If we’re being honest, Matt Nagy’s decision to make Andy Dalton the Chicago Bears starting quarterback over Justin Fields looked occasionally justified when Fields was forced into action in Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Soldier Field.
But that doesn’t mean Dalton should remain the starter if his knee injury heals up by next week’s game in Cleveland.
Fields’ unofficial debut as QB1 went as expected. He showed off his incredible talent — including his game-clinching 3rd-and-9 scramble for 10 yards — and he showed off his inexperience too. There were false starts he accepted the blame for, there were a few throws that were a touch too late, and there was the brutal interception that allowed the Bengals to get back in the game.
“I don’t think I'm pleased with how I played at all,” Fields said. “I think there's a lot more in me that I have to show, and I know that's going to come with time. I know it's not going to happen overnight. So I'm just going to keep grinding and no matter what happens, I know I'm meant for this and I'm meant to be here.”
Based on that quote, you’d think Fields was awful. But he wasn’t. His stats — 6-for-13 for 60 yards, one interception and a 27.7 pass rating — were misleading. They didn’t include the 35-yard touchdown that was dropped by Allen Robinson or the 13-yard completion to Cole Kmet on 3rd-and-9 on the very next play that was called back for a very weak offensive pass interference penalty. He also would have walked in for a 9-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter had Jimmy Graham not whiffed on a block on the perimeter.
That’s not to argue Fields played great. He looked like a rookie, but he did not look overwhelmed. He did not look like he was seeing ghosts. His timing needs to speed up a touch (it will with experience), but his field vision was pretty good.
Robinson’s dropped touchdown should still have fans excited. On that play, the Bengals rotated their over-the-top help to the middle of field, which left Robinson 1-on-1 against the cornerback. Fields read it post-snap and delivered a perfectly thrown pass that Robinson just dropped.
“Like I’ve said with Justin, he's probably further along than we thought at this point right now. So if (Fields is the starter) then we feel good about it,” Nagy said. “Justin has worked really, really hard to get to this point. Even today in that moment as a rookie, coming in in that situation, super calm, super cool. Even after the interception, he was very cool coming out there and knowing to try to make a play.”
Fields got legitimately tricked on the interception. The Bengals showed Cover-0 and Fields immediately went to his “hot” option against the all-out blitz. Unfortunately, linebacker Logan Wilson bluffed the blitz and dropped back right into the “hot” area. Fields threw it right to him. One play later, Joe Burrow hit Tee Higgins for a 7-yard touchdown.
At that point, the Bears’ lead was down to 20-17 and the Bengals had two timeouts with 3:39 left on the clock. Facing 3rd-and-9 at his own 36-yard-line, Fields managed to escape pressure and use his speed to pick up 10 yards.
“He's done that his whole career. (The interception) doesn't fluster him. That's a strength that he has. We'll see where it goes,” Nagy said.
Dalton’s status after suffering a knee injury in the second quarter could make this interesting. If there is any concern about a torn ACL, Nagy downplayed it, saying, “I’m pretty sure we can rule that out.” However, Nagy also said Dalton would have more testing done on Monday. Had Fields suffered an injury, Dalton still could have returned in an emergency as the backup, per the head coach.
Asked if Dalton is still the starter, Nagy said: “I’m not going to get into any of that.”
Dalton’s injury seems significant enough to at least cast doubt about his status for next Sunday’s game against the Browns in Cleveland, which could make this a moot point. At a minimum, he’ll likely be limited in practice this week, which would give Fields more reps with the starters.
It sure seems like Dalton’s injury was all the Bears needed to turn the keys over to the rookie. We all knew it was going to happen eventually, so why not now? It’s important that Fields did not look overwhelmed, even if he looked inexperienced. He can only get the needed experience if he plays and now he should get the chance to make the necessary corrections.
“When you're in the moment, making those mistakes, it's more how you come back,” Fields said. “But I think when you're evaluating the film after the game, you just have to keep that in the back of your head. And when those situations might pop up in games again, you just know where to go with the ball and of course what to do with protection, pretty much whatever you need to do to make that play successful.”
The unfortunate thing is that Dalton looked great on his opening drive touchdown against his former team. For a long time, those were the only points the Bears had in the game. And there’s no doubt the offense wasn’t as polished once the rookie came in.
But Fields still played well enough to earn a full week of practice with the starters and the opportunity to show he can build on this first game and correct the mistakes. Plus, if Dalton is able to come back healthy, they still have one of the best backup options in the NFL.