Bears QB Andy Dalton playing to keep starting job, extend NFL career

There’s a lot on the line for Dalton when the Bears open Sept. 12 against the Rams. At 33, he could earn a chance at a second act as an NFL starter. But it’ll be difficult with Justin Fields looming on the bench.

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Entering his 11th season, Andy Dalton has 218 touchdowns and 126 interceptions in 144 games.

Entering his 11th season, Andy Dalton has 218 touchdowns and 126 interceptions in 144 games.

Wade Payne/AP

After nine years as the fiery, scruffy face of the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton accepted the transition into the backup phase of his career by taking a one-year offer from the Cowboys to sit behind Dak Prescott last season.

Dalton had zero expectation of playing and called it a step back in his career, though he started nine games after Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury. He played decently enough to create a bidding war between the Bears and 49ers in the offseason that reinvigorated him.

“I’m in a great opportunity right here,” Dalton said before practice Monday. “I knew coming in that I would get a chance to start here. The rest of my career is going to take care of itself, but my focus is on what I’m doing now. This is a big year.”

It’s undoubtedly a big season for Dalton — for exactly the reason he said he’s ignoring. He got the starting job the Bears promised, but he was on shaky ground before he ever put on a helmet because they drafted Justin Fields six weeks after he signed. Now the onus is on him to fend off Fields and maintain his status as an NFL starter beyond this season.

His future could tip in either direction at 33. He could bounce around as a backup or lock in for a late-career resurgence. Of the 25 quarterbacks to start at least 12 games last season, 11 were 31 or older. It’s a wider window at that position than most others.

Bears coach Matt Nagy has raved about how easy Dalton has made his life since organized team activities and said he made only one mental mistake in all of training camp. Nagy won’t publicize it, but that’s obviously a lot different than coaching Mitch Trubisky. That reliability has made it possible for Nagy to get Dalton ready to start the Sept. 12 opener and to develop Fields at the same time.

Keeping Fields on the bench will be difficult for Dalton. On top of all the qualities that enticed the Bears to trade their 2022 first-round pick to move up and take him at No. 11 this year, Fields has accelerated their timeline for his debut by playing and practicing so proficiently during the last month.

“Andy can’t control something that is out of his control, which is Justin,” Nagy said. “If we have success on offense and we play well and we’re winning, I think we’d all understand that’s a good thing while this kid develops and continues to grow and learn and watch tape.”

When the Bears originally signed Dalton, there was no indication they’d be able to get someone of Fields’ caliber in the draft. After their bid to trade for Russell Wilson fizzled, they needed someone better than Nick Foles for a season in which Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace realize their jobs are in danger.

While Dalton is better than Trubisky or Foles, the Bears are making a risky bet that he’ll play like he did in his prime. He was seventh in the NFL with a 97.7 passer rating over the 2015 and ’16 seasons, but that was a long time ago.

In the four seasons since, he managed an 84.8 rating with a 61.1% completion rate, 76 touchdown passes against 45 interceptions and an average of 226.5 yards per game.

And unlike Fields, Dalton is not on the ascent. It’s pretty clear what his ceiling is at this point: adequacy. And after the last two seasons, the Bears will be thrilled to have adequacy at the position. But the Bears envision much more from Fields, and Dalton will always be competing against that projection.

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