Barring a sudden and unexpected change of direction in the next three weeks, the Bears are going to stick with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback against the Rams in Week 1.
And the reasoning is quite simple: They don’t think he’s done enough to lose the job.
Yes, you can argue Dalton hasn’t done enough keep the job either, but that argument would be made based off two preseason games in which Dalton only received a few reps with any starting skill position players.
On the other hand, rookie quarterback Justin Fields hasn’t played with the starters either, and he’s looked better. There’s no doubt about that. But it is also fair to say that Dalton has had a strong training camp overall and the only thing he’s done wrong is not being Justin Fields.
Perhaps that’s enough to lose the starting job, and if we’re being honest, it eventually will be enough. But like it or not, the Bears gave Dalton $10 million in March to be the starting quarterback and they are going to give him the opportunity to show what he can do with the first-team offense in a real game.
“The stock for us in Andy is going to see what he does for us during the season,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said after Saturday’s second preseason game. “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.”
And yet, Nagy has never completely shut the door on Fields becoming the starter, in part because the rookie continues to impress his coaches and teammates as he develops. Nagy even admitted Saturday that Fields is ahead of where they thought he would be.
But it’s important to remember that coaches only value preseason games so much. In many cases, they value the practices more.
“In practice when (Dalton is) out there with (the starters) and rolling, we feel it and we see it. That's the part we like,” Nagy said.
It’s true that Dalton (for the most part) has looked good in practice. In fact, he clearly looked better than Fields in practice last week, although the rookie was dealing with groin soreness.
At the same time, it is fair to wonder why Dalton played the entire first half Saturday when he didn’t have his top receiving weapons out there. Who exactly was he building chemistry and rhythm with?
“The biggest thing is, well, we were in a position there towards the end of the half where we could maybe get some two-minute (work) with Andy which he's done it in practice but hasn't had it in these preseason games,” Nagy said Monday when asked about the reasoning for playing Dalton so long.
Why an 11-year veteran needs two-minute work with players he’s not going to be playing with in the regular season is a fair thing to question, and Nagy even acknowledged Monday that it’s not “necessarily fair” to both Dalton and Fields “with the guys they’re playing with.”
Regardless, the head coach doesn’t believe the stagnant offense with Dalton on the field has been the quarterback’s fault.
“I understand the part of, you know, we haven't been getting first downs and there's been 3-and-outs, I get that,” Nagy said. “But really, when you look at play-by-play-by-play and what he's doing, he's making really good decisions.”
Nagy then pointed out that on Dalton’s interception, wide receiver Rodney Adams slipped coming out of his break.
“Rodney will run 10 of those and he won't slip again. But his decision making, Andy's decision-making has been really good,” Nagy said.
The Bears now have a tricky decision to make this week. Do they risk injuring starters like Allen Robinson by trying to evaluate the entire first-team with Dalton in a preseason game? If it goes poorly, the calls to start Fields Week 1 will only grow louder. Or do they hold their key offensive weapons out again, which makes it virtually pointless to play Dalton against the Titans? In that case, Fields should just start the game and get as many valuable reps as possible the hope that he’s facing tougher competition.
Nagy said the coaching staff would meet Monday night to come up with a plan for the final preseason game. For what it’s worth, the Bears rotated Robinson, Darnell Mooney and Jimmy Graham in with the second-team in practice Monday to give Fields an opportunity to throw passes to those guys. He completed throws to all three of them, including a deep touchdown to Mooney up the seam.
The truth is, we all know how this saga ends. Justin Fields is playing too well not to get on the field in the regular season rather quickly. His raw playmaking ability clearly gives the Bears a better chance to overcome their offensive deficiencies – the most glaring of which is usually at quarterback. Even if the offensive veterans respect Dalton – and they surely do – Bears fans are smart enough to know how this story goes. Eventually there will come a point when the offense isn’t doing enough to help the defense and it will become obvious in the locker room that Justin Fields needs to play. That’s when Nagy will have to make the move – and my guess is he’ll make it before it even gets to that point.
But it’s also true that Dalton isn’t playing horribly, and he hasn’t been given the best tools to succeed in these preseason games. If the Bears want to give an 11-year veteran making $10 million the chance to prove himself in the regular season, then I can respect that. More importantly, there are likely other veterans on the team – and perhaps even future free agents looking to sign in Chicago – that will respect it too.
That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the decision start Dalton against the Rams. I’m not even sure I do. But I can understand it. At least for Week 1.