterback of the future."
Xavien Howard's trade demand just casts another shadow on what should be a sunny start to training camp: a team on the verge of contention needs to find some way (more money, a player-for-player swap, lots and lots of sweet talk at the bare minimum) to resolve that sort of situation.
Most of the Dolphins' offseason moves are defensible to laudable in isolation. Taken together, it looks like they made a C-plus offseason out of A-plus-plus resources. It's as if they are so comfortable with two decades of fringe wild-card contention that they just decided to stay there.
It's worth noting that Dolphins beat writers spent the weekend singing the praises of Tua and his receivers. Dolphins beat writers have been over-selling the Dolphins at the start of training camp since at least the Chad Henne era.
New York Jets: Zach Wilson only missed the first few days of training camp due to a completely unnecessary contract dispute. Take it away, Bob Seger!
It might not sound like much
But it'll mean a lot you'll see
Every hour you survive will come to be
A little victory.
Baltimore Ravens: Despite our glittery 11ish-win projection, I fear that Lamar Jackson is due for the mediocre-to-ordinary season which "proves" both he and the Ravens offense are not viable and must be scrapped for all eternity. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford has had about eight mediocre-to-ordinary seasons and is being hailed as a potential franchise savior at age 33.
Pittsburgh Steelers: This year's version of the 2020 Washington Football Team: outstanding defense, rugby offense with no forward passing or blocking.
Cleveland Browns: The anti-Seahawks: a new contender that appears to be trending upward and has gobs of storylines, making them a sleeper darling for the second time in three years.
The new Nick Chubb contract extension appears short and affordable enough to soothe the worries of the Moneyball evangelicals (who think anyone who pays a running back is also a Flat Earther) while meeting the needs of a real football team, as opposed to a football thought experiment. I like that the rebooted Browns are still analytics-driven but keep finding ways to steer slightly south of orthodox analytics doctrine. It's almost as if better/further research results in more nuanced findings, especially within an ever-changing ecosystem of team tactics, salary cap strictures, and so forth. Keep being unpredictable, Browns: the cognitive dissonance is good for our industry.
Cincinnati Bengals: Zac Taylor is Kliff Kingsbury with less sex appeal. Joe Burrow could be a rising star but could also be Marcus Mariota with less mobility, and the Bengals may have broken him the moment he removed him from the packaging. The Bengals could have a high ceiling, but there's little question about their floor.
Tennessee Titans: A team built like it wants to hang another "Playoff Also-Ran" banner from the rafters.
I plan to provide breathless updates of the battle between undrafted free agent kickers Tucker McCann and Blake Haubeil throughout the preseason, because I enjoy kicker battles, particularly ones that appear hopeless. So far, things aren't going well. Football Outsiders research warns us to take any field goal results with a grain of salt, but missing 37- and 40-yarders in practice cannot be interpreted as a positive sign.
Indianapolis Colts: Alas, Carson Wentz broke before I could even begin to make wisecracks about his fragility. Now the Colts must discover how Wentz overcomes the adversity of: A) an injury; B) minimal reps in the weeks to come; and C) reading positive press clippings about Brett Hundley, Jacob Eason, and any other possible challengers.
This Philly guy can tell you how it's gonna go. But it may be necessary for the Colts and their fans to find out for themselves.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The party line here at FO is that the Jaguars will enjoy a modest 2021 bump due to Trevor Lawrence, a soft schedule, some other new faces, and the novelty of Urban Meyer's system. But gosh, Meyer sure is tearing through plot (quirky drafting! NFLPA wrist-slaps! TIM TEBOW!) like he was only greenlit for six episodes. So yeah, look for "Is Urban Meyer Coach of the Year?" headlines in mid-October but "Disgruntled Meyer Eyeing UCLA Job" headlines by mid-December, with the smarter money on the latter.
Houston Texans: Say your brother-in-law made a series of silly, disastrous trades, then left your fantasy league after a bitter separation from your sister. So you handed his team to your neighbor, who claimed to know a lot about football but spent all his time trying to lure your friends and family into his quasi-religious pyramid scheme. So you handed the team to your nephew, who knows the game but has such a toxic personal life that half your league unfriended him on Facebook in self-defense. So finally you set the team to autodraft, and a computer filled out the roster with the sort of mediocre veterans who cling to the bottom of fantasy cheat sheets. That team is now the Houston Texans.
Kansas City Chiefs: We project a 22% chance that the Chiefs end up with a losing record in Football Outsiders Almanac. If the Chiefs do backslide, it won't be because the rebuilt offensive line collapses, the defense falls apart, or Patrick Mahomes is "figured out." It will be because the Chiefs morph into Andy Reid's late-era Eagles, who won lots of games on sheer brilliance but sometimes glitched out and forgot how to play football for weeks at a time.
Reid is a Hall of Fame-caliber coach who sometimes forgets to change the oil and rotate the tires while turbocharging the engine. This probably isn't the year it catches up to him, but there's a 1-in-5 chance that it could be.
Denver Broncos: The roster looks strong enough to win if they can just get adequate game management from either the journeyman veteran they acquired or their scuffling prospect they are giving a final chance to. This segment was brought to you by the years 2016 through 2019.
Las Vegas Raiders: If Jon Gruden ever gives up coaching football, he could be a world champion in fortress defense-style video gaming.
Gruden has gone through three losing seasons but has only sacrificed one coordinator. That means he can still execute the "bench Derek Carr" and "futz with play-calling duties" maneuvers before Mark Davis can even think of firing him. He can also still play the "blame COVID" card from the 2020 expansion pack for another year, plus the "adjusting to new city" buff from the Jeff Fisher mod Gruden came bundled with. And of course, there's the risky "blame Mike Mayock" scenario as a last resort.
There's also a chance that Raiders actually finally reach the playoffs. But with a tough schedule out of the gate (Ravens-Steelers-Dolphins), they will be hard pressed to replicate their hot start/hard stop 2019 and 2020 campaigns.
Long story short, Gruden would be appalled by every element of this segment if he somehow managed to decipher it. But even if the Raiders collapse again, he'll respawn with all of his equipment and (of course) gold.
Los Angeles Chargers: As best as I can tell, the Chargers only exist to generate Justin Herbert prop bets.
Herbert's yardage over-under at my preferred legal sportsbook is 4450.5; I'm leaning over on that. Herbert is getting +2000 for MVP (a homer bet for a team with no homers) but +3300 for Offensive Player of the Year, a much better bet for a guy likely to throw for a zillion yards for a .500-ish team.
Other than Herbert, the Chargers are a placeholder team with a rookie coach and a roster trapped somewhere well south of contending but just north of rebuilding.
Look for Walkthrough twice per week on Mondays and Thursdays throughout August! I will be putting my unique spin on camp news, analyzing preseason games, keeping tabs on quarterback and kicker controversies, and having fun with prop bets. I might even do some actual statistical research! So keep checking back throughout the summer, not just for Walkthrough but for all the analysis and insight you've come to expect from the Football Outsiders crew.