LAKE FOREST – If you were waiting for Justin Fields’ breakout practice as a Chicago Bear, it happened Thursday at Halas Hall against the Miami Dolphins.
For most of the two-hour session, the Bears’ offense looked uninspiring, but Fields would occasionally interrupt the monotony with an eye-popping throw. It started early when the rookie quarterback slowly shuffled left but threw right and floated a dime across his body to tight end Jesper Horsted.
As practice continued, there was some good (finding wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson sitting in an open zone downfield) and some bad (forcing a pass to Johnson in what was at least triple coverage).
But later, Fields showed a lot of patience as he calmly went through his progressions and found Riley Ridley open over the middle. It was an early reminder that the game – at least in practices – does not appear to be too fast for the rookie.
“Oh man, he's catching on quick,” running back Damien Williams, who is frequently in the backfield with Fields, said Thursday. “He's learning from when I first seen him. Coming in, till now, it's a big improvement. Then you start to see him being comfortable and being able to play with your swag, you see that in him now. When he is making plays, you kind of see the swag he has. It's all about growing right now and he's doing that.”
As practiced shifted to the red zone period, it was becoming obvious that Fields was having his first day where he clearly looked like the best quarterback on the field (including Tua Tagovailoa on the other field).
And when the red zone period was over, there was no doubt.
Jump ball to Jesse James. Touchdown.
Flick to Artavis Pierce. Touchdown.
Keeper to the right. Touchdown.
Quick throw to Damiere Byrd. Touchdown.
Slowly letting a play develop and delivering a sidearm toss to Javon Wims. Touchdown.
And there should have been one more. Fields’ last pass was a perfect throw to Ridley in the back corner of the end zone that was dropped.
It was an extremely impressive period of practice for Justin Fields -- and Williams could sense the rhythm building.
“When he starts making plays, you start feeling that energy, and then that energy feeds off,” Williams said. “It's like he gives you that energy and the swag. When he's making plays, it makes you want to get behind people like that.”
Consider Thursday’s practice to be the first time Fields has looked considerably better than Andy Dalton, who didn’t appear as comfortable in the two practices against Miami as he has against his own defense. Dalton is still having a strong camp overall, but Thursday would best be described as choppy. For example, during the red zone session, Dalton hit Byrd on a nice throw to the corner, but followed that up with a miss to Darnell Mooney before getting picked off by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel on a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage.
So what does it all mean for the Bears? Well, it means that in one practice on Thursday, Justin Fields looked like the special quarterback the Bears thought they were drafting at No. 11 overall. His full talent – the arm strength, accuracy, athleticism and speed – was all on display, especially in the red zone period.
But it was also just one practice. Fields needs to stack them together before he threatens the Bears’ plan to use Dalton as their starting quarterback this season. That said, the timing of Fields’ breakout practice was convenient, as his next test will be Saturday’s preseason game against the Dolphins at Soldier Field. It will be his first NFL game and the first time he can actually get hit by a defense. Dalton will start, but is only expected to play around 8-10 snaps. Beyond that, it will be Fields’ game into the second half, perhaps even into the fourth quarter.
There are, of course, the usual training camp caveats. Fields has been playing against backups and while he could see a few reps with the starters Saturday, he likely won’t be facing many of the Dolphins’ starters for very long. On the other hand, he was also playing behind a depleted backup offensive line in Thursday’s practice and he hasn’t had the luxury of throwing to Allen Robinson in practice. It goes both ways.
All Fields can do is pass each test he is given. He hasn’t done that every day, but the overall body of work has been encouraging. And if Thursday's joint practice against the Dolphins was any indication, a significant jump could be coming.