Best-case scenario: Andy Dalton plays well for Bears, and Justin Fields spends a season learning
Only good would come from that. You can say that there’s no better teacher than being thrown into the fire. You can also say that fire sometimes burns beyond recognition.
For selfish reasons, many of us would like to see Justin Fields as the Bears’ starting quarterback sooner rather than later. Sooner, meaning tomorrow.
We want to know if the kid can play. We want to be entertained by a player who can run and throw and chew gum at the same time without the player experiencing multiple organ failure. We want a quarterback, simply because most of us have never seen one in a Bears uniform. Either they weren’t any good (don’t make me name names) or they couldn’t stay healthy (Jim McMahon).
But for the good of everyone involved, it might be better for Fields, the 11th overall selection in this year’s draft, to stand on the sidelines for the 2021 season. Believe me, I know: not a popular opinion. Watching Fields be idle would be like getting a bicycle for Christmas in Siberia. You can stare at it. You can’t ride it.
For my scenario to work, and for everyone to benefit from it, Andy Dalton has to play well as the starting quarterback. That’s a given the way an unexpected inheritance is. He’s had one great season in his 10-year career, when he went 10-3 as a starter for the 2015 Bengals, completing 66.1% of his passes, throwing 25 touchdown passes to seven interceptions and putting up a career-high 106.2 passer rating. Other than that, he has been anywhere from average to good, with a lot of pretty decent thrown in.
But if Dalton plays well this season, it takes the pressure off everyone, especially Fields. He’d be able to learn the position from a veteran. Only good would come from that. You can say that there’s no better teacher than being thrown into the fire. You can also say that fire sometimes burns beyond recognition. If the NFL is as mental a game as coaches tell us it is, then sitting in a room with Dalton, head coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo can only be a positive.
It’s fair to say that I’m operating here from a position of all that could go wrong with a rookie QB starting, probably because I’ve seen everything go wrong for the Bears when it comes to quarterbacks. But what’s the downside of Fields spending a season learning? Getting deprived of the kind of season the Bengals’ Joe Burrow or the Chargers’ Justin Herbert put up in their rookie years? Fair enough. They were very good. But it’s also true that Patrick Mahomes turned out pretty well for the Chiefs after spending his first season watching Alex Smith play. There are many more examples of that happening in NFL history than of rookie quarterbacks succeeding right away.
It’s a different world now because of quarterback salaries, of course, but still. What’s the harm of Fields sitting, other than to our need to see The Next Big Thing?
The expectations on him will be huge if he’s named the starter at any point this season. We’ve all seen what Chicago does to its QBs. It loves them to death when they arrive, and then, if they’re not playing well, it offs them.
A good season by Dalton and a spot next to Nagy on the sideline for Fields would likely mean that Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace keep their jobs. I’m not a big proponent of this outcome, but it would mean that Pace didn’t make the same mistake he made with Mike Glennon in 2017. And it would mean that the allure and promise of Fields would still be at concentrated levels in Chicago for 2022.
A good season by Dalton would get him a nice contract from another team.
And Fields not starting in 2021 would be valuable for you, dear Bears fan. It would mean that your team is winning, that Dalton is doing more than his part and that what was considered a declining Bears defense isn’t declining so much. It would mean that Fields is learning different NFL coverages from the comfort of a darkened film room. And no defenders with murder in their hearts would be chasing him.
I’d love to see him use his athleticism to make those defenders look like fools. But I wouldn’t understand the rush to get him on the field if Dalton is playing well. When I look at the Bears’ roster, I don’t see the greatest offensive line or the greatest weapons at wide receiver. One year of getting to know the NFL for Fields and another draft and free-agent period to get him some help … what am I missing here in terms of a downside?
Look, I know that it’s unlikely Dalton will have a standout season and that the temptation to push Fields out there will be fierce. If Fields has a great training camp, it might be too much for Nagy and Pace, even if they want to be patient with him (and I’m not sure they do). But if you watched him play at Ohio State, it’s not a sure thing that he’s ready. Talented, yes. Ready, maybe not.
If we’re looking out for what’s best for the kid, given all that the Bears went through with Mitch Trubisky, having Fields watch and learn for a year would be the way to go. It wouldn’t be the sexy move. It’d be more like long underwear. But you’d stay warm and emotionally safe for a year.