The first start for a backup quarterback can be the best one a lot of the time.
That’s a theory one veteran personnel man holds.
“Nobody has any tape on you,” he said. “They don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you throw the ball. They don’t know what your game is. They don’t know how you’re being used.
“A lot of backups can win their first game, and I have seen it over time. Some of them didn’t have any arm strength but they do things a little different.”
Tyson Bagent won his first start for the Bears in Week 7, a 30-12 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders at Soldier Field. It’s worth wondering if that result played a factor in owner Mark Davis’ decision to fire general manager Dave Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels on Tuesday.
The second act wasn’t quite as smooth for Bagent in a 30-13 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 232 yards and two interceptions. That brings us to Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at the Caesars Superdome.
The Bears are headed to one of the loudest stadiums in the league against a veteran defense that has thrived against the pass. It’s a big test. The Saints (4-4) haven’t played a very difficult schedule — their four victories have come against the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans, who have a composite record of 9-22 — but they rank fifth in total defense (296.4 yards per game) and fourth in points (19.3).
Opposing quarterbacks have a 73.2 passer rating, No. 2 in the league, and are completing only 57.5% of passes. The Saints are No. 3 on third down at 32.4%. The Superdome can be a house of horrors for quarterbacks, especially those playing for the Bears. They haven’t won a game in New Orleans since Oct. 27, 1991, when Jim Harbaugh threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Tom Waddle for a 20-17 victory. In handing the Saints their first loss that season, Harbaugh finished 5 of 22 for 61 yards with the one score and two interceptions. Ugly.
In a 2011 game there, Jay Cutler completed only 19 of 45 passes and was sacked six times in a 30-13 loss. Mitch Trubisky was 14 of 32 in a 20-12 loss in New Orleans in 2017. Numbers in the other four losses since the 1991 winner aren’t very good. (They beat the Saints 20-17 in November 2005 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.)
It’s guaranteed to be the most hostile environment Bagent has played in after Sunday’s subdued — by NFL standards — experience in Inglewood, Calif.
“Whether you’re in a walk-through, whether you’re in practice reps, you’ve got to create that noise so you can continue to work on your hand signals and all that stuff and make sure everyone’s on the same page with the cadences and when we’re getting to it, when we make adjustments and all that stuff,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “It’s just that repetition and you’ve got to make sure that every single rep — walk-through or live — has got to be in that type of mentality, that type of environment and that kind of process for you.”
The Bears are going to have to execute much better all-around to avoid being in chase mode. The first three third downs last Sunday led to their doom. Bagent was sacked by Joey Bosa on third-and-11, knocking the Bears out of range for a long field-goal attempt. A crossing route to tight end Cole Kmet on third-and-16 came up 3 yards short of the line to gain and then Ja’Sir Taylor intercepted Bagent on a third-and-8 throw intended for DJ Moore.
“They do an unconventional Cover-2 and DJ, been in the league, experienced, sees it, converts the proper way,” Getsy said. “Tyson just didn’t on that particular one. He’ll learn from that. He’s a guy who doesn’t usually make the same mistake twice. I thought he did a really nice job from that play and then bouncing back.”
The Chargers turned the takeaway into a field goal, making it 17-0 with 8:50 remaining in the second quarter after two punts and the pick. The week before against the Raiders, the offense stayed out of third-and-longs for the most part. Nine of the 13 third downs required 6 yards or less, so the Bears had run and pass options and Bagent helped keep the offense on schedule.
The personnel man said there were obvious questions about Bagent’s arm strength against the Raiders. That is why the Bears went max protect and he threw deep — 41 yards — to Darnell Mooney on the first snap against the Chargers. Bagent would have had a 40-yard touchdown pass to Velus Jones had the receiver not stumbled. So he proved he can cut it loose a bit.
Bagent has done a nice job of getting the ball out quickly. He has taken only two sacks, and the Bears have only three in the last two games as Nathan Peterman was sacked trying to attempt a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half against the Raiders.
The Saints have played man coverage almost 60% of the time this season, the second-highest rate in the league, and they don’t blitz a lot. They like to run games up front to create pressure and disguise late movement in the secondary with veteran safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. That’s going to create some unique challenges for Bagent, even as the Bears attempt to prepare him for every scenario.
“Repetition is the mother of all learners,” Bagent said. “So the more reps I can get at this full speed in the game, I’m sure the more comfortable I’ll be. So it’s always good to continue to get reps, and I’m just looking forward to continue to develop the best that I can through this time.”
It’s a difficult situation to prepare for. The Saints have a scouting report on Bagent and understand what Getsy and the staff are asking him to do. With more experience, we’ll find out where Bagent’s career could be headed.
He’s a backup. He’s an undrafted rookie. It’s the Superdome. But it’s the NFL and players aren’t evaluated on a curve.
“Everybody has to come meet the standard of what we want to go to — not just quarterback but everybody,” Getsy said.