Years ago, when the Philadelphia Eagles were trying to coach their way out of a gully in the development of Carson Wentz, sources from inside the team and the quarterback’s camp explained the conundrum through a prism of bandwidth. As the story went, when Wentz showed up on a given day to work out various kinks in his performance, he had three voices in his ear.
The head coach, Doug Pederson. The offensive coordinator, Frank Reich. And finally, the quarterbacks coach, John DeFilippo. Three coaches … three former quarterbacks … three viewpoints on precisely what was causing problems in the development in their young star quarterback. And for Carson Wentz? It was a soup of notes about footwork, body alignment, arm mechanics, processing, patience … on and on. To the point that in any given snap, Wentz was thinking about a voluminous checklist that he had to keep straight while simultaneously reading a defense and making natural and instinctual adjustments. Eventually, Wentz complained that he didn’t feel like he was playing like himself.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen,” a source said at the time.
This is the story that I thought about on Wednesday, when another promising but struggling young quarterback — the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields — alluded to his own bandwidth problems after a 27-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fields seemingly revealed that he had found himself in a tug-of-war that sounded familiar: thinking too much after the snap versus letting his natural instincts as a playmaker guide him.
For Wentz, it might have been too many cooks in the kitchen. For Fields, it sounds like too many groceries on the list.
“Things that I didn’t like [in the Buccaneers loss], I felt like I wasn’t necessarily playing my game,” Fields said. “I felt like I was kind of robotic and not playing like myself. My goal this week is just to say F-it and just go out there and play football how I know to play football. That includes thinking less and just going out there and playing off instincts rather than so much info in my head, data in my head, and literally just going out and playing football. Just going back to ‘it’s a game’ and that’s it. That’s when I play my best, when I’m just out there playing free and being myself. So I’m going to say dump all the ‘what I should do,’ this and that, pocket stuff. I’m going to go out there and be me.”
A follow-up question asked what specifically was making Fields think too much.
“Um, you know, could be coaching, I think,” Fields said. “But at the end of the day, they’re doing their job when they are giving me what to look at, stuff like that. But at the end of the day, I can’t be thinking about that when the game comes. I prepare myself throughout the week and then when the game comes, it’s time to play free at that point. Just thinking less and playing more.”
At that point, Fields said it wasn’t too many coaching voices, but the information coming from those voices.
“You’re fed a lot of information at a point in time, and you’re trying to think about that info when you’re playing,” Fields said. “It doesn’t let you play like yourself when you’re trying to process so much information to where it’s like, if I just simplified it in my mind, I would have [done something different].”
In the development of any quarterback, there are an endless number of issues that become important. But the flow of information might be as important as any of them. If they’re given too little information to process, it can pinch a pipeline of growth and stifle progress. If they’re given too much, their brain ends up swimming in details that they starting thinking from one step to the next rather than reacting instinctually. A staff’s job is to find the balance in between.
Right now, there’s evidence that the entire dashboard is flickering with red lights. At times, the wideouts haven’t been as sharp as needed. The offensive line is banged up and having a multitude of protection issues. Fields himself appears to lack trust on some plays, moving around when the pressure doesn’t seem nearly as bad as his reaction. And even the play calling of coordinator Luke Getsy appears to be all over the place, gyrating between simplified and heavily protected calls that require essentially one read and throw, to more wide open looks with multiple routes and reads that could require any number of adjustments.
None of which takes into account that Fields isn’t running nearly as many plays designed to use his dynamic running ability, with a minuscule fraction of designed running plays when compared to last season. And it’s noticeable. One general manager who has watched Fields this year remarked on Tuesday, “It looks like they don’t want him running at all anymore.”
All of this leads to a few bottom-line questions in Chicago, which are not much different that the problem the Eagles had with Wentz years ago: What does the franchise want from the quarterback’s skill set and what does the quarterback want from the franchise? If the Bears want Fields to be a quarterback who largely stays in the pocket and has few plays designed for him to run it himself, this might be what he looks like in relation to the surrounding talent’s performance. And if Fields wants to be a dynamic runner who also has an opportunistic passing game that takes advantage of the game’s flow (think: Jalen Hurts in 2022), then that’s what he needs to relate to the staff.
Right now, neither seems to be on the same page and the quarterback just aired out a significant problem. He’s overthinking, and the staff has to react to that. Pulling back is coaching, just like pushing forward. The Eagles learned that the hard way with Wentz and were never able to repair some problems that were mutually inflicted by both the player and the way he was coached.
If the early returns are any indication, Fields could be next in line.
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