INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Andy Dalton is the Bears’ starter. Justin Fields might be their closer.
For now, at least, coach Matt Nagy is trying to thread the needle. After spending all preseason declaring Dalton the starter, he’s trying to get Fields comfortable with the NFL —and opposing teams reason to feel uncomfortable.
Fields played five snaps in Sunday night’s 34-14 loss to the Rams, with three in the red zone. He scored his first touchdown of the season before Dalton did, running for three yards midway through the third quarter. He might have played more, too, Nagy said, had the Bears not fallen behind late in the third quarter.
Even in short bursts, Fields playing is compelling —particularly when the alternative is watching the Bears lose by 20 behind a defense that refused to tackle and an offensive line that had trouble blocking the NFL’s best defense.
The question, though, is how useful it is for either player, long-term.
And the question for Nagy is, how will he play Fields going forward?
“You gotta have a ‘why’ as to how you do it,” he said.
The Bears knew when they wanted to play Fields: the red zone.
“For him, the times that he got in there, he did well, being his first game,” Nagy said. “Andy did a good job too. … We’ll continue to keep growing with that stuff and see what we want to do.”
With the ball at the Rams’ 12, the Bears ran Fields out for his first NFL snap. On a run-pass option, he looked right, completed a nine-yard pass to Marquise Goodwin along the right sideline, and left the game. The Bears had a false start, then a timeout, then an interception in the end zone on a tipped pass.
Nagy said disrupting rhythm by inserting a new quarterback is “something that we gotta keep an eye on.”
Fields returned for the Bears’ third drive, and at the worst time. After Dalton completed a 19-yard pass to Goodwin — and the Bears got an extra 15 yards on a facemask penalty. Fields flipped the ball on an end around to Goodwin. He was tackled for a two-yard loss.
The next time Fields took the field, he was back in the red zone, faking a handoff left and throwing a shovel pass to receiver Allen Robinson for 1 yard. Robinson rolled into Larry Borom and hurt the backup left tackle’s ankle . Three plays later, Fields scored.
In the fourth quarter, Fields took a shotgun snap on third-and-2 and handed to David Montgomery for a first down.
Fields— who went 2-for-2 for 10 yards —gives the Bears an offensive element they haven’t seen in years. Now, it’s up to Nagy to make the Dalton-Fields dynamic work each week. It will be a chess match now that 31 NFL teams have Fields film. The surprise is gone.
But Nagy’s biggest challenge will go beyond Xs and Os. Will Dalton, who relies on rhythm passing, accept coming out of the game after a big play? After having to answer questions about Fields all preseason, what will Dalton think of the backup quarterback getting an inordinate number of red-zone touches?
“We’ve got some good stuff for [Fields],” Dalton said. “Obviously it helped us. He was able to score a touchdown. … It’s part of how we’re gonna play.”
How will Fields handle inconsistent work? What happens if he breaks off a long run — or a pretty pass — and has to come watch Dalton?
“It wasn’t weird with me running in and out …” Fields said. “I was used to it.”
Dalton completed 27-of-38 passes for 206 yards, one interception, one fumble and three sacks. If he struggles again Sunday, Bearsfans will chant Fields’ name.
For at least one week, though, they learned that a few snaps by the rookie is better than none at all.
“He’s certainly a weapon,” Nagy said.