LAKE FOREST, Ill. — “This is Justin’s time.”
And just like that, an exciting era of Chicago Bears football is unequivocally underway. No more ambiguity. No more dancing around the subject in press conferences. Justin Fields is the Bears’ starting quarterback.
“When (the knee injury) happened to Andy (Dalton), it did change the course of where we're at because it forced (Fields) to play,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “Now you get to see him not in the preseason, but you get to see him play, and now we've gotta be able to say, 'OK, where is he — with what he's doing as an NFL quarterback, where is he? Do we feel comfortable with him?’”
That answer is now a resounding yes, and both quarterbacks were made aware of the switch Tuesday.
Since Fields was drafted, Nagy has kept a consistent message: Dalton is the starter when healthy. He even repeated that message Monday morning, which is partially why Fields admitted he “was a little bit surprised” by being named the starter going forward.
But the timing of the quarterback switch is pretty simple, actually. Two things forced Nagy to make a call:
- Dalton being deemed healthy.
- The tape.
While Nagy managed to create another #BearsTwitter explosion Monday by repeating that Dalton was the starter when healthy, he really had no reason to say otherwise until Dalton was actually pronounced healthy. That happened sometime in the last 48 hours. And once that happened, Nagy had to make a call. That’s where Sunday’s tape against the Lions came in. As much as Fields’ talents were on display in the preseason, those plays didn’t come against defenses scheming for the Bears’ offense. And other than that, the Bears only had some up-and-down play vs the Bengals and the disaster in Cleveland to evaluate.
But then Sunday’s game against the Lions happened. And yes, it’s the Lions, but in just 17 passing attempts, Fields managed to complete five passes of at least 20 air yards. In the previous three games, the Bears had just one such throw, and it was also thrown by Fields.
Suddenly, the Bears’ offense had an explosive element to complement a good running game. Both of those threats existing simultaneously has been rare over the last three seasons. Suddenly, it was right there on tape and there was no way to deny it.
So if you’re Nagy, what choice did you really have?
“I’ve always said from the beginning, to everybody in here, to our players, coaches to y’all, that we’ll know (when he’s ready) and he’s done everything to show us that he’s ready for this opportunity,” Nagy said.
There are certainly elements to the Bears’ plan for Fields that can be criticized, but most scenarios were always going to lead the franchise to this point — with the rookie playing sooner rather than later. Sunday’s performance gave Nagy the confidence he needed to roll with Fields, and frankly, going back to Dalton against the Raiders would have been the riskier move.
“Obviously we do (feel comfortable with Fields). And now we've gotta move forward with it. You're right, it is a big decision, but we feel very good about it and are looking forward to it,” Nagy said.
As much as it might be tempting to continue to look at how the Bears got to this point, it’s much more important to keep an eye on what the Bears do to continue to develop Fields while he’s playing. The Lions game was just as much about a shift in offensive philosophy as it was Fields playing well. But the two work together and shouldn’t be messed with.
On the other hand, opponents are going to make adjustments. Just because heavier protections and tighter formations worked against the Lions, doesn’t mean they’ll work all game long against the Raiders this Sunday. And that’s why the spotlight will continue to be on Nagy and his offensive coaching staff each and every week. After getting criticized for not giving offensive coordinator Bill Lazor enough credit after Sunday’s win, Nagy noticeably praised both Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo Wednesday for their work with Fields.
“It’ll be our job now as coaches to continue to teach and help him grow as we go and develop into that NFL quarterback that we know he can be,” Nagy said. “Now, there’s also gonna be ebbs and flows with this process. We get that. We all understand that, but I think Justin has shown that he has the ability to also handle that. We all went through a pretty rough game in Cleveland and I love the way that he bounced back and so this is about everybody, this is all of us doing this together.”
Despite giving up play calling duties for a second time last week, Nagy is still going to play a major part in the development of Justin Fields this year. And believe it or not, there's still a very real scenario in which the two are paired together in Chicago for a long time. But whether or not that happens will depend a lot on what happens in the next 13 games.
Removing the unnecessary quarterback controversy Wednesday was an important step. And now the whole team can move forward without any question about whose time it is.
It’s Justin’s time.