It’s a misconception that the Bears aren’t holding a quarterback competition.
While it seems that way because of how staunchly coach Matt Nagy has stuck by Andy Dalton as “QB1” since the team signed him five months ago and defended that decision at every turn despite Chicago’s fervent eagerness to see first-round pick Justin Fields, it’s important to read the fine print.
Nagy wrote in Dalton as the starter in permanent marker for Week 1. That’s it. Dalton will get the opener Sept. 12 at the Rams, but Fields is in play from there forward. Keep in mind, by the way, that this is a coach who changed quarterbacks during the third game last season.
So while Fields isn’t competing to start in Week 1, he is vying for a shot at starting in Week 4, 8, 11 or whenever a Dalton downturn or injury cracks the door open for him. If that happens, even for a couple games, the most significant evidence in Fields’ favor that Nagy will be able to consider will be his three preseason appearances — none bigger than his start Saturday at the Titans, whether he realizes that or not.
“I don’t do anything different,” Fields said flatly. “I’m just going to approach it the same way and just go out there and play my hardest.”
After that, with Dalton dominating practice reps during the season, there won’t be much space for Fields to state his case. Nagy declined to give specifics on how he’d weigh whether Fields is ready once the season starts, but hinted that now is his chance to make an argument for it.
“Where did you think Justin was going to be through training camp, and is he where you thought?” Nagy said, giving a peek into his inner monologue. “Is it a little bit better? Is it a little bit worse? We feel really good with where he’s at. [Compared to] where a lot of rookies are at this point, he passed that test.
“We have to create our own [criteria for quarterback evaluations]. Those guys just [need to] continue to fight every day and just be awesome in practice, be smart and be productive and always be prepared.”
Fields hasn’t quite passed that test yet, however.
The Titans game is his final exam, regardless of whether either side is playing a full complement of starters. He won’t be facing a sophisticated NFL defensive scheme, either — “In the preseason we’re seeing ‘High School Harry’ defenses,” Nagy said — but this game is still a reasonable enough facsimile for Nagy to determine how far he has come.
This is the final look at whether Fields has mastered everything on Nagy’s long checklist to get himself ready to at least jump in if Dalton gets hurt and at most take over the job much earlier than originally anticipated.
The absolute necessities are total fluency in the playbook and a basic understanding of NFL defensive schemes — two aspects that Mitch Trubisky never fully locked down in his four seasons with the Bears. Beyond that, Fields gives himself more of a chance if he can keep calm in a chaotic pocket, be prudent about taking dangerous hits and throw through windows that will be tighter and close faster than what he saw in college.
Fields’ studies in all those areas seem to be going well. Now he must show what he knows in a game.
“No. 1 for sure is picking up the intricacies of the play calling in the huddle — we know [he has] that,” Nagy said. “The post-snap recognition has been pretty good... That is a huge strength of his.
“And then what we’re starting to see is that if a play is not open and he catches that edge, that scares defensive coordinators because he can get a 20-yard [run]. He has a good feel for when to run, when not to run, when to protect himself. But all in all, doing a really good job of taking it all in and running the offense.”
Nagy clearly believes Fields is far enough along to play because he will be the No. 2 quarterback on game days and it’s likely Nick Foles will be inactive. If there were major red flags about Fields’ readiness, Nagy wouldn’t trust him to be one Dalton injury away from playing. So he would play Fields if needed against the Rams, for example, but he could not say with certainty how that would go. He’s high on Fields’ progress, but that would be a steeper challenge than anything he has encountered so far.
It’s up to Fields to solidify that confidence by running the offense with precision against the Titans.