LAKE FOREST -- The Bears might not have an “open” competition at quarterback, but they sure as heck have a competition.
You know, because it’s football. And at every position on every team, there’s one player trying to take another player’s starting job.
It just so happens in Chicago that every member of the Bears’ organization – from the front office to the coaching staff to the marketing staff to the sales staff – is invested in seeing Justin Fields have a very successful career over the next 15ish years.
Even Bears head coach Matt Nagy offered up that reminder after Fields’ impressive preseason debut Saturday at Soldier Field: “We all want the same thing. We understand the buzz. We understand the excitement. That's why we drafted him.”
But Monday morning, back at Halas Hall, there was another reminder that this is not an open competition at the quarterback spot. And once again, Nagy repeated: “Whatever is best for the Chicago Bears is in the end what we're going to do.”
For what it’s worth, Nagy is doing a spectacular job of threading the needle between maintaining that Andy Dalton is still the starter while not slowing down the Fields hype train. But let’s call last week what was it was: A huge win for Justin Fields.
So where do things stand as the Bears go into Week 4 of training camp, with just two preseason games 11 practices remaining before it’s officially Week 1 of the regular season? Let’s start with what both quarterbacks need to do this week:
The first preseason game was somewhat unfair for Dalton, who was only on the field for six plays. Yes, he had two series and failed to gain a first down, but the three-and-outs weren’t really his fault (although Damiere Byrd appeared to have more separation than Darnell Mooney on the first third down slant throw).
“It's hard to say much good or bad about that with the six plays so we're going to get him some more snaps this coming preseason game,” Nagy said.
But let’s be honest – this is an important week for Andy Dalton. When Saturday’s game against the Bills is over, there’s going to be more tape to evaluate and if the offense is still sputtering with the veteran at quarterback, it will matter. The Bears are still trying to win games this year and while they need to develop Fields, they also need to give themselves the best chance to beat the Rams in Week 1.
But while Dalton will get more reps in the game this week, it still sounds like Fields is going to play a lot, so the veteran might have a limited amount of time to impress with the first-team offense.
“I would say Andy will play a little bit more, but we're still gonna try to get as many reps as we can for Justin,” Nagy said.
That’s why the practice reps carry a lot of weight too and both quarterbacks threw some passes on Monday that they would like back. Dalton was picked off by cornerback Jaylon Johnson twice – one that was returned for a touchdown and one on a deep ball to the end zone. Both were great plays by Johnson. Fields, meanwhile, was picked off by Teez Tabor and had another possible interception dropped.
If last week was Fields’ week to shine, this week is Dalton’s week to respond.
Fields’ performance against the Dolphins may have earned the rookie more reps with the first-team, even if he’ll continue to be the second quarterback up in every practice period.
“I think that that's real. I think you need to look into that,” Nagy said Monday when asked if there’s value in getting Fields reps with players like Allen Robinson. “It would be good to see what he does versus the first-team defense, you know?”
Monday’s practice didn’t deliver any obvious first-team reps, but we’ll see what the rest of the week has in store. The Bears have periodically worked players like Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet into reps with Fields and that might start to include Robinson. Nagy also mentioned that there’s “zero” scheming going on in these preseason games, so the practices allow the defense to test Fields a little more with disguised coverages and blitzes. That’s most effective with the first-team defense.
But regardless of the type of reps Fields is getting, the Bears just want to see him continue to get better, which appears to be happening. Last week, Fields had an OK day in his first practice against the Dolphins, but then looked much better the next day before shining in the game. And even in the game, Fields was far from perfect. The command of the offense was choppy early but improved as the game went along. Nagy also pointed out that Fields got to a check-down option late on his first series, but then fixed that issue later in the second quarter on the 40-second field goal drive. That improvement, whether over practice days or series within games, must have the coaching staff excited.
A similar progression this week – granted without joint practices against the opponent – would be another big victory for Fields.
The big picture
While the fans’ patience is already being tested, it’s an important to take a deep breath and be excited that when it comes to Fields’ development, the first three weeks of training camp went about as well as the Bears could have hoped. Nagy and the coaching staff have set this whole thing up in a way where the rookie can work his way onto the field with his own play. It might not be an “open” competition, but if on Sept. 6 -- when the Bears’ officially jump into their Week 1 game prep against the Rams – it’s abundantly obvious to everyone involved that Fields deserves to be the starter, then he’ll probably be the starter.
That’s still three weeks away. There are still two more preseason games and 11 practices before we get to that point. And they all matter.