NASHVILLE — With one illusive slip out of the pocket and a calm, effortless 20-yard throw to third-string tight end Jesper Horsted in the end zone, Justin Fields emphatically reminded the NFL one thing Saturday night:
You might remember, when the 2021 NFL Draft concluded on May 1, Bears head coach Matt Nagy said something about his new first-round quarterback that was both hopeful and logical.
“I promise you every single person will know, including Justin, when it’s the right time and that’s naturally how it happens,” Nagy said.
Well, natural has happened. It’s time.
Look, I get it. When you draft a quarterback in the first round, you don’t want to set expectations too high. No one knows how any rookie — let alone a quarterback — will react when they get thrown into an NFL game. And, technically, Fields hasn’t even played a real NFL game yet.
But what if the Bears’ plan for patience — the one that declared veteran Andy Dalton the starter both before and after drafting Fields — set expectations too low? What if after just five weeks of training camp and three preseason games, everyone already knows it’s the right time to play the kid?
Saturday night’s preseason finale in Nashville was just the latest example of Fields’ readiness, as he stayed calm behind a shoddy offensive line and delivered a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive in 55 seconds to give the Bears a 14-10 lead before the half. It was Fields’ second scoring drive of 55 seconds or less in a two-minute situation this preseason. The first led to a field goal in just 40 seconds against the Dolphins.
Nagy has reiterated his intention to start Dalton against the Rams on Sept. 12 and the reasoning has been exhaustively explained and even partially defended/understood.
But then you see Fields on the field again and, well, he reminds you that The Plan should be altered. In fact, it doesn’t take long to think of 10 obvious reasons why Fields should be the Bears’ starting quarterback right now.
1. Fields is already the most dangerous, most explosive offensive player on the roster. You can’t name a player with his combination of size, speed and athleticism and, oh yeah, he happens to touch the football on every play when he’s out there.
2. Quite frankly, Fields has earned it. He’s done everything the Bears have asked since getting selected in the first round and is farther ahead in a complicated offensive scheme than the Bears even expected. Nagy has publicly admitted as much.
3. Fields will make the questionable offensive line better. After a month of injuries and moving pieces, the offensive line chemistry is far from where it needs to be, even if it looks like the Bears have settled on their starting five. And yes, that’s scary considering Aaron Donald awaits in Los Angeles. But the reality is that Fields is better equipped to handle pressure, even if he’s low on NFL experience. His athleticism gives him elusiveness that Dalton doesn’t possess and he’s deadly outside the pocket.
4. Schematically, Fields will make it much tougher on opposing defenses. This is related to reason No. 3. Defensive coordinators will have to prepare for Fields differently and the rookie will stress all levels of the field. Lose contain on Fields at your own risk. That impacts the way defenses rush the quarterback, blitz and cover on the back end. This will end up putting less stress on the offensive line as they work to gel on the fly. Oh, and it will greatly aid the running game.
5. If Fields did all his preseason damage with Rodney Adams, Jon’Vea Johnson and Jesper Horsted, imagine what he’ll do with Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and Jimmy Graham/Cole Kmet. Dalton didn’t get to work with the starting skill players in the preseason, but neither did Fields, and the offense simply looked better with the rookie. Meanwhile, Dalton received almost all of the first-team reps in training camp practices, but Fields continually held his own with the backups.
6. Fields needs the experience. Yes, there would be some value in Fields witnessing how Dalton goes about his business in the regular season and gets into a routine, but Fields will be developing his own routine regardless. Nothing replaces game experience. Nagy often talks about quarterbacks building a library of coverages in their head. Fields needs to start building his own library as soon as possible, especially since most of what he saw in the preseason was vanilla.
7. Justin Fields is not Patrick Mahomes. Andy Dalton is not Alex Smith. The 2021 Chicago Bears are not the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs. The original blueprint made a lot of sense, but plans change. And they should change when players force them to change.
8. You owe it to the defense. This one should honestly be higher on the list. Players like Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan and Eddie Jackson have carried this team since 2018 without much help from the offense. Imagine what they could do if they didn’t have to be on the field as long and actually play with a lead more often.
9. Playing Fields is better for Matt Nagy’s and Ryan Pace’s job security. I don’t believe this is much of an issue anyway, but I laugh at the conspiracy theory that Nagy isn’t playing Fields because he’s trying to buy himself more time. That would only be the case if Fields looked like he was going to be a bust. If Fields is ready, play him. He’ll look good! You’ll look good! The Bears will look good! Hooray, job security.
10. Justin Fields gives the Bears the best chance to win. Period. This isn’t hard.
It’s the right time. Everybody knows it.