Dawn of a new era? With Justin Fields, Bears at least give themselves a chance
After an awkward dance with Andy Dalton, Matt Nagy made an emotionally difficult call — for him, anyway — to change partners and make Fields the Bears’ full-time starter. “This is Justin’s time.”
The Bears haven’t gotten the quarterback right very often since the end of the Sid Luckman era. On Wednesday, coach Matt Nagy did the next best thing: he gave them a better chance to get it right. Maybe the best chance.
After an awkward dance with veteran Andy Dalton, Nagy rather soberly announced that he is switching partners. Rookie Justin Fields, anointed the Bears’ quarterback of the future when the Bears traded up to take him with the 11th pick of the 2021 draft, has been elevated to No. 1 on the depth chart four games into his NFL career and will be the starter — presumably from here on out, beginning with Sunday’s game against the Raiders in Las Vegas.
A week after the Bears took a giant step toward building their own stadium in Arlington Heights, Nagy made a similar potentially seismic move on the field. But like a state-of-the-art stadium, a quarterback of Justin Fields’ ability is uncharted territory at Halas Hall and there likely will be several hurdles to clear before a franchise quarterback becomes a reality.
But for a team that has languished in the immense shadow of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers up in Green Bay for the last 30 years, just getting to this point is monumental.
“I’ve always said from the beginning to everybody in here — to our players, our coaches, to y’all when y’all ask [about Fields starting] is that we’ll know when he’s done everything to show us that he’s ready for this opportunity,” Nagy said. “This is Justin’s time.”
The Bears followed a difficult path to get here — with Fields unexpectedly becoming available after the Bears had signed Dalton in free agency in March.
The Bears’ original plan was to let Fields serve a year of apprenticeship behind Dalton. When the regular season began, Nagy switched gears a bit and used Fields situationally. Fields played five snaps against the Rams in the opener — scoring on a three-yard run — and two snaps against the Bengals before the plan was altered yet again when Dalton suffered a bone bruise in his knee in that Week 2 game.
Fields finished that game — a 20-17 victory — and started against the Browns in Week 3. That seemed to be the opening Nagy needed to install Fields as the permanent starter. But after Fields was sacked nine times and the Bears gained just 47 yards in a dreadful 26-6 loss, Nagy said Dalton still would start when he was healthy.
Even after Fields was much better in a 24-14 victory over the Lions — completing pass plays of 64, 32, 28 and 27 yards that led to three touchdowns — Nagy insisted Monday that Dalton would be the starter when he was healthy.
Two days later, it was a much different story. Nagy said Fields is the No. 1 quarterback and did not open the door for Dalton — who practiced in full Wednesday and will be the backup against the Raiders — to regain the job other than by injury. Nagy can always change his mind again, but it appears he is committed to developing Fields even through poor performances.
“This is Justin’s time,” Nagy said. “We’re so confident in where he’s at and just continuing [to] let him grow. [We] understand that it’s not going to be perfect. Justin knows that. We all understand. There’s going to be some times where [bad] things happen. But we’ve got to continue to stay positive.”
It will be interesting to see how that plays out if the Bears lose games while Fields develops. Both Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace were under fire after the Bears went 8-8 last season. If the Bears finish under .500, Nagy would have one winning season in four years; Pace just one winning season in seven years as GM.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that both Pace and Nagy would survive a non-playoff season if Fields is progressing at the finish. But there’s no guarantee.
That’s the unanswered question at Halas Hall — what do chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips consider success after acknowledging fan discontent, their own frustration and the unpopularity of retaining Nagy and Pace after last season?
Nagy wasn’t concerned about the risk of losing games with a developing quarterback. “I’m worried about doing what’s best for the Bears,” Nagy said. “And that’s the only thing that matters.”
While it was a day of celebration for Bears fans who have wanted Fields’ developmental clock started the moment he was drafted, it was bittersweet for Nagy. He feels for Dalton, who was promised the starting job when he signed with the Bears and now is on the bench after four games.
“What would your response be?” Nagy told a reporter who asked what Dalton’s response was. “It’s hard. It’s hard because I can’t state enough how much Andy has put into this organization, this team, his commitment. I just appreciate the way he’s handled everything. He’s as special as they get.”