Root for Andy Dalton to fail if you want, but that flies in the face of an absolute truth: Justin Fields is much better off taking over a good offense than a bad one.
Based on the Nick Foles experience last season, a Dalton failure will be an offensive failure. It’s unlikely Dalton will fail if the offensive line develops into a cohesive unit, David Montgomery takes a giant leap after a big step in 2020 and Cole Kmet blossoms into a downfield weapon. And if coach Matt Nagy is unable to get even a passable performance out of a veteran such as Dalton, what makes anyone think he’s the guy to turn Fields into an NFL quarterback? Is the kid going to coach himself into superstardom?
It might be better to root for competence against good defenses and player/coach development as the Bears open the 2021 regular season against the Rams and the bulk of a defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points and yards allowed last season.
It’s possible Fields would be a transformative ignitor if he were the Week 1 starter, a quarterback who could make a coach out of Nagy, a tackle out of Germain Ifedi, a weapon out of Kmet.
But the Bears and general manager Ryan Pace unwittingly boxed themselves in when they signed Dalton to be the starter before they knew they could get Fields. You can’t blame them for letting it play out. Well, you can — and have. But let’s see how it actually does play out before condemning Pace. This episode almost certainly will end with Fields starting at quarterback. That alone makes this chapter in recent Bears history better than most.
So first things first for Dalton and the Bears’ offense against the Rams. The offense can start by getting out of its own way. Last season against the Rams, the Bears faced a fourth-and-one from their 19-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter. Nagy daringly went for the first down. But with Aaron Donald staring him down, left guard Rashaad Coward flinched, the play was nullified and the Bears punted.
The Bears’ offense is a mystery heading into the opener. The starters didn’t play one snap as a unit in the preseason. The starting offensive line played 21 snaps together against the Titans in the preseason finale.
‘‘There is a lot I need to see, for sure,’’ offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. ‘‘When you look at some of the things we committed to improving from last year, I’ll put third downs [at] the top of the list.’’
That’s as good a place to start as any. The Bears ranked 31st in the NFL in third-down conversions last season (34.6%). And it wasn’t only a matter of too many third-and-longs. In fact, the Bears were 30th in the NFL in converting third-and-four or shorter (51.9%).
Third-down conversions is one of many areas of curiosity heading into the opener.
‘‘After the preseason on [the] game field, we couldn’t say that we’ve improved that yet,’’ Lazor acknowledged. ‘‘I think we feel better about what we’ve done on the practice field. We’re gonna have to make it count now.’’
Interestingly, the team that led the NFL in converting third-and-four or shorter last season was the Ravens (68.4%) — and it’s no secret why. Quarterback Lamar Jackson himself converted 17 such third-down plays with his legs. So maybe the Bears just have to find their own Lamar Jackson. Good luck with that.