For the first time in two years, it feels as though the Bears actually are headed the right way.
It’s weird for the outlook to be so bright after a 20-17 escape against the middling Bengals, but it’s all about Justin Fields after Andy Dalton exited with a knee injury in the first half. While coach Matt Nagy said he thinks the Bears ruled out a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the injury was significant enough to force him to turn to Fields.
The Bears’ offensive line is still a mess, it’s an ongoing fight against time for the defense and it’s hard to trust Nagy. But the Fields adventure is underway, and Nagy can abandon his exasperating quarterback merry-go-round and do what’s best for the Bears’ future.
It’s probably what’s best for his own future, too.
Fields is the cure for Nagy’s offense. The last two seasons, it felt like everything had to be perfect for it to work. With Fields, it doesn’t. Even if everything goes wrong, he can fix it with elite speed, like he did by running for 10 yards on a crucial third-and-nine in the final minutes.
‘‘It’s nice to have that,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to trade [up] for him. We’ve asked him to do everything that he can to prepare himself if the time comes to be the starter. He’s done that.’’
The sooner Fields gets through the typical rookie turbulence, the better off the Bears will be. He hit a few snags coming out of halftime with two false starts and a fumble at the Bears’ 33 that nearly turned into a scoop-and-score for Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson.
Fields was the difference between ‘‘nearly’’ and ‘‘definitely.’’ He lunged from flat on the ground to slap the ball from Wilson and recovered it so the Bears could punt it away on fourth down.
Athletic. Smart. Gutsy.
Heroic, even? Sure. Live it up.
That’s how the play will be remembered, despite Fields’ loose handling of the ball leading to that fumble in the first place. That’s how rosy everything looks for the Bears now that the right guy is playing quarterback.
Exhilaration surged through Soldier Field as Fields lofted what would have been a 35-yard touchdown pass to Allen Robinson in the fourth quarter. The roar downshifted into a moan as the ball slipped through Robinson’s hands, but the anticipation was unmistakable.
Imagine holding your breath to see what great thing happens next rather than bracing for the next disaster.
The best news for the Bears is that Fields only will get better.
It’s almost irrelevant that he completed only 6 of 13 passes for 60 yards (he also ran 10 times for 31 yards), led the Bears to a paltry pair of field goals in six possessions and nearly threw the game away with a late interception.
But riding that out is part of the process with any rookie quarterback, and the defense created a safe space for Fields to struggle. Hopefully for the Bears, that defense keeps giving him enough margin to make mistakes without blowing a game.
‘‘I don’t think I’m pleased with how I played at all,’’ Fields said. ‘‘There’s a lot more in me that I have to show. I know it’s not gonna happen overnight, so I’m just gonna keep grinding. And no matter what happens, I know I’m meant for this.
‘‘I’m here for a reason. And I definitely think I can play better. I just think that this is the beginning. I’m definitely excited for the future and excited to get back to practice.’’
Dalton wasn’t thrilling anyone. At best, he world be serviceable and keep the Bears afloat; at worst, he would spiral out of the job and leave Fields to inherit a midseason mess.
The Bears have been promising you for two years it’s going to get better. Now it actually will.