1st-and-10: Set the bar high for Andy Dalton

Whatever obligation Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy felt to start Dalton should end once the bell rings. If Justin Fields is ready, any quarterback decision — if it comes to that — should not linger.

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Veteran Andy Dalton (left) will start at quarterback in the Bears’ season opener against the Rams on Sunday night. Rookie Justin Fields (right) will be waiting in the wings.

Nam Y. Huh/AP Photos

Bears general manager Ryan Pace thought Mike Glennon had the “it” factor. He traded up for Mitch Trubisky instead of settling for Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. He paid Chase Daniel $5 million a year. He thought Nick Foles’ success in good offenses made him a good fit for Matt Nagy’s fledgling offense.

So of course Pace’s ringing endorsement of veteran Andy Dalton last week was a little unsettling to many Bears fans, critics and analysts who want Justin Fields’ developmental clock to start right now. Pace has had his share of hits and misses in seven years as GM, but it’s his dubious, mystifying record of quarterback evaluation that tips the scale in the negative. Fields can change that. But Pace is emphatically devoted to Dalton.

“We feel like Andy’s in a good spot, too,” Pace said, almost reflexively, when asked why Fields isn’t starting if coach Matt Nagy thinks he’s ready. “There’s a lot of things about Andy — his experience; he’s won a lot of games in this league; his decision-making; his intangibles; his leadership. There’s so many veteran players that have come up to me and have made comments about Andy Dalton and what’s he’s doing — in practices, in the locker room, in the huddle.” 

That sounded awfully similar to Pace’s endorsement of Glennon in 2017. “He’s has a natural leadership style to him,” he said. “He’s very charismatic. … He’s a smart player. I think his teammates would attest to that, as far as [how] he raises boats, which is important for that position.” 

Every evaluator prides himself in seeing qualities that others don’t — it’s key to their success, but also often the root of their failures. And it has betrayed Pace more than once on quarterbacks. He saw charisma in Glennon. And while Dalton has had a fine career in the NFL, including three Pro Bowl appearances, he’s more like Foles and Trubisky — only as good as the offense around him — rather than a Tom Brady/Russell Wilson-type who seems to will an offense to overachievement. Dalton is an accomplished starting quarterback, but he’s 0-4 with a 51.4 passer rating in the playoffs (one touchdown, six interceptions). He doesn’t have a history of raising his game in big moments. 

So Pace’s belief in Dalton elicited a bit of nervousness and ire. Sports talk show host Danny Parkins of 670 The Score went as far as to start rooting for the other team — “It’s infuriating. Go Rams,” he tweeted after Pace’s press conference — the sports-world equivalence of throwing a shoe at an unpopular politician.

Be that as it may, the general reaction to Pace’s support of Dalton is a little overwrought. The Bears felt an obligation to Dalton to start Week 1. After that, all bets are off. If Dalton is as good as Pace says he is, Nagy’s offense will be good — good enough for Fields to take it to another level whenever he starts. And if Dalton is not, Nagy will turn to Fields — and probably sooner rather than later. 

The key question is: How high is the bar? How good does Dalton have to be to keep the job? Ryan Pace “knowing it when he sees it” might differ from the rest of us knowing it when we see it. But it seems like Matt Nagy will be watching the same game we are. If there is a quarterback controversy in Chicago, it should not linger.

2. Pace probably feels like he can’t win — he made a deft, bold move to draft Fields and yet still is getting mostly criticism for Dalton standing in the way. 

But timing is everything. If Pace had decided prior to free agency that Foles would compete for the starting job in 2021 with the best quarterback he could get in the draft — possibly Alabama’s Mac Jones — he’d be in better shape today. 

In that scenario, Pace would have gotten Fields at No. 11 in a surprise. Fields would have won the competition with Foles. And Pace would have Fields starting in Week 1, with a former Super Bowl MVP as his backup — and maybe even cornerback Kyle Fuller still on the team with the cap money he didn’t spend on Dalton. Who wouldn’t be applauding Pace for that?

3. As it is, Pace is stuck with Foles as a third quarterback on the roster until further notice — and with an unwieldy $6,666,666 salary cap hit (per spotrac.com). The roster spot and cap hit are both problematic, but Pace said he’s fine with it — even if Foles is on the roster all season — and even dared to say, “That’s as strong a room from 1-3 — I think a lot of teams would want to have that.” 

They might, but probably not with the No. 3 quarterback taking up that much cap space. Of the 12 other third-string quarterbacks on NFL rosters (excluding the Texans’ Deshaun Watson), the average salary cap hit is $841,000. After Foles, the next highest cap hit for a No. 3 quarterback is the Raiders’ Nathan Peterman at $1.025 million. 

The sooner Pace finds a taker for Foles, the better.

4. Pace and Nagy muddling responses to questions about injured left tackle Teven Jenkins and running back Tarik Cohen are two more prime reasons for the Bears to allow trainer Andre Tucker to talk to the media. It provide us with better information and saves Nagy the embarrassment of sounding confused about the status of key players. 

Once upon a time — when NFL teams were a little less consumed by paranoia — teams allowed media access to the trainer and the Bears had one of the best in Tim Bream, who understood what information reporters needed and could easily explain injuries and rehabilitations in layman’s terms — and did so without divulging state secrets. That the Bears don’t trust Tucker to do the same is baffling — and counter-productive.

5a. The heat will be on Nagy even more than Dalton in the Bears’ opener vs. the Rams on Sunday. Not only does Rams coach Sean McVay have a better record (43-21 in four seasons), more playoff victories (three) and a more productive offense (first, second, seventh and 11th in yards; first, second, 11th and 22nd in points), he usually has the Rams ready for their opener. 

The Rams are 4-0 in Week 1 under McVay — beating the Colts 46-9, the Raiders 33-13, the Panthers 30-27 on the road and the Cowboys 20-17 last season. They are averaging 32.3 points per game, 26.5 offensive points per game

The Bears are 1-2 in Week 1 in Nagy’s three seasons — losing to the Packers 24-23 at Lambeau Field, to the Packers 10-3 at Soldier Field and beating the Lions 27-23 at Ford Field last year. They are averaging 17.7 points per game, 15.3 offensive points per game in their openers under Nagy — and have scored offensive touchdowns in two of 12 quarters. 

5b. The key matchup, though, will be rookie defensive coordinator Sean Desai vs. McVay. There has been a “change is good” vibe in Bears camp when it comes to Desai replacing veteran coordinator Chuck Pagano — with reasonable hope that Desai can breathe new life into a once-dominant defense. 

But can Desai match Vic Fangio as a game-planner and play-caller? Fangio’s shutdown of McVay’s offense in 2018 — 214 total yards, six points — was so complete that it became a template that other teams have mimicked, including the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

The Rams flummoxed the Bears’ defense last season, noticeably keeping them off-balance in gaining 371 yards, 5.5 yards per play, with 24 first downs and 24 points in a 24-10 victory. Now it’s Desai’s turn, with nose tackle Eddie Goldman but without departed cornerback Kyle Fuller. 

As an Ivy League-educated coach known for his intelligence, Desai seems like a good candidate to win the game-day chess match. He’ll get a supreme test right off the bat. 

6. Linebacker Danny Trevathan’s three-week stay on injured reserve could be a small first step toward load management in the NFL, with a 17-game season and still only one bye.

Trevathan has a knee “injury” but it did not prevent him from playing in the final preseason game. Still, he was put on IR because of new COVID-era rules that shorten the IR stay from eight weeks to three and allow teams to bring back an unlimited number of players off IR to the active roster. 

“We want to get him to … get back to that full 100%,” Nagy said. 

It remains to be seen if teams will rest players without using IR. Nagy said early in training camp he did not foresee it — though he acknowledged the 17-game season is new territory. The NFL is generally slow to move in any direction. But with many players already being rested (and injured) in training camp, the wear-and-tear of a 17-game season could cause teams to consider keeping their key players as close to 100% as possible down the stretch. Stay tuned. 

7a. If Jason Peters starts at left tackle as expected against the Rams, he still will be the youngest left tackle in Sunday night’s game. The Rams’ Andrew Whitworth, who will be starting his 16th NFL season (including six with Andy Dalton with the Bengals), is 41 days older than Peters. 

In fact, if both Peters and Whitworth start Sunday, they will be the oldest combined starting tackles in NFL history at 79 years, 142 days, according to research via pro-football-reference.com. In 1994, the Rams’ Jackie Slater (40) and the Falcons’ Mike Kenn (38) were a combined 78 years, 321 days when the Falcons beat the Rams 31-13 at the Georgia Dome. 

7b. Fun Fact: At 39 years, 233 days, Peters would be the oldest player to start a game for the Bears — eclipsing quarterback Todd Collins, who was 38 when he started against the Panthers in 2010. Punter Mike Horan is the oldest player to play for the Bears. He was 39 years, 329 days old when he replaced the injured Todd Sauerbrun for the final 13 games of the 1998 season. 

7c. Peters would be the fourth-oldest player to start at offensive tackle in the NFL — behind the Redskins’ Ray Brown (42), Slater and Whitworth. Brown started at tackle in 2004, which was Peters’ rookie year. So either Brown or Peters has been on an NFL roster in every year since 1986. 

8. Can the Bears run the ball against a good run defense? That will be an early test for Nagy against the Rams, who ranked first in total defense and third in rushing defense in 2020 under defensive coordinator Brandon Staley — who has been replaced by Raheem Morris after taking the Chargers’ head coaching job. 

In seven games under Nagy against defenses that finished in the top-5 in rushing yards allowed, the Bears are averaging 47.9 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Last year they were particular stopped cold by the No. 1 Buccaneers (14 carries, 35 yards), No. 2 Colts (16-28) and No. 3 Rams (17-49).

The Rams did not play their defensive starters in the preseason. Bears offensive starters played sparingly, though the offensive line got most of the work — left tackle Peters (21 snaps), left guard Cody Whitehair (60), center Sam Mustipher (69), right guard James Daniels (21) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (21). Will that matter? Can’t wait to find out.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Quarterback Chase Daniel made an NFL roster for the 12th consecutive year, this time with the Chargers as a mentor to Justin Herbert. Daniel signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract, which means he will have made nearly $39 million in his career — with five starts, including three with the Bears. 

10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 —at Rams (L); vs. Bengals (W); at Browns (L); vs. Lions (W); at Raiders (L); vs. Packers (L); at Buccaneers (L); vs. 49ers (L); at Steelers (L); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (W); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (W); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (W). 

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