LAKE FOREST – While Justin Fields was busy dazzling Bears fans during his preseason debut last weekend, Andy Dalton was standing on the sideline watching.
When the game was over, Dalton’s postgame press conference consisted of just five questions and lasted less than 2.5 minutes. Frankly, it was a little awkward.
He played six plays in the game and didn’t have the same chance to prove himself in what was also his first game as Bear. Then he watched as Soldier Field went crazy when Fields replaced him.
“This is such a unique situation. For a guy like Andy -- where I feel really comfortable is knowing that he's comfortable in his own skin,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Tuesday. “He believes in himself and he knows that we believe in him. That's not easy being on that sideline for that game and hearing when Justin runs out, all the cheers. I mean, let's just face it, if that was any of us, that's not easy.”
Dalton’s response this week – both in practice and behind the scenes – is notable. And after an OK practice Monday, Dalton delivered a strong performance Tuesday and thoroughly outplayed Fields, who struggled.
“Andy Dalton doesn't get enough credit, I think,” Bears safety Tashaun Gipson said. “Andy Dalton has had a super fine camp, man. Obviously, I'm seeing it up close and it's a good problem to have when you have two quarterbacks that you're super comfortable with going and playing in a game on Sundays. It's not often that you can have that, especially personally speaking.”
Gipson had the opportunity to play with Deshaun Watson in 2019, but otherwise has spent the other eight years of his career in Cleveland, Jacksonville and Chicago, so he knows a little bit about the difference between good and bad quarterback play. And those comments about Dalton came during a longer answer about Fields, as Gipson said: “When you gifted like that, it's God-given. I'm rocking with him.”
Consider Gipson just the latest seasoned veteran to talk glowingly about Fields, while also making sure Dalton gets the respect he deserves. At this point, both are genuine.
And the reality is that while Fields’ struggles Tuesday were an outlier during what has otherwise been a strong camp, Dalton has also done plenty to show that he can be a capable starting quarterback when the regular season begins, even if he can’t deliver the same electricity that Fields has shown throughout his football life. Dalton is fully aware of the Fields hype, but it doesn’t’ appear to be affecting him.
“He understands the excitement,” Nagy said. “He's not saying, 'Why is everyone cheering for Justin?' He gets it. He understands it. He's helping Justin get to this point. That's what I love about Andy. Our teammates see that and they feel that.”
While Nagy has never declared an “open” quarterback competition, he hasn’t dismissed the idea of Fields challenging Dalton for the starting job. The reps in practice continue show that Dalton is the unquestioned “QB1,” but it’s also obvious that the coaching staff likes that Fields has put pressure on the veteran.
During Tuesday’s session with the media, Nagy used his hands to illustrate a clash between two players and said, “You can't do this here. Those two guys, they got to be going this way (pointing up).”
From Nagy’s standpoint, that’s exactly what Dalton and Fields are doing. He acknowledged that one might outperform the other on a given day, but they’re never clashing.
“When you have that, it's positive, it's healthy and guys grow. Andy becomes better. Justin becomes better. Nick (Foles) becomes better. We become better because we're doing it this way together and they're not going against each other,” Nagy said.
There’s never been any question about Dalton and Fields getting along. Pretty much everyone who’s ever encountered Dalton calls him a “true pro.” But there was some question this week about how Dalton would respond to Fields’ performance last week against the Dolphins, when the rookie appeared to have the advantage in both joint practices and the game.
Through two of four practices this week, Dalton has been the better quarterback and the reps in Saturday’s game against the Bills figure to be closer to even, giving the veteran a much fairer shot to shine in front of Bears fans. Oddly, with Mitchell Trubisky now on the Bills, the game figures to have a weird “A Christmas Carol” vibe with the Ghosts of Bears Quarterbacks Past, Present and Future all on the field Saturday afternoon.
Dalton knows his time as the starter is limited, but that time is not predetermined. While Fields’ readiness will ultimately determine the timeline, Dalton is getting more than his fair share of the reps – virtually all the first-team reps – to hold the rookie off.
“Everybody talks about how he's a great person, but he's coming out here and making plays in practice. The players are seeing that,” Nagy said. “We know it's not easy. But if you just worry about being the best Bears quarterback you can be, help everybody else out, you help us out, and in the end it's a win for everybody.”