There was no perfect time to play Justin Fields, but Sunday was good enough

On Sunday, fate forced Bears coach Matt Nagy’s hand when starter Andy Dalton hurt his left knee scrambling out of bounds in the second quarter.

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Bears quarterback Justin Fields looks to throw against the Bengals in the second half Sunday.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields looks to throw against the Bengals in the second half Sunday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Once it became clear to the Bears that rookie quarterback Justin Fields was ahead of schedule, they set about finding the perfect time to play him, even for a few snaps. It was probably a foolish endeavor, though — nothing ever goes according to plan in the NFL.

On Sunday, fate forced coach Matt Nagy’s hand when starter Andy Dalton hurt his left knee scrambling out of bounds in the second quarter. In front of 60,840 fans at Soldier Field, the situation wound up being better than the Bears could have drawn it up.

Fields finished the game with a passer rating of 27.7 — almost 12 points lower than had he simply spiked 50 passes into the turf — and threw an interception at precisely the wrong time. While Dalton marched the Bears to a touchdown to start the game, Fields led them only to two field goals. He also was flagged for two false starts. And the Bears still won 20-17.

Credit a defense that, amazingly, forced turnovers on four consecutive possessions in the second half. And a Bengals team that has finished last in the AFC North three years in a row. And running back David Montgomery, who had 15 carries in the 2½ quarters with Fields at quarterback.

“I didn’t play well, in my eyes,” Fields said. “Of course I played well enough to get the win . . . but I think there’s a lot of room for me to improve.”

That’s the point. Every mistake Fields makes — like the third-and-seven interception to Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, up by 10 with less than four minutes to play — lets the future franchise quarterback learn on the job. For the Bears to win while Fields made rookie mistakes is all the better — even though Nagy had preferred not to take the tack when he named Dalton the starter.

Now, he might not have a choice. Dalton’s injury doesn’t figure to be season-ending. Asked if Dalton tore the anterior cruciate ligament when he stepped awkwardly out of bounds about a minute into the second quarter, Nagy said he was “pretty sure we can rule that out.” If Dalton has to miss time, though, Fields will start. And how can the Bears possibly remove Fields from the job once he starts? 

Asked if a healthy Dalton was his starter, Nagy wouldn’t engage — “I’m not going to get into that,” he said — although he later stressed that Fields was further along than the Bears thought he’d be.

“If that’s the case [that Dalton misses a start because of injury], we feel good about it,” he said. “He’s worked really, really hard to get to this point.”

Nagy customized his playbook to fit Fields, choosing less complex plays — whether it was formations, motion and shifts — to allow him to play free after a week in which he was the scout-team quarterback.

“You want him to be able to play fast,” Nagy said. “We had to adjust a little bit because of the situation of coming in like he did. That’s all part of it.”

Dalton marched the Bears to a touchdown on the first drive of the game, completing an 11-yard pass to Allen Robinson and earning goodwill from Soldier Field fans who might have booed him for every three-and-out. 

He had completed 9 of 10 passes at the time of his injury. The pain was so immediate that Dalton pointed to Fields the second he was hurt, as if to tell him to go into the game. Dalton went into the medical tent, came out and played the next drive, which lasted four plays. Then he ran to the locker room. He returned from halftime in full uniform — but that was simply because he would have had to serve as the Bears’ fill-in had anything happened to Fields. Dalton was not made available after the game. Nagy said his knee got more sore as he watched the game in the second half.

The Bears weren’t nearly as efficient after Dalton left. The Fields-led offense ran 38 plays after Dalton exited and netted 73 yards — an average of less than two yards per play. 

Fields went 6-for-13 for 60 yards — only four yards less than Dalton — but wasn’t helped by Robinson dropping what would have been a 35-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Fields was a slightly more productive runner, gaining 31 yards on 10 carries. He saved his longest run for last, though. After the Bengals scored two touchdowns a minute apart in the fourth quarter — thanks to Fields’ interception — the Bears faced third-and-nine up three with about three minutes left. Fields scrambled for 10 yards. The Bears never gave the ball back.

That experience — the good and the bad — matters, Fields said. So will breaking down footage of the game.

“You know those situations might pop up in-game again, and you just know where to go with the ball and what to do with protection,” Fields said. “Pretty much whatever you need to do to make that play successful. And whatever you messed up on in this game, too.”

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