NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There are many quarterbacks, including Andy Dalton and Nick Foles, who need everything else in place to succeed. The Bears, however, simply aren’t going to be able to provide such ideal circumstances anytime soon.
But they drafted Justin Fields hoping he could thrive in imperfect conditions. They want him to grow into a quarterback who elevates everything around him and offsets shortfalls the way Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers do.
So while coach Matt Nagy is locked into Dalton, Fields is clearly ready whenever he changes his mind. Everything about his preseason, including a brilliant touchdown pass Saturday in a 27-24 victory against the Titans, points toward him being capable.
It sounds dangerous to throw him in against demolition men such as the Rams’ Aaron Donald on Sept. 12, especially with the Bears unsure about their patchwork offensive line, but they can’t shelter him forever.
“He’s done a lot of great things,” Nagy said. “He’s done everything he can to make us feel that if we put him in a game, he would do fine.
“What we’ve asked him to do is digest this offense, be able to play fast. . . . He’s still growing with some things, but that’s natural. Every rookie quarterback goes through some of that stuff. He’s done a great job of staying very positive. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do.”
Fields survived behind a newly stitched-together offensive line, and none of the Bears’ top skill players dressed against the Titans. For most of the first half, there wasn’t much he could show other than his mastery of the art of the handoff and occasionally forcing a third-down throw to a receiver who probably won’t make the roster.
Sometimes that’s how the Bears’ offense looks anyway, so it’s just as well that he gets accustomed to the challenge.
Sure, Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, David Montgomery and others will be available once the games count, but this is the best offensive line the Bears can manufacture after various injuries and financially driven moves.
That means Fields won’t inherit a clockwork operation. It’ll be on him to vault the Bears into something they haven’t been in a long time: a high-powered, thrilling offensive team.
And he has the capacity to do it. He showed everyone a glimpse on his last play before jogging to the locker room at halftime and watching Foles take the second half.
With just under a minute left in the half, he nearly got sacked from the left side. And the right side. That’s what playing quarterback for the Bears has been like lately. As two defenders closed to within arm’s reach, Fields bolted forward, veered right and threw a 20-yard strike down the sideline to fully covered tight end Jesper Horsted in the end zone.
It was a narrow opening, but Fields hit it the way Mahomes would.
It doesn’t matter who was on the field. That’s a remarkable play that many quarterbacks don’t have any business even attempting. If he can throw open a No. 4 tight end who might end up on the practice squad, imagine what else he’ll do.
The rest of Fields’ night was forgettable: 6-for-9 for 34 yards in a bland game plan that also led to the Bears running nine times for 32 yards.
But that touchdown pass outshined everything else.
“The one thing Justin does a great job with is he keeps his eyes downfield,” Nagy said, noting that the play showcased Fields’ compelling combination of intellect, ingenuity and incomparable athleticism. “If I ran a 4.4 [40-yard dash], I’d be running all the time. But he stays up.”
Fields has been making plays like that in practice during the last month and offering other indicators that he’s primed to be a star and doesn’t need the redshirt season the Bears plotted for him. He persistently pushes past mistakes. He’s elusive and prudent as a runner. His accuracy on deep balls is something the Bears have lacked for a long time.
That redshirt plan is for quarterbacks who need extensive development to adjust to the NFL. Fields isn’t a project. There’s no guessing about what he can be. He’s not coming into this with 13 college starts like Mitch Trubisky did. He was overwhelming in two seasons at Ohio State, he was the second-best quarterback in college football and there’s every reason to think he’ll continue on that trajectory in the NFL.
“Every aspect of the game, I need to improve,” Fields said. “I’ll probably say that for the rest of my career.”
Waiting just to wait isn’t a good reason to keep Fields on the bench. Predicating his playing time on whether Dalton flounders or gets hurt doesn’t make sense, either.
The Bears have so much riding on Fields that there’s no time to waste. Now that he has proved he’s at least viable, it’s time to let him learn on the job. He’ll only get better, and it’s time to launch that process.