The Bears’ decision to use rookie quarterback Justin Fields for select plays in Week 1 intrigued the NFL — including one of the league’s most recent Hall of Fame coaches.
“I think it’s the ideal situation, to be quite honest with you,” former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, an analyst for CBS’ ‘‘The NFL Today,’’ told the Chicago Sun-Times. “When you have a young quarterback, not to throw him in there and throw everything at him. He’s sitting behind a veteran quarterback in Andy Dalton. He sees how he prepares every week. And, more importantly, he sees the speed of the game that you can’t simulate in the preseason.”
When Ben Roethlisberger made his first start in Week 3 and carried Cowher’s 2004 Steelers to 13 consecutive regular-season victories, playing a rookie was considered novel. It has since become standard.
Between 2011 — when the collective-bargaining agreement established the modern rookie wage scale — and 2020, 12 of the 32 rookie quarterbacks taken in Round 1 started in Week 1, and 21 started within the first four weeks of their rookie year.
Fields is pointed that way, even if coach Matt Nagy won’t say so.
“Experience is the greatest thing you can have,” Cowher said. “The more they can continue to give him, the more comfortable he’ll be.
“We all know that, at some point, this will be his team.”
As the Bears prepare to play Fields for a few more snaps Sunday against the Bengals, the Sun-Times talked to former coaches, coordinators and players about the benefits and pitfalls and what to expect:
‘When the time was right, he could take over’
See if this sounds familiar: The Bears draft a quarterback in the first round, decide he’s not ready to start and instead play him a little each game.
The year was 1999. The rookie was Cade McNown, whom the Bears had taken 12th overall — one spot after Fields.
‘‘We thought that Cade could learn,” Gary Crowton, the Bears’ offensive coordinator at the time, told the Sun-Times this week. “And when the time was right, he could take over.”
The Bears gave him the second or third drive of each game. The idea imploded in Week 5, when Shane Matthews pulled his right hamstring against the Vikings.
McNown was outplayed by veteran Jim Miller, went 1-8 the next season and never started again.
“We never had full access to the plan because of injuries,” Crowton said.
McNown’s pro career was disastrous. Much was his own doing. Thinking he was showing leadership, McNown once infamously yelled at running back Edgar Bennett, a 30-year-old former Super Bowl champion, after he mistakenly threw a flat route at the wrong depth in practice. He was trying to take charge but instead lost the respect of his teammates.
Having a mature quarterbacks room is critical to using two passers in the same game, said Matt Hasselbeck, the former quarterback who co-hosts ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown.” He knows from experience — he started all 16 games for the 2011 Titans, though rookie Jake Locker appeared in five of them.
The Titans cut the rookie’s playbook down to about 40% of the original. Maybe a third of that, Hasselbeck said, were plays the staff considered ideal for Locker.
“I think it’s a pretty good idea,” he said. “It’s not threatening to the team — we’re all bringing our skill set to the table to try to go 1-0 this week.”
At the time, though, it was annoying.
“It wasn’t my preference,” he said. “My entire career, I was used to getting every single rep of every single practice. But I understood. . . . I valued my role as the person who was there to help.”
The Bears won’t have that problem. Dalton, Fields and Nick Foles, he said, are good teammates.
“Other teams,” he said, “don’t have the luxury the Bears have.”
‘A different time’
There never has been more pressure to get rookie quarterbacks ready. Teams that save by paying them rookie scale use that money on different positions.
Three of the five drafted in the first round this year started in Week 1. The 49ers couldn’t do that with Trey Lance — Jimmy Garoppolo is 23-8 as the starter — so they used Lance for four plays. While Fields ran for a three-yard touchdown, Lance threw a five-yard touchdown pass in Week 1.
“We’re in a different time,” NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, said. “If you can get a quarterback and get him on the field and get him playing well while he’s in that first contract, there’s a lot of things you can do in other areas. . . .
“You gotta get him on the field and try to get him ready.”
