With veteran quarterback Andy Dalton unable to play in Week 3 due to a knee injury, the Chicago Bears have named Justin Fields, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, as their starter for Sunday’s tilt with the Tennessee Titans.
But while the Bears framed Fields’ upcoming start as a fill-in while Dalton recovers, the development likely pushes the franchise past the point of no return with the rookie signal-caller.
Andy Dalton’s injury accelerated Justin Fields’ timetable
From the outset, the Bears have tempered expectations for Fields through their public statements. Head coach Matt Nagy refused to entertain the possibility that Fields could overtake Dalton before Week 1, preaching patience with the development process.
“When the time is right, I promise you every single person will know, including Justin, when it’s the right time,” Nagy said of the rookie during the Bears’ post-draft press conference. “And that’s naturally how it happens.”
Nagy and Bears brass echoed those sentiments throughout training camp and the preseason. Even Dalton’s struggles in exhibition play and Fields’ comparatively strong performance didn’t affect the team’s stance. Ultimately, Nagy played Fields for limited snaps in the season opener while Dalton started and received the lion’s share of the work under center.
That plan changed when Dalton suffered a bone bruise in his knee during the Bears’ Week 2 tilt with the Cincinnati Bengals. Fields went on to play the majority of the game while Dalton, still in pads, viewed from the sideline. Despite some rookie mistakes from Fields, Chicago held on to win 20-17.
The following Monday, Nagy received questions about whether Dalton would continue to start if medically cleared. Rather than continue to tow the company line, Nagy declined to give a direct answer. A team PR staffer subsequently confirmed Dalton would start when healthy, but the initial reticence from the coach revealed a shift in Chicago’s thinking.
Following the “Hollywood” script
Even though the Bears maintain that Dalton will eventually reclaim his job from the first-round pick, the NFL rarely operates in that fashion. Talented young players consistently overtake less-capable veterans, especially when the team invested a premium draft pick into the former. And once a change occurs, clubs rarely reverse course.
Just a season ago, the Los Angeles Chargers backed veteran Tyrod Taylor as the starting quarterback despite spending the sixth overall pick on Oregon signal-caller Justin Herbert. Taylor opened the season under center, but a freak pregame incident with the medical staff forced him to miss a Week 2 tilt with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. Herbert went on to start, accounting for 311 passing yards and two total touchdowns while nearly guiding the Chargers to an upset.
In the direct aftermath, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn declared Taylor as the starter when healthy. However, Herbert continued to play exquisitely, throwing for 1,231 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just two picks during the ensuing four games. By the time Los Angeles’ medical staff cleared Taylor, the team had no decision to make. Herbert remained the starter for the rest of the season.
That situation could prove instructive for the Bears. If Fields, now receiving all the No. 1 reps in practice and executing a game plan designed for his skill set, plays up to his potential Sunday, Nagy will have a difficult time explaining a shift back to Dalton to the locker room.
A strong game from Fields should finalize changing of the guard
The Bears draw a difficult opponent for Fields’ first start, traveling to FirstEnergy Stadium to take on the Cleveland Browns. The Browns defense features a terrifying pass-rush tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney along with stalwart defensive tackle Malik Jackson and a rejuvenated Malik McDowell. That group battered 2019 MVP Patrick Mahomes in Week 1 and knocked out Taylor, now with the Houston Texans, the following Sunday.
However, Fields’ mobility and football IQ — he has already begun making protection adjustments at the line of scrimmage — give him a chance to negate the Browns’ impressive defensive front. His downfield accuracy could also help him overcome Cleveland’s single-high-heavy defense.
If Fields demonstrates a high baseline of play, he will further remove the prospect of returning to the bench when Dalton returns. For all Nagy’s praise of Dalton’s intelligence and mastery of the offense, Fields already has the tools to bridge that gap. Now, he has the opportunity to prove himself as well.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference