Justin Fields’ time? Even with Andy Dalton hurt, Matt Nagy wants starter question murky

The Bears couldn’t escape a quarterback controversy Monday — this one of their own making.

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Bears quarterback Andy Dalton did not suffer an ACL tear against the Bengals on Sunday.

Bears quarterback Andy Dalton did not suffer an ACL tear against the Bengals on Sunday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Monday, Andy Dalton learned he avoided a season-ending injury, and Justin Fields moved closer to making his first NFL start. The Bears couldn’t escape a quarterback controversy, though — this one of their own making.

Dalton did not tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee when he stepped awkwardly out of bounds in the second quarter Sunday, coach Matt Nagy said Monday morning. Nagy refused to offer more detail, pending tests. In the afternoon, NFL Network reported that Dalton suffered a bone bruise.

In between, Nagy clumsily navigated the question of whom he would start Sunday against the Browns. 

For a second straight day, Nagy declined to say, when asked directly, whether a healthy Dalton would be his starter. When Nagy was asked the question during his Monday morning news conference, he actually repeated it — “Andy, if healthy, is he your starter?” — before giving the non-answer. Nagy insisted — twice — that it was a scheme-related question. His stated policy is not to answer such queries.

About 10 minutes after his news conference, though, Nagy did something he has never done as Bears coach: He sent a public-relations representative to the Halas Hall media room to say that he’d misheard the question and that Dalton would indeed be the starter if healthy. 

That probably won’t be the case for a while. 

Dr. David Chao, a sports injury analyst for ProFootballDoc.com and former Chargers team physician, estimates that Dalton “is not playing — likely for several weeks.” 

Fields figures to start Sunday. Once he does, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever see the bench again. Even if he struggles — and that’s to be expected, given his lack of experience — Fields being replaced by a healed Dalton would be interpreted as the rookie’s growth being stunted and the future of the franchise being put on pause.

In the short term, Nagy is trying to make the Browns guess who’ll play.

The Bears don’t have to submit an injury report until Wednesday afternoon, and Nagy believes it’s in their best interest to publicly entertain the possibility of Dalton and Fields starting. The Bears hope their differing styles — Dalton is a pure drop-back passer; Fields has the athleticism few NFL quarterbacks possess — would force the Browns to develop two game plans.

The Browns, though, saw Dalton’s injury. The bone bruise occurred when Dalton’s left knee shifted when he ran out of bounds, jamming the ends of his tibia and femur into each other. The bones took the brunt of the force instead of the anterior cruciate ligament, Chao said. But it could have been worse.

“He’s on the lucky side,” Chao said. “Because you see his knee shift in a non-contact way.”

The best way for the bone bruise to heal, he said, is to not play on it. Chao compared the articular cartilage at the end of Dalton’s bones to grass on a football field and his bones to the dirt underneath. 

“A bone bruise is when an elephant stomps on the grass,” he said. “How do you get the grass to heal? . . . If you put up a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign, the grass and the dirt underneath can heal.”

If Dalton is indeed left to heal, the Justin Fields Era will begin Sunday — even if the Bears try to make that fact as murky as possible for a few more days.

“We’ll work through that,” Nagy said. “If it is Justin and we go that route, we’ll work through it as a staff. I feel good about that.” 

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