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To evaluate Justin Fields, Bears need to team him with starters

The Soldier Field crowd rose to its feet when rookie quarterback Justin Fields finally, mercifully, took the field to start the second half Saturday. He might have been the only person in the huddle the fans recognized.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws the ball in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills during an NFL preseason game Saturday at Soldier Field.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws the ball in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills during an NFL preseason game Saturday at Soldier Field.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Soldier Field crowd rose to its feet when Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields finally, mercifully, took the field to start the second half Saturday. He might have been the only person in the huddle the fans recognized.

Rookie Larry Borom was about to play his first game snap at left tackle since college in 2019. To his right were linemen Adam Redmond, Arlington Hambright, Lachavious Simmons and Dieter Eiselen. The five men standing between the face of the franchise and injury had a combined one NFL start to their name.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bills’ Andre Smith blitzed around the right end. Fields never saw him coming.

Smith speared him in the helmet and was flagged for it. Fields’ headband flew off — do you know how much force it takes for an elastic headband to come off his head? — and his helmet did, too, landing four yards back before rolling.

If the question wasn’t apparent already in what would be a 41-15 loss to Mitch Trubisky’s Bills, it should have been the moment Fields strapped his helmet back on: What are we doing here? If the main goal of the Bears’ preseason is to evaluate Fields, what’s the point of doing it with second- and third-stringers? When Fields lofted a pass down the right sideline that receiver Riley Ridley should have caught — but didn’t — how does that help the quarterback grow?

Fields was asked if he was curious to see what he could do with the starters.

“I guess you could say that,” he said. “But that’s a tough question. I’m not really worried about that. My time will come when it’s needed, but right now that’s not what I’m focused on. I’m just focused on getting better. … I’m just trying to, whoever he throws me in there with, we’re gonna ball out and I’m gonna try to score every drive.”

Fields led the Bears to two scores, the first coming in the fourth quarter trailing by 35. He went 9-for-19 for 80 yards and was sacked twice. Fields was less dynamic than last week, when he said the game didn’t feel too fast for him. He felt obligated to clarify that Saturday, saying he simply was comparing the Dolphins’ backups to the Bears’ starters in practice.

“I don’t want to come off as cocky or act like I’ve already made it,” he said. “Because I know I have a lot of work to do and get better at.”

He needs starters around him to do that. Bears coach Matt Nagy said a week ago that Fields would spend more time practicing with first-string skill-position players. Fields then took exactly one practice snap with starting receivers all week — and none Saturday. Receiver Allen Robinson, running back David Montgomery and tight end Cole Kmet didn’t play against the Bills. Receiver Darnell Mooney didn’t touch the ball. Tight end Jimmy Graham caught a pass on the second play.

The Bears have been cautious enough about injuries, Nagy said, that even starter Andy Dalton isn’t getting a ton of reps with the first-stringers. Nagy was left to speculate how Fields would do with starter-caliber talent.

“Some of that, you just have to assume it would be good,” Nagy said.

You know what they say about assumptions.

Nagy won’t name Fields the Week 1 starter. But the point of playing Fields in the preseason was to get a clean evaluation of him. Not assumptions.

The hit wasn’t the fault of his linemen, though. The Bears were in scat protection and knew they were outnumbered by pass rushers. Fields should have thrown a quick pass on a hot route to the front side.

“It’s a simple correction,” Fields said. “Just make it.”

Instead, the 45,429 in attendance saw the fate of the franchise flash before their eyes. Once again, they were fully in Fields’ corner. A struggling Dalton was booed for the first time when he took a sack about four minutes into the second quarter. Fans chanted Fields’ name.

Dalton was booed taking the field for the next possession. Two plays later, he found Rodney Adams down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown.

“They wanna see a good product out there,” Dalton said. “I didn’t hear any boos after the touchdown pass that I threw.”

Fields stuck up for his teammate.

“Of course, the fans are awesome,” Fields said. “They also have to realize Andy’s a human being, too. Andy’s on the field right now, so I really think it’s kind of disrespectful to Andy, them cheering my name out like that. They have to trust in Coach to make sure he’s making the right decisions. Just cheer him on, you know? That’s not helping Andy play better, to cheer my name. That’s not doing none of that. My advice to them would be just cheer whoever’s on the field.”

Dalton got the ball back with 40 seconds left in the first half. On third-and-12, Adams slipped while making his break, and Dalton was intercepted.

Would a starter have slipped? Dalton played with second-stringers and Fields with the people below them.

“We just got to keep doing our best to evaluate [Fields] based off of that play that time, taking everything else and putting it aside,” Nagy said: “How did he do on that play?”