Regardless of what “The Plan” is or how it will change in the regular season, it’s time for rookie quarterback Justin Fields to get first-team reps, both in practice and in the final preseason game next week.
Based on performance alone, Fields has earned it.
Saturday’s preseason game against the Bills played out just like the first preseason game against the Dolphins, with the Andy Dalton-led offense struggling to move the football before Fields came in to provide a spark. The only difference is that Dalton received an entire half of playing time, providing more of a legitimate sample size to be evaluated.
Punt. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Touchdown. Turnover on downs. Interception.
Those were the seven drives Dalton led against the Bills’ backups.
The touchdown came on a 73-yard bomb to Rodney Adams in the second quarter – and man, did Dalton need it. It was a good throw and even better catch by Adams, who appeared to pin the ball against cornerback Siran Neal’s helmet to haul it in. It was 1-on-1 coverage and Dalton and Adams managed to beat it – just as the heat on Dalton was mounting. At that point, the fans at Soldier Field were growing restless and starting to boo while chanting “We want Fields.”
“They want to see a good product out there. I didn’t hear any boos after the touchdown pass that I threw,” Dalton said. “So hopefully they’ll be cheering a lot."
But so far, there hasn’t been much to cheer about with Dalton on the field. In nine drives this preseason, the Bears have one touchdown and just four first downs.
Nagy was quick to point out that Dalton wasn’t working with the entire first-team unit Saturday, as Allen Robinson, Cole Kmet and David Montgomery all sat out. But Dalton also wasn’t facing the Bills’ first-team defense and he was largely throwing to the same receivers Fields had in the second half.
Meanwhile, Fields also had an offensive line featuring just one player with NFL playing experience. That was second-year left guard Arlington Hambright, who started one game for the Bears last year.
Regardless of the roster variables, there’s no denying Fields has been more impressive and produced better results. Even Nagy has conceded as much.
“Are there some things (Fields) can get better at? Yeah, for sure. We’re gonna say that three years from now. But at the same point in time, there’s also things that he’s doing better probably than we thought coming into this, which is good too. That’s what we want. We want that to happen,” Nagy said.
But now there’s only one preseason game left. And just one more week of true training camp practices. After that, the Bears will shift into preparing for their Week 1 opponent, the Los Angeles Rams. Doesn’t that make it tempting for the coaching staff to see if Fields can do the same good things he’s been doing against better competition?
“It does. It does,” Nagy said.
So will we see that this week -- potentially even against the Titans in the final preseason game?
“Yeah, there's a possibility of that, but those (starters), too, are they playing? Like, you look at the teams across the league right now -- like the guys for the Bills that played today, you know what I'm saying? So there's that fine line because you want to get to Week 1 and you want your guys for Week 1,” Nagy said. “We know what those starters can do.”
But we don’t know what those starters can do with Fields at quarterback. That’s the point.
And frankly, regardless of who starts the regular season, it makes sense to give Fields more of an opportunity in Nashville next week. Look at it like this: If there’s any chance Fields starts Week 1 against the Rams, then he needs the first-team reps in his final tune-up. And if the plan is to stick with Dalton in the regular season, well, that’s even more reason to give Fields value game reps against more talented players in his final opportunity.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Titans play their starters, which is why the first-team practice reps matter too.
Nagy continues to simultaneously say Dalton is the starter, while also declining to shut the door completely on Fields. He did it last week and he did it against Saturday.
“The stock for us in Andy is going to be what he does for us during the season. We have to see what Andy can do during the season with this team and with these guys. That has been our plan this whole entire time,” Nagy said.
“At the same point in time we also need to evaluate and see where Justin is at and what he can do, and again he's doing everything that we are asking him to do.”
It seems to me that if the Bears are really committed to Dalton as their starter in Week 1 then there would be no problem with telling him his preseason is over and he can start preparing for the Rams. On the other hand, if there’s a door open to Fields playing sooner rather than later – even if it’s not Week 1 – he needs to see time with the first-team offense against the first-team defense before that opportunity disappears.
It needs to happen this week.