The Bears want Justin Fields to learn from Andy Dalton. They just don’t want him to become Dalton.
There’s a big difference between the two as coach Matt Nagy handles the tasks of getting Dalton ready to be his starter this season and developing Fields as the franchise quarterback the team has coveted for decades.
His template for this project is the one the Chiefs used with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes in 2017, when Nagy was the offensive coordinator under Andy Reid. In the same way that the Chiefs expected Mahomes to far exceed the high end of what they could get from Smith, the Bears need Fields — eventually — to be a lot better than Dalton.
“Justin’s going to be Justin, no doubt about it,” Nagy said when asked about the folly of trying to turn Fields into Dalton. “But they’re going to learn from each other, and the little things that I’m seeing in the meeting room and out here at practice, it really does remind me of [Smith and Mahomes].”
Nagy is confident that is the best path and would prefer to stick with Dalton for the entire season. It worked for Mahomes. It worked for Aaron Rodgers, who sat his first three seasons with the Packers. There are also examples of rookies — Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield, just in the last few seasons — playing well right away.
Mahomes’ lone start as a rookie was a meaningless regular-season finale in which he threw for 284 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. He won the MVP the next season. Then he won the Super Bowl. Then he signed a $500 million contract.
“For him to be able to develop like that and learn from Alex and grow, he would probably tell you it was a pretty good thing,” Nagy said. “If he would have played sooner, would he have done what he did the following year? Maybe. We don’t know that. But I would guess it helped him.”
Dalton is a reasonable equivalent of Smith as the Bears try to replicate what the Chiefs did. He’s not great, but solid. Not explosive, but savvy. He’s trying to extend his own career, but happy to be a mentor.
The Bengals spent nine seasons trying to figure out if Dalton was good enough and, after a collective 87.5 passer rating and zero playoff wins, they ultimately decided he wasn’t. Even at his best, he wasn’t the dynamic threat that Fields is projected to be. Fields walked in the door with a superior deep ball and dangerous running ability, putting him miles ahead physically before his first step onto the practice field. Once he’s ready, the Bears want Fields playing a different game entirely.
Dalton, in his 11th season and a few months away from turning 34, is here to be safe and reliable. Those are useful qualities in a quarterback, but it will only take the Bears so far. Even if everything goes their way this season, it’s hard to imagine them doing better than a wild-card spot with Dalton starting.
There’s still purpose, though, in Fields studying his every move over the next several months. Plenty of Dalton’s knowledge is universal, and Fields can apply it in his own way.
“How are you responding to making a good play [versus] throwing an interception, per se?” Nagy said, beginning a checklist of rookie lessons for Fields. “The biggest thing that Justin can learn from Andy is just understanding the defenses that he’s seeing.
“So [Dalton is] going to help him grow . . . Justin, he’s got to see Andy’s cadence — what he’s doing with his voice inflection, the way he says ‘White 80,’ versus the way Justin says it at the line of scrimmage. And then, of course, how to handle teammates.”
Fields has already gotten a quick class on that last subject during organized team activities.
He and Dalton recently were in a meeting with Nagy and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo as they broke down practice film. Nagy, DeFilippo, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and various other assistants all have specific roles in the Fields project, as do Dalton and fellow veteran Nick Foles. DeFilippo zeroes in on mechanics, and on this particular clip, he disregarded a strong throw by Fields and harped on his faulty footwork instead.
When DeFilippo finished, Dalton turned to Fields and reassured him, “Hey, dude, that was a hell of a throw right there.”
That seems small, but it’s vital. Fields is 22 and spent the last several months hearing analysts and scouts nitpick his mechanics. It’s why he slid from being the consensus second-best quarterback in college football to being the fourth one drafted, going to the Bears at No. 11 overall.
To hear one of his new coaches pile it on, even if he’s correct, was probably daunting. To see Dalton — the man whose job he’s trying to take, no less — have his back had to help.
“For him, it’s all new,” Dalton said last week. “I’m trying to give him advice on certain things, how I would view certain plays, what I’d do with my eyes on certain things, different things that come with experience. I’m going into Year 11. I’ve had a lot of ball. I’m just trying to help him out as much as I can.”
All of that information is useful for Fields, and he’s capable of learning from Dalton’s play without mimicking it. He can take the tools Dalton gives him and build a completely different house, just like Mahomes did.