Any discussion about Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy's decision to begin the 2021 season with Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback instead of first-round rookie Justin Fields inevitably will turn to the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes.
For better or worse, Mahomes is now the poster boy for those who advocate sitting a rookie quarterback for a year. (As if a year on the sideline being watered by a veteran automatically means a young QB will grow into the next Mahomes.)
Nagy's presence on the Chiefs coaching staff during that season backs up the comparison. Surely, if anyone had intimate knowledge of how Mahomes rookie season unfolded, it would be Nagy.
With Nagy stiff-arming every suggestion that Fields should be the starter and allowed to grow on the gridiron -- not watching Dalton -- the question becomes: Did the season Mahomes spent watching Alex Smith spur his success or simply delay it?
Joining The Rich Eisen Show, Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce was asked this exact question. Does he, who had a front-row seat for that season, think Mahomes needed that time to become the MVP, $500 million QB he is today.
"I'm a little biased in who Patrick Mahomes is," Kelce responded. "I think I saw it from the get-go, his determination, his ability to see coverages early, feel confident in what he's seeing, be able to throw a good ball. And then, obviously, his ability to make plays when the play breaks down. It's just second to no one that I've ever played with or ever seen on the field. So, I'm a little biased when I say I don't think he needed that year. But I do think it helped him be ready for the next season, more than anything, without a doubt.
"Him understanding Alex's professionalism, just how to be a pro. It's reassuring. It gives you that confidence that 'OK, I know how to do this. This is a guy who has had success in the league for numerous years, almost a decade now, and he does it like this. I can see how he has success and turn it into my own madness and my own psychic.' And I think that really helped him."
Kelce is slightly playing both sides here -- understandable given that without access to different timelines in the multiverse, we'll have no way of truly answering the hypothetical -- but it's clear he thinks Mahomes would have been a star with or without the year of tutoring.
"But at the same time, when you're talking about "needed," I don't know, man, I think Patrick Mahomes has something about him," Kelce continued. "He was going to find a way. It might not have been early, as fast as the 50 touchdowns his first season starting. It might not have been something like that. But I think he would still have found success."
Kelce noted that every rookie is going to struggle with certain aspects of making the leap to the NFL. It's expected. The question is whether it's better to learn under fire or from the safety of the sideline.
"Those are all things first-year quarterbacks and first-year players all struggle with," Kelce said when asked about commanding the huddle and learning new offenses. "Getting in and out of the huddle, being confident with what they're seeing, know their progression, stuff like that. I think it definitely helped (Mahomes to learn from Smith). Like I said, I definitely think it helped him, but Pat was always pretty good in terms of being on top of the play-calling and understanding where he needed to go versus what coverages and stuff like that."
The verdict: Greatness will shine regardless of circumstance.
A QB destined to become a franchise changer will get there one way or another. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Some, like Justin Herbert in L.A. last season, will prove greatness when thrust into the spotlight. Others, like Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago, never fully figured it out after starting 12 games as a rookie.
The Bears believe Fields will finally be the answer to a decades-long QB question in Chicago. They traded up in the first round with that belief in mind. How long Nagy keeps him anchored to the bench likely won't change whether or not he'll become that star.