One of the more legendary tales in all of sports is the tale of Wally Pipp. A power-hitting first baseman for the New York Yankees, Pipp led the American League with 114 runs batted in and 19 triples in the 1924 season. The following year, as the Yankees were struggling in June, Pipp sat out a game.
His replacement? Lou Gehrig, who would go on and play in 2,130 games.
The reasons for Pipp sitting down that day have become blurred over the years. According to one version of the story, Pipp had a headache that June morning and asked the trainers for two aspirin to deal with the pain. When that was reported to the coaches, they told Pipp he could rest that day and they would give the young Gehrig a chance. Later in life Pipp recalled that those were the “two most expensive aspiring in history.”
Others thought Pipp was actually benched, as the power-hitter was batting just .244 at the time, and had hit for a woeful .181 in the previous three weeks.
Either way, Pipp sat down, Gehrig started in his place, and the rest is history.
Could something similar be happening in Chicago? After starting the first two games of the season for the Bears, Andy Dalton is out with a knee injury and Matt Nagy — to the delight of many — has announced that Justin Fields will start Sunday for the Bears against the Cleveland Browns.
Could Fields play the role of Gehrig in this modern version of the tale? If so, here is how he keeps the job.
Aggression in the downfield passing game
(Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)
An element that Fields brings to the Chicago offense might be his aggression. During his time at Ohio State, Fields was more than willing to push the football downfield when opportunities in the vertical passing game were available. As a rookie in just his second NFL game, Fields was more than willing to continue that trend. When Dalton went down in the second quarter against Cincinnati, Fields came off the bench and on his first attempt he targeted Darnell Mooney on this deep out route: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/FieldsMooneyOutRoute.mp4">[/video] This is the kind of timing, rhythm and anticipation throw you expect from Dalton, but instead it is Fields looking downfield as he is just getting warmed up. His footwork and eyes are tied to the route concept, and he makes a decisive read and throw. Beyond that, the throw comes from the left hashmarks to the right sideline, and is placed perfectly. Fields targeted Mooney in the third quarter on this crossing route working right-to-left, and again you see an aggressive decision from the quarterback that pays off for the offense: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/FieldsMooneyCrosser.mp4">[/video] The rookie passer buys a little time in the pocket -- we'll get to that aspect of his game in a moment -- and gives this crossing route time to develop. He then puts this throw right on Mooney, and the Bears have a nice gain deep into Cincinnati territory. Perhaps Fields' best throw against the Bengals was an incompletion, but it also provides evidence of his willingness to attack a secondary downfield. Facing a 2nd and 9 early in the fourth quarter, the Bears have the football on the Cincinnati 35-yard line. Fields likes the matchup that Allen Robinson has, so he takes a shot deep: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/FieldsRobinsonGoRoute-1.mp4">[/video] Robinson adjusts to the throw but cannot reel it in, and the pass falls incomplete. Despite the failed connection, this decision and throw bodes well not just for Fields and his development, but for the Bears offense on the whole. The young passer's willingness to attack downfield, whether along the sidelines or deep downfield, gives Nagy and the Bears the potential to stress defenses to all levels of the field. This trait is going to be critical for Fields and Chicago over the next few weeks, and years.
Athleticism as a weapon
(Eileen T. Meslar-USA TODAY Sports)
The more we think about and study young quarterbacks, the more we believe that athleticism is a pillar to their development. The ability of a young quarterback to buy time with his legs, or contribute as an athlete, is important for a few reasons. First, it opens up ways for the coaching staff to involve the quarterback in the offense, whether as a runner, on RPO designs, or by moving him outside of the pocket on boot-action designs. Second, athleticism allows the quarterback to mask breakdowns in protection. For teams that are struggling up front, this might be essential to keeping the quarterback upright in the pocket. Third, sometimes a young quarterback needs just a bit longer to make a decision with the football, if the picture in the secondary is a bit cloudy. A quarterback who is adept at buying time with his feet, often gets that extra second to make the right decision with the football. Fields certainly offers that athleticism. In the third quarter against Cincinnati, the Bears faced a 2nd and 4. Nagy looked to use that athletic ability on a zone read design, with Fields meshing with David Montgomery in the backfield and deciding whether to keep or pull. Even though the Bengals defend this play well, and it looks like Fields will be stopped for a loss, the athletic rookie turns a potential loss of yardage into a first down: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/FieldsZoneRead.mp4">[/video] This play might also offer a little teaching moment for the young QB. As you can see the Bengals are ready for Fields to keep the football here, as defensive end Trey Hendrickson is lying in wait. Fields still keeps the ball and tries to beat him to the edge, but Hendrickson is able to cut off his path. Fields then spins around him for the yardage, but maybe next time he decides to hand this ball off to the RB. Then you see moments like this, where Fields pulls the football down and gets what he can with his legs: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/09/FieldsScrambleFinal.mp4">[/video] This play comes on a 3rd and 10 situation with just under three minutes remaining. The Bengals trail by three, but with a stop Cincinnati can get the football back for Joe Burrow and have a chance to win. Fields retreats in the pocket as Chicago sends three vertical routes downfield, along with a crosser from tight end Cole Kmet. Fields, not liking what he sees downfield, feels the pocket start to break down around him. So he pulls the football down and, after shaking off a tackle attempt near the line of scrimmage, cuts upfield and gets to the first down marker. Ballgame. These two traits, his aggression as a downfield passer and his athletic ability in and around the pocket, are going to be two huge reasons why Fields will have success early in his career. They also might be the reasons he keeps this job going forward.