There is something much bigger than their rookie quarterback’s starting debut for the Bears on Sunday.
A win in Cleveland can change this season and radically alter the narrative surrounding their football team.
It is extremely unlikely that will be dictated solely by Justin Fields.
The Bears’ offense clearly has struggled the first two weeks, but it hasn’t been only because of Andy Dalton or Fields, and the team’s fortunes will be dictated more than anything by how much help Fields gets.
The Bears go in every bit as big an underdog as they were going into Los Angeles two weeks ago, but there is both bad news and good news.
The Browns are a good football team, but not as good as the Rams yet, and although their offense is somewhat scary, the defense actually isn’t all that good.
Cleveland is ninth against the run and fourth in average gain allowed, but it is 23rd against the pass and dead last in the league on third down, allowing conversions at a 62.9% clip.
Yes, two games is a small sample size, but the Browns also were ninth against the run last year and 22nd against the pass while finishing 23rd on third down.
The Browns appear to have some star power in Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, Denzel Ward and others, but it is in name only.
The Browns don’t have a single tackler in the top 100 in the league after two games. They are tied for 21st in the league with only three QB sacks and are 26th with two takeaways (one an interception).
So the real question here is: Allowing for a rookie starting his first game, how difficult are the offense and Nagy – not just Fields – going to make things for Cleveland’s defense?
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor explained Thursday why that’s a bit of a riddle.
“That’s a great question, and that is what we’re doing is walking the line, balancing,” Lazor said. “Part of it is what do you do well. Part of it is what hurts the [other] team, what their weaknesses are that you want to attack, and part of it is the matchups.”
Lazor certainly is aware of Garrett and Clowney.
“I think that’s part of the game [Fields] has to play, knowing who the people are on the edge,” Lazor said. “But he’s played in big games before. You all have seen him enough to know I think you would probably bet he’s probably going to handle it just fine.”
Nagy seems to recognize Fields will only take the Bears as far as his teammates let him.
“[Offensive linemen] gotta always be ready for him when he does break that pocket,” Nagy said. “There’s also an adjustment for his receivers. When you get outside that pocket, you’d better be ready for any of the scramble stuff, the scramble rules and all of that.”
The bottom line here is running back David Montgomery and guard Cody Whitehair are the only two players on the offense who have played to their ability consistently through the first 120 minutes of the season.
The wide receiver group that garnered so much offseason attention has failed to generate meaningful separation. The tight ends have been inconsistent, and either Dalton, Fields, Nagy or all three have chosen not to use tight end Jimmy Graham to date and mysteriously targeted Darnell Mooney twice as much as No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson on Sunday. Tight end Cole Kmet’s play has been uneven, and even the projected-to-be-much-improved interior of the offensive line struggled most of the afternoon against the Bengals.
Are they not being put in positions to succeed or just failing to make plays?
You have to expect and live with rookie QBs making rookie mistakes and struggling to play at full speed, but there are no such reprieves for the rest of the offense.
I’d say Sunday actually will be a more crucial test for everyone involved in the Bears’ offense other than Fields.
He still has time, but the majority of his teammates should be in must-win-now mode.
• Hub Arkush is a Shaw Media correspondent.