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Emma’s Tailgater: Kurt Warner provides reason to believe in Bears’ Tyson Bagent

9 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — After walking off the field for the final time in his historic collegiate career, Tyson Bagent began to process reality. He may have played his last football game. 

Despite all he had accomplished over five years at Shepherd University and the firm faith he carries, Bagent knew well that nothing was guaranteed. Certainly not for a Division-II product constantly doubted. 

Bagent threw for a Division-II record 17,034 passing yards and 159 touchdowns, the most ever at any level of NCAA football. He is one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play at any level of college football. But scouts doubted that Bagent could translate his success at Shepherd into the NFL, questioned the skill set that led him this far and wondered whether he could handle this great leap. 

This has happened time and time again in the NFL. 

“My opinion is we’ve seen enough of all this stuff,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, once an undrafted Division-II standout in Bagent’s shoes. “We’ve seen enough of guys who played at smaller schools, didn’t have great college careers, didn’t have enough physical talent. We’ve seen enough to know none of that stuff matters at the end of the day. What matters if you can play at this level. 

“I think we write way too much into that at the college level. None of that has anything to do at this level. Everything is about what you do in the moments that you’re given. 

“I think my story is a perfect example.” 

Before becoming a two-time MVP, a Super Bowl champion and a Hall of Famer, Warner was released by the Packers and bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. A star at small school Northern Iowa, Warner played three seasons in the Arena Football League and one year in NFL Europe before finally earning an opportunity with the Rams. He played 12 years in perhaps the most improbable NFL career ever. 

As Bagent prepares for his first NFL start on Sunday as the Bears (1-5) host the Raiders (3-3) at Soldier Field, he can draw inspiration from stories like that of Warner. 

The 23-year-old Bagent reached a deal with the Bears on April 29 shortly after the final selections of the NFL Draft went without his name being called. He was the fourth quarterback on the depth chart behind starter Justin Fields and veteran backups P.J. Walker and Nathan Peterman. Bagent faced an unlikely chance just to even make the active roster entering the regular season. 

But Bagent out-played Peterman and proved he was competing for the backup job behind Fields. As Walker struggled during training camp, Bagent continued to ascend. In making their final roster cuts, the Bears released Walker – even despite signing him to a two-year deal in March – and cleared the way for Bagent to make the roster. 

[Who is Tyson Bagent? Get to know the Bears QB]

Fields suffered a dislocated right thumb during the Bears’ 19-13 loss to the Vikings last Sunday at Soldier Field, leaving Bagent to step in for his NFL debut. He finished 10-of-14 for 83 yards, one rushing touchdown and a late interception.  

One year ago this week, Bagent was preparing to lead Shepherd for a conference road game against West Chester. This Sunday, he will make his first NFL start guiding a charter franchise against the silver and black of the Raiders. 

“To look where I’m at and to look how everything has fallen into place, just nothing but extreme gratitude,” Bagent said. “And just feeling super blessed.” 

Warner, who is now an analyst with NFL Network, made his starting debut in 1999 with the Rams after Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. He led St. Louis to a 13-3 record in the regular season, earned MVP honors and won a Super Bowl title. 

Once dismissed by the NFL, Warner had climbed to the pinnacle of this league. 

“I think the biggest thing is always just let the game come to you the best you can,” Warner said. “It’s easy to kind of push the envelope and go, ‘Hey, this is my one opportunity and I got to show everybody I can play.’ Usually, when you do that, it takes you in the wrong direction. 

“There’s excitement. There’s anxiety. You name it, it’s all going through your mind. But it all came back to at the end of the day, I got 60 minutes with a football in my hand and it’s just football. It’s just playing ball.” 

Two years after Warner’s breakthrough season, an unheralded backup quarterback named Tom Brady stepped in for the Patriots and led them to the Super Bowl – and a stunning upset over Warner and the Rams. Brady went from the sixth round of the draft to winning seven championships. Last season, Brock Purdy proved that Mr. Irrelevant can thrive in the NFL.  