The Saints have used Taysom Hill as a run-first quarterback. But few other NFL teams have tried to play two quarterbacks, much less to develop a rookie. The last time one regularly played its rookie quarterback in special situations was three years ago, when Lamar Jackson came off the Ravens’ bench for eight games. He was then tabbed the starter, won six of seven games to make the playoffs and was named MVP a year later.
The parallels stop there, Hasselbeck said. The Ravens used him as a decoy, which didn’t help his development.
No one has done it since — until this year.
“There are only so many quarterbacks that are good enough to win,” Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “Probably not 32. So if you really have two on your team that can do that, you’re fortunate.”
Or it’s the other way around.
“There’s always two scenarios,” Crowton said. “You have two guys who you think are pretty good, and you’re not quite sure how they’re gonna react to the game. Or you have nobody — and you hope that somebody steps up.”
Five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, now an NFL Network analyst, likes the idea of putting a rookie quarterback on a tangible small snap count. It’s “something you can coach up and improve,” he said.
It’s a low-stakes bet, too.
“If you’re playing the entire game and you play bad, and you go play another entire game and you play bad, it really has a bad, negative effect on your confidence,” said Joe Thomas, the 10-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle-turned-NFL Network analyst. “At the quarterback position, all of a sudden, you do the Sam Darnold. You start seeing ghosts. It can really destroy a career.”
In October 2019, Darnold — then the Jets’ second-year quarterback — was captured on “Monday Night Football” saying that he was “seeing ghosts.” At the time, Darnold was trailing the Patriots 24-0 and was on his way to his 12th loss in 16 career starts.
Darnold was the youngest Week 1 rookie quarterback in modern history. A year and a half later, he was openly rattled on national TV. It was a franchise’s worst nightmare.
That won’t happen with quarterbacks on a limited snap count.
“If you give a guy a little taste — he’s getting five plays, he’s getting 10 plays — [and] if he screws up, you can easily on Monday morning go in there and say, ‘You played bad, but we won the game,’ ’’ Thomas said. “Or, ‘You didn’t do a great job, but we can make these corrections and get you to play better.’
“You don’t destroy his confidence in five to 10 plays if he doesn’t do a good job.”
In his 11-year career with the Browns, Thomas watched his team start four failed quarterbacks as rookies: Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel and DeShone Kizer. Thomas developed a unified theory about young quarterbacks.
“I think if you have a quarterback that can use his legs — whether he’s more a running quarterback or a quarterback that can escape or extend plays — those guys can play right away,” he said. “They don’t have to understand everything about a defense or everything about an offense to be efficient and to help your team succeed and win.”
Fields can certainly extend plays.
Traditional drop-back passers, he said, have more to learn.
“If they’re not fully ready, if they’re getting confused by defenses consistently,” Thomas said, “all you’re gonna do is you’re gonna ruin them.”
NFL: Not For Long
Smith doesn’t think the Bears or 49ers will keep using their rookie quarterback sparingly. Running back committees don’t work either, he said — eventually, teams stick with the one that’s in rhythm.
“With the quarterback, the cadence is different, the mechanics are different, the reads are different,” he said. “You can’t keep making your offensive line, wide receivers, running back in the flow of the game go up and down.”
That’s the risk of playing Fields even a handful of downs: compromising his rhythm — and that of Dalton. Fields gives opposing teams something to prepare for, though, giving them less time to worry about other things.
“It gives that extra look and that extra dimension,” Thomas said. “‘It’s easy for us, but it’s hard for them.’”
Those plays, he said, don’t adversely affect offensive rhythm. Timing is disrupted when teams “just want a spark” and bring in a backup with similar skills.
“The quarterbacks, the receivers, they lose their rhythm that they’re trying to get,” Thomas said. “They lose any ability to try to get on the same page. It just makes for a herky-jerky offense.”
Fields’ skill set, though, is different than Dalton’s, Hasselbeck said. And he’s the future of the franchise — whether that future is now or a few weeks away.
Until then, though, he’ll get his handful of snaps.
“The good thing about this situation is he’s running legitimate quarterback plays that are already in their offense,” Hasselbeck said. “They didn’t just think this up this week.”