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Ex-apprentice Justin Fields making his own plan work

Bears coach Matt Nagy’s original strategy to have Fields sit behind veteran Andy Dalton this season overlooked perhaps the rookie’s strongest trait: He learns well.

Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) threw for a career-high 291 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, for an 89.9 passer rating against the Steelers on Monday night.
Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) threw for a career-high 291 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, for an 89.9 passer rating against the Steelers on Monday night.
Justin K. Aller, Getty

When coach Matt Nagy devised the apprenticeship plan for Justin Fields to sit behind Andy Dalton, he never insisted it was the right one or the only one.

Nagy acknowledged that there was no surefire template for rookie quarterbacks. Some sit and fail. Some sit and succeed. Some play and fail. Some play and succeed.

Fate ended up moving its huge hand to push Nagy in the right direction. An injury to Dalton and a timely dose of common sense promoted Fields into the No. 1 role. And after Fields struggled early, significant progress in back-to-back games — a small step against the 49ers and a much larger step against the Steelers on Monday night — has provided the strongest evidence yet that playing Fields now was the best move.

“Yeah,” Nagy said. “You think back to his first start in Cleveland [when he was sacked nine times with one net passing yard]. That hostile environment. First start. On the road. And also us as coaches, building and formulating a game plan for him — not necessarily knowing what [were] gonna be his strengths heading into that game.”

Six weeks later, Fields threw for a career-high 291 yards and engineered a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, capped by a nifty pass on the run for a 16-yard TD to Darnell Mooney, that temporarily gave the Bears an improbable 27-26 lead with 1:46 left.

It didn’t last — the Steelers rallied for a field goal to win 29-27. But the Bears left with more hope than they’ve had in three seasons.

“Chicago’s got their QB1,” NBC analyst and Pro Football Focus owner Cris Collinsworth tweeted, noting that Fields was PFF’s highest-rated quarterback in Week 9.

We’ll see about that. These are the Bears, after all. But there’s no doubt that Fields has come a long way from the Cleveland debacle.

At times, it appears he’s rising above the muck of a stodgy offense. But offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and Nagy are getting more out of him now than they did then, when Fields was like a toy they tore out of the box and played with before reading the instructions.

“We feel a lot different now,” Nagy said. “We feel better as to the types of plays we’re putting in that fit him [and] fit our offense — trying to match that and that balance.”

Fields raising his game in a big moment was the most promising indicator against the Steelers. But big plays and open receivers were the most tangible proof of growth — for the rookie and the offense. Fields had four pass plays of 25 or more yards to four different receivers — for 50, 39, 28 and 25 yards. That’s as many pass plays of 25 yards or more as the Bears had in their first eight games.

“The last two weeks, his decision-making and timing have been really, really good,” Nagy said. “And he’s taking shots downfield, which is great. We’re not hitting on all of them, but when you take those downfield [shots], they can’t sit on you all the time.”

The bye week will give Fields a chance to take a deep breath after seven consecutive weeks of force-feeding. He’ll get some rest, watch some film, self-scout the offense and get a head start on preparing for the Ravens on Nov. 21 at Soldier Field.

But it’ll give Nagy, Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo an extra week to take a deep breath of their own — and see exactly what they have to work with.

“Coach Flip and coach Lazor will have some nice stuff for him,” Nagy said. “I think he’ll be excited to really attack it. He kind of feels that ball rolling the right way. He’s got momentum going. He feels that, so he’s going to be super-excited to get right back at it.”