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Bears better off now with Justin Fields, but injury will steer them to Andy Dalton

Fields was limited in practice again with cracked ribs, and it seems increasingly likely the Bears will turn to Dalton. But that feels like it’ll lead to a repeat of their opener against the Rams.

Dalton completed 27 of 38 passes for 206 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the season opener against the Rams.
AP Photos

Coach Matt Nagy can talk all he wants — and has for months — about the benefits of having quarterback Andy Dalton’s experience, but Justin Fields would give the Bears the best chance at upending the Cardinals on Sunday.

Everyone knows what they’re getting from Dalton, which is Nagy’s favorite — and everyone else’s least favorite — thing about him. Playing him against this pass rush, led by outside linebackers Markus Golden and Chandler Jones, is going to result in the same feeble passing scheme that failed so miserably against the Rams in the season opener.

Nagy seemed reasonably pleased with Dalton’s play despite the quick-throw approach leading to only one pass of 15 yards or more. Dalton completed 27 of 38 passes for 206 yards with one interception and no touchdown passes. It was the second-fewest yards by a quarterback with at least 25 completions this season.

That obviously shouldn’t be the Bears’ future. And it shouldn’t be their present, either. Nothing about that plan is enticing or viable, and the Bears lost by 20 that night.

Unfortunately for them, that’s probably what they’re looking at against Arizona. Fields was out last week with cracked ribs and was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday. All signs point to Dalton starting, though the Bears have been upbeat about Fields’ recovery.

“I didn’t know what it would look like, [but] I felt pretty good with what I saw,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Thursday. “We’ve all had back, side, core injuries, and sometimes sneezing hurts. But he moved well.”

Wide receiver Darnell Mooney checked in on Fields after practice Wednesday and reported, “He was chopping it up and saying he was feeling good. So we’ll see.”

In normal circumstances, this would be a clear-cut decision. But, as usual, nothing about the Bears is normal.

They are concurrently building toward a Fields-led future and trying to eke out a playoff berth at 4-7. That last part might sound unrealistic, but with the expanded field and extended schedule, the Bears are very much in the mix and sit only one game behind seventh-seeded Washington.

They won’t stay within reach long, though, if they can’t beat the Cardinals, or the Packers after them. And if Fields is healthy enough to play something close to his usual style, he gives them the best chance to keep that wild-card hope alive. Rather than doom themselves in dink-and-funk futility with Dalton, they could buckle up and see how Fields fares in eluding Golden and Jones.

The Bears drafted Fields to give them a chance in games like this. Over the 2019 and ’20 seasons, they went 3-11 against playoff teams, and they’re 0-5 against the current playoff field this season.

But if Fields doesn’t have his typical mobility, and there’s a decent risk of additional injury — especially considering some of his awkward slides and spin moves — there’s no sense in forcing it. Fields’ development is important, but his health is more important.

And if his limitations force him to play a Dalton-style game anyway, the Bears might as well leave that to Dalton and give Fields as much time as he needs to heal.

That shouldn’t be a tough sell for Nagy, who always has seemed more inclined to entrust the season and his future employment to Dalton. This just gives him a good excuse to do it.