For all those who have been doubted before in this league, there are shining examples of triumph. Who’s to say Bagent won’t be the next great quarterback in the NFL? He will have Warner watching with hope for what’s to come. 

“At the end of the day, you want to continue to break down these walls that have been put up in the NFL that this is what a successful quarterback in the NFL looks like,” Warner said. “This is what the pedigree is to be successful. In any walk of life, let’s not put parameters on it, let’s not build walls, let’s not decide who can be successful and who can’t. Let’s have a clean slate. Let’s let everybody have a clean slate and let them decide.” 

What’s next for Fields? 

Justin Fields hoped he could return late in last Sunday’s game. He wanted to play through the sharp pain in his right hand and get back in the huddle with his Bears teammates.  

But Fields couldn’t grasp a football, the first and most imperative step towards taking the field once again. The Bears ruled him out during the second half of that loss to the Vikings and are now wondering when he will be able to return. 

A timetable for Fields is not yet clear as the Bears continue to evaluate the health of his right thumb. The team hopes by the end of this week to determine whether he will require surgery. The hope is that this injury can heal naturally and shorten Fields’ recovery time. 

“Nothing’s off the table, nothing’s on the table right now,” coach Matt Eberflus said Wednesday. “We still got to see where it is.” 

Fields suffered the injury early in the third quarter as he looked for a target on a key third down play. He was leveled by Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter and landed awkwardly on his right hand. In walking to the opposite sidelines, Fields was in clear discomfort and went off for an evaluation. 

It’s a frustrating setback for the 24-year-old Fields in his third NFL season, one in which he hoped to prove his place as the Bears’ franchise quarterback. Now, his near future – and long-term prospects – are in doubt. 

The Bears made additions around Fields this offseason with the acquisition of top target DJ Moore, free-agent signing of Nate Davis and first-round draft pick of Darnell Wright. The hope was that he could ascend in this pivotal season and reveal that he deserves a future in Chicago. 

Fields could’ve come through this season poised for a lucrative long-term contract extension and forcing general manager Ryan Poles to build a championship-caliber team around him – or he could’ve fallen short of those hopes and left it clear that the Bears must try again for their next quarterback. But this injury comes at a time in which Fields’ fate is still unclear.  

Fields struggled through his first three games, then enjoyed a two-game stretch in which he threw for 617 yards and 8 touchdowns. Now, he’s set for a potential extended absence. 

By the end of this week, the Bears will get a sense of how Fields’ health has progressed. They saw the swelling reduce early this week, a positive indication of natural healing. Ultimately, a decision must be made as to whether Fields will require surgery and an extended time sidelined. 

“He’s still upbeat,” Moore said of Fields. “Looking forward to him getting back. I know he wants to be back, but for right now, we got to go with Tyson and he knows that.” 

Snapping back 

On three consecutive plays for Tyson Bagent’s first series in the NFL, he was reaching for the football.  

Cody Whitehair didn’t snap the football on point for Bagent and there was a clear problem. Really, it was the continuation of an alarming trend over the years. Though he’s one of the most proven and reliable players on this roster, Whitehair has struggled with his snapping. 

The Bears pulled Whitehair from the game in place of veteran Lucas Patrick. In addressing the decision, Eberflus denied that it was related to Whitehair’s snapping struggles. 

“We wanted to settle Tyson down and it was good to do that,” Eberflus said. “I think it really did settle him down a little bit. Again, (Patrick) has got more experience.” 

That is not actually true. It’s actually Whitehair has 3,927 career snaps at center, compared to Patrick’s 1,258 snaps at the position. 

An eight-year veteran, Whitehair worked as the Bears’ starting center during the course of this offseason program and throughout training camp. He began his career as a starting center and earned Pro Bowl recognition in 2018 for his play at that position. 

But the Bears seem to have seen enough of his problems with steady snapping. Eberflus declined to reveal how the new starting offensive line would take shape but Whitehair is not expected to play a role at center.  

The Bears could turn back to Patrick at that position or perhaps even trust second-year center Doug Kramer, who was designated for a return from injured reserve last week. 

As for Whitehair, there’s disappointment in being in this position. But he is taking accountability for the issues. 

“I’ve just got to get better at snapping the ball,” Whitehair said. “I take full responsibility for that. That has to get done.  

“I take a lot of pride in my work.” 

After losing starting right guard Nate Davis to a high ankle sprain last Sunday, the Bears must reshuffle their offensive line once again. That leaves an opportunity for Whitehair to remain in the starting group, even if not at center. 

The Bears have utilized five different starting offensive line combinations through six games this season. 

‘Going to take a village’  

Raiders star Davante Adams has played nearly a full season against the Bears over the course of his 10-year career, now with 16 matchups against his former rivals in Chicago. 

Adams has torched the Bears in those games, hauling in 81 receptions for 1,024 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has been part of 14 victories, each coming with the Packers.  

Now playing his second season with the Raiders, the All-Pro wide receiver Adams has been held in check during recent weeks. He had just 6 receptions for 74 yards and no touchdowns over the last two games, including a contest against the Patriots in which he had just 2 catches. The great Bill Belichick was successful once again in taking away the opponent’s star. 

Can the Bears follow the Belichick blueprint in containing Adams? 

“Everybody’s trying to find a way to slow this guy down,” said Bears safeties coach Andre Curtis. “He’s been a really, really good, impactful player for a while. You definitely have to have a heightened awareness of where he is. When he breaks the huddle, everybody’s got to know where he is. Then within the coverages you got to do things to try to make it hard and difficult for him to find his voids, to find his pockets, changing up man, zone looks on him. Doing different things. So, it’s going to take a village to stop that guy.” 

For his part, cornerback Jaylon Johnson is hoping he can shadow Adams on each play. That would be a departure from the Bears’ defensive philosophy, which typically has Johnson playing one side of the field as opposed to a particular matchup. 

Johnson wants to line up against Adams and try to shut him down. 

“I want any and every big matchup I can get,” Johnson said. “So, they know what I want and at the end of the day it’s not truthfully about what I want. I mean, if that’s something that they feel is in the best interest of the team, in the best interest of the defense, I’m going to go out there and continue to do what I do and play at a high level no matter who is in front of me.  

“I’m definitely looking forward to that matchup and if I can follow him around it’s even better.” 

Quote to note 

“I was going to basically just CrossFit my life away, get as ripped and jacked as I possibly could and be a teacher at Martinsburg High School.” — Tyson Bagent, on his Plan B if not for signing with the Bears. 

Injury report 

QB Justin Fields (thumb) — When Fields will return to action has yet to be determined, but he won’t be on the field Sunday against the Raiders. 

RG Nate Davis (ankle) — The Bears have already ruled out Davis with a high ankle sprain, which could land him on injured reserve by the weekend. He is facing a multi-game absence. 

S Eddie Jackson (foot) — After a three-game absence, Jackson returned to action last Sunday but had this injury flare up. He tested it out this week and a decision on his status will follow prior to this game. 

RB Roschon Johnson (concussion) — Johnson has until 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday to be cleared from the concussion protocol. He suffered this concussion during the game at Washington two weeks ago. 

RT Darnell Wright (shoulder) — This is a new injury for Wright, whose status for Sunday is suddenly in doubt. 

DE Yannick Ngakoue (back) — We have reached the point of this season where there is wear and tear on just about everybody.  

OL Dan Feeney (knee) — The reserve guard Feeney popped up on the injury report for the first time this season. 

RB Travis Homer (hamstring) — Given that the Bears have played shorthanded at running back and on special teams, they will welcome the return of Homer. 

C Doug Kramer (thumb) — Expect Kramer to be activated from injured reserve by Saturday. 

CB Terell Smith (mononucleosis) — This will be a three-to-four week absence for the rookie Smith. 

Emma’s Prediction (3-3): Bears 24, Raiders 19 

In a season full of storylines (and chaos) for the Bears, it only seems appropriate for the backup quarterback – perennially the most popular figure in Chicago – to lead a victory at Soldier Field. 

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