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Bears have a plan for rookie Justin Fields — but it’s not foolproof

The Bears have had three visitors to Halas Hall this week who prove there’s no one right way to develop a rookie quarterback. 

Chicago Bears Training Camp
The Bears drafted Justin Fields in April.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Bears believe they’ve crafted the best plan for Justin Fields: sitting the bench to start the season. But they’ve had three visitors to Halas Hall this week who prove there’s no one right way to develop a rookie quarterback.

Former Eagles coach Doug Pederson watched practice Friday and Saturday, and quarterback Alex Smith stopped by Wednesday to see Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, practice with the Dolphins.

Tagovailoa had never met Fields until Wednesday.

“I watched when he came in as a freshman to Georgia, then when he transferred to Ohio State,” Tagovailoa said. “He’s very athletic. He’s very talented.”

The Bears know Tagovailoa — or, at least, his story. They studied the recent history of rookie quarterbacks this offseason and how often they played.

They didn’t have to go far for source material this week. As a rookie for the 2005 49ers, Smith, the No. 1 overall pick, threw one touchdown pass and nine interceptions in seven games. As a veteran for the 2017 Chiefs, he led the NFL with a 104.7 passer rating while rookie Patrick Mahomes incubated under Matt Nagy.

Before he coached the Eagles, Pederson started at quarterback while rookie Donovan McNabb sat the bench in 1999. It was a disaster — Pederson went 2-7 and was the most hated man in Philadelphia for three months. McNabb played six games as a rookie but became a star the next year. From 2000 to 2004, he went to five Pro Bowls and won 54 games.

And then there’s Tagovailoa. He sat behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 3-3 in the Dolphins’ first six games last year, before being named the starter after the Week 7 bye.

“There’s a bunch of different experiences for these quarterbacks,” Nagy said. “A lot of different levels of where they’re at, when they’re ready, when they’re not ready, where the team’s at. And so we try to use them all and understand.

“Are there great examples of quarterbacks sitting for a few years and learning and becoming Hall of Fame quarterbacks? Absolutely. Are there similar examples of guys coming in and playing from the very first snap and being great quarterbacks? For sure.”

Starter Andy Dalton listed them by name: Aaron Rodgers threw 16 passes as a rookie. Mahomes started one game. But Dalton himself played every game as a rookie and said he was fortunate to be able to do so.

“There’s all different ways to handle your rookie year for a quarterback,” he said.

The Dolphins’ strategy, though, remains puzzling a year later. Fitzpatrick had won consecutive games when Tagovailoa was promoted. He was 38, after all, and the Dolphins believed Tagovailoa was strong 11 months after hurting his hip at Alabama.

Five weeks later, Fitzpatrick entered the Broncos game when Tagovailoa got hurt, then started the next week. Fitzpatrick came off the bench in Week 16 to lead the Dolphins to three fourth-quarter scores — the last one, a field goal set up in 19 seconds when he completed a 34-yard pass while a defender was flagged for yanking his face mask.

“If we have to go to a relief pitcher in the ninth, that’s what we’ll do,” coach Brian Flores said then.

Fitzpatrick was put on the reserve/COVID-19 list that week, though, leaving Tagovailoa to face the Bills alone with a playoff berth still possible. They lost by 30.

Tagovailoa finished 6-3 as a starter but left some around the league wondering whether he was really the answer. Fitzpatrick started seven games but still led the Dolphins in passing yards nine times.

Regardless of when — or even if — Fields plays this year, the Bears can’t afford to have such questions about their rookie when the season is over.

“We just kind of want to make it ours,” Nagy said. “On what we think is right for Justin and for our team in the long run.